Thursday, May 7, 2020

Listening, Watching, Asking (Kendig)

                                Grafton Correctional Institution
            What do you dread, in this room, now?

            Not listening. Now. Not watching. Safe inside my own skin.
            To die, not having listened. Not having asked... To have scattered
                                         From “Sanctuary” by Jean Valentine

When people ask how we are doing, I recite our day:

I get up at six, feed the dog, make coffee, center (read a poem in Best American Poetry and write a response). Paul gets up and we read the NY Times (untouched, the Times informs us, since it went into the plastic sleeve with gloved hands). Then I walk Robbie a mile, and because he is old and a terrier, that takes an hour. Next I walk myself three miles around the lake and woods I’ve walked since childhood. Meanwhile, Paul practices drums. Then I go to the desk and he runs seven miles. At four, Paul walks Robbie around the block. We get dinner while we watch The News Hour. Then I make phone calls and watch terrible TV (Forensic Files, Law & Order, stuff I never used to watch), and he reads literature (right now, Michael Ondaatje).

Are you asleep yet? We are. And I love this routine. I love it, never had anything like it in the crazed, bipolar life I led in my youth alone or in my married and teaching career, always anxious to get 100 papers graded and drive to and from a medium security prison or through suburban Boston traffic. Here’s the thing: this was our routine since January. Nothing much changed for us. We are safe. But I fear our friends at work and in institutions are not so safe, and I worry for them.

We zoomed with three former students I worry about. All three have compromised health--mental, physical, or both--on top of their jobs. One is a medical technician in Florida. Another works for a very big federal agency outside of DC, (one that goes by three initials, the first one is “C,”) and its employees, who have to report to work, have no masks or gloves!! The third is working from home, alone, with crushing college debts that weigh her down. They all have families who worry about them, and like Roethke, we have “no rights in this matter,/ neither father [nor mother],” but I worry.

I worry about M., a Nicaraguan asylum seeker, a brilliant thirty-something guy with degrees in economics and finance from Central American University and job experience managing huge farms and working for the national bank (trained at the US Mint). He was photographed one day in Managua next to a flag. The photo went viral, and his famous father received a call that M. would be killed with the next round of assassinations. (Over 300 young people had been killed the previous month by government thugs for protesting). M. flew to the US and ended up in Akron, where friends guided him to us on Christmas Day eighteen months ago. He’s legal while he waits for an asylum decision, which grinds on way longer than usual, leaving him in limbo. He got a good managerial position in a chicken factory in the east in January. And then, last week, Covid-19 broke out there and we WhatsApped to discuss his possibilities. Will there be rioting in the streets for food? he asked. Will there be?

In addition, I worry about people in prison, especially Grafton, where I most recently volunteered. Some of them are innocent, and none of them deserve to die for whatever crime put them there. They have just been cut down to two meals a day. Yesterday’s dinner was a hot dog (no bun), mayonnaise, and a half cup of rice--a diet similar to that served in Ohio Detention Centers for immigrants, who committed no crime except asking to enter the country, which did not used to be a crime. On a related issue, one of my formerly incarcerated students was living in a halfway house in Nashville while he looked to buy a house. When we visited him in March, we noticed his improvement. Now, his dorm is locked, and he has been unable to leave for the past six weeks. I worry he won’t live to buy that house.

I am glad my dad, Russell Kendig, did not live till now,  in dementia, and me unable to visit. He died a year ago at 94. But my other Russell, Atkins, 93 years old, lives on. I used to visit him every month. I worry about him and send missives. I have no idea if he receives them. He has no phone. Knowing any person in a nursing home is grounds for dread.

I come from a long line of worriers, and I am not about to give up worrying now, especially now, in a time that is so easy for me. While I worry, I listen. Watch. Ask. Like always, like never before.

Diane Kendig is a poet, writer, and translator with awards from the Ohio Arts Council and NEH. Her most recent chapbook of poetry is Prison Terms. For twenty years she led the creative writing program at the University of Findlay, including its prison writing program. Currently she curates the Cuyahoga County Public Library site, “Read + Write,” with nearly 4000 readers.


  1. I love the idea of writing a response to a poem! I am starting today!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Jackie, I find that anthologies work well because then I am in conversation with different poets. After BAP, I moved on to Olds' "Arias," which worked too, but next I am aiming for the new anthology, "Healing the Divide," which is available in an e-copy (for free I think). I also used Carolyn Forche's anthology of poems of witness which worked great for me, too.

  2. I love the idea of writing a response to a poem, too. Do you write a poem response?

    1. Sometimes. I don't usually whip out a poem in a morning. I am more of a "it-takes-me-weeks" poet. So notes to a poem sometimes. I scribble down favorite lines or surprising words. (Just now, Marianne Boruch: wow, words.) More often, a few paragraphs on what I like, what I don't get. Often a prompt for a poem (for a National Poetry Month blog, "Read + Write") that I may write myself . Thanks for asking. Let me know if you end up trying this.