Poem of the Week | October 01, 2018

This week we are excited to present “On Recidivism,” a new poem by Cortney Lamar Charleston.

Cortney Lamar Charleston is the author of Telepathologies, selected by D.A. Powell for the 2016 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. He was awarded a 2017 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and he has also received fellowships from Cave Canem, The Conversation Literary Festival and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Winner of a Pushcart Prize, his poems have appeared in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, New England Review, AGNI, Granta and elsewhere. He serves as a poetry editor at The Rumpus.

Charleston was a finalist for The Missouri Review’s Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in 2017. To enter this year’s contest, head over here.



In hard times we fall on habit, or so shows the research,
all the academic literature and my look backwards into
the texts of their troubled lives, even into my own text
messages from these past three years overpopulated with
ellipses and silences. I’m knee-deep in a thesis on the cyclical
nature of imprisonment, which means that, statistically speaking,
I’m knee-deep in an exploration of negritude, which is likewise
an interior study with unflattering results. Survey says I fall
back on withdrawal like my interviewees fall back on the block
when nobody is willing to hire them legitimately; all of us are
socially isolated but with me it is slightly different as I have
the vocabulary my professors have given me to describe and
define it, one that white people can understand, in theory. But
racism is more their problem to bear than mine at the moment.
What unsettles me is undiagnosed, mixed into the cocktail
of my blood with an angst about the future—where I will find
myself, where I will find the money, where I will find love
if I believe I’ve already found it here. How selfish, how silly and
straight sucka of me to think this way when I don’t have to get
my hands dirty like they do, be it in the dirt planting grass seed or
selling a little bit of grass on the side. I sit at my keyboard and type
a sentence about nonviolent offenses. I sit at my keyboard and type
an e-mail pleading for financial assistance to finish school. We play
phone tag, the lot of us: with each other, with God, and that’s just
how all the stories get committed to the ethnography. Blacks are
incarcerated at five times the rates of whites in Philadelphia. I type.
Blacks make up 66% of the daily prison population in Philly. I type.
I pick up my phone and send a text. I’d have nowhere to go but
back. If I don’t get this degree, survey says I was all for nothing.


Author’s Note:

There’s a thin line between blackness and brokeness, a dotted line at that, almost an immaterial marker of separation. I wasn’t one of those stereotypical cases of inner-city impoverishment, but in the American experiment, by virtue of economics’ toxic relationship with race, such a fate was never far and likely never will be in my lifetime despite my best efforts. One need only briefly scan the research to realize this, everything from the wealth gap of Black families relative to White families to the prediction that Millennials, my generation, will not acquire the same quality of life and financial stability our parents’ generation had: all of this weight was on my shoulders my senior year of undergrad, without a job offer and massive debts to pay off to banks and to society as well, I felt.

At the time I was working on a senior thesis/capstone on recidivism within Philadelphia and its economic impacts on the city; as part of this, I completed an ethnography about a specific program called Roots to Re-Entry operated by the Philadelphia Horticultural Society which aimed to employ recently released, non-violent offenders in landscaping work, offering them training and hands-on experience even prior to release, to ease their transition back into society. In these people, I saw not who I was exactly but who I was approximately, who I could be definitively in some version of this universe. They were reminders of what, I believed, was at stake always, even though the stakes were admittedly much higher for them but nonetheless were (and are) high for all of us due to matters I’ve long understood intuitively but couldn’t articulate for most of my life. But this poem details an important moment of clarity, one I wanted to preserve as a reminder for myself and for others. I hope it is not for nothing.