Twenty-three Hours in Solitary

all our separations
have been learned, like when I
heard a sharp clear echo
in the birth canal that
sounded like the zooming
of a lens, pulled into
existence, I was—in
this world, but not of it

entombed I for who knows
secrets of the state, this
poem is more than just
collisions, a series
on repeat more than a
shiver at sea, than my
hands vibrating on cold
bars never open up

the illusion bell rings
from the illusion cell
thoughts like weapons passing
in the night, terrors spring
out, this cave on repeat
how many times can you
force me to say, I’m a
prisoner, I don’t deserve

light, to censor feelings,
stand (up)! slowly step away
from the empire, state your
name for the record book
number of screams this year!

I’m not an animal
you are an animal
I’m blended particles

lion-hearted purpose
is why I’m here! promise
I won’t create my own
universe of diverse
pixels in the garden
I squeeze tomatoes plump
on the vine and watch with
wonder each explosion

like a bomb! flashes like
how else to explain but
I’m in a video
game and there’s no way out
I see the swaying tail
the monster’s fuzzy skin
multiple monsters, so
I run from doom, I run

(and) all I can do is hide
am I in the walls, no
I’m in the air, shot through
the gut, that’s why I fall
so quickly, why all this
energy goes through me
why I stare at a shard
of glass, lift, then swallow

on my axis, I bow
should I find the law for
this slovenly score with-
in me, should history
have a sugary smell
my home demolished, so
I flee, a refugee
crisis in THE JUNGLE

and then there was darkness
is a virtue—say light
a thousand times every
morning and you never
know, a wish can grow like
flowers from the brain, a
little water every
day between breaths—then buds

their lawyers said it was
legal, so they did it
light deprivation, cells
inside my body shocked
back to myth, TANTULUS
blindfolded upside down
saw creation was all
around us, saw me—my

head under water for
a limited time, I
without a trial, hanging
fruit to savor along
side the collateral
damage, I was always
here to collect footage

can smell it nasty stuff
piles up so high looks like
a de Chirico, glass
statues, burnt wood, trains, I
replace the hopeless crunch
of guards’ heals outside my
SHU with the sound of star
glow, busting through the vines

this fountain of truth makes
me thirsty for even
more fountains, more hormones!
I too am a tree just
like we all are, outside
we climb black branches up
trunks to peak out at the
war on women franchise

selling like trickle down
chocolate cake, I suck on
the spoon all afternoon
if only I could make
commission off that, if
only I could fall a-
sleep communing with stars
become part of the WHOLE

this machine kills hope of
the infinite, just one
more chase scene inside the
situation room, then
I smile slightly to show
I recognize evil
is happening to me
underground with the bugs

can hear them crawling one
on top of the other
darkness of night as soft
as a song if one knows
how to listen proper,
I think indefinite
detention is like thoughts
reflected on water

the water does not get
broken, nor my thoughts wet
my thoughts are wide,
yet the entirety
of all of my thoughts can
be reflected even
on a single drop, part
of the whole, whole part of

not a thou, but a thing,
an IT, like digging a
hole straight down the middle
of the ocean with a
shovel made of water
this is how I feel most
days, like what if MOSES
never even split the sea

rock-hard mattress I rip
a hole in, crawl inside
as if I am a slug,
as if death is something
I can create with my
own hands, but there is no
exit strategy from
here, just god on one side

and self-mutilation
on the other, so I
ask god, which way out, then
a door swings open to
the beyond, an azure
void, should I walk through, I
ask, but nobody is
ever there to answer

tragedy happens through
me, not to me, six by
eight walls that close to a
crush, a glut of specters
my mind removed to a
point outside the body
like a beautiful star
a shield to consider

to be planted like grass
in a box as the earth
revolves, a walk along
a cliff’s edge reveals my
self falling back up from
my death to start again
this nothingness never
was, it’s me! so I breathe

beloved, ghost ship on
the horizon, DEATH and
DEATH-IN-LIFE play dice for
my soul, but I never
shot an albatross, could
never shoot anything,
not even myself, here
I am, come and get me



(1) pg.1: Solitary confinement is the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods of time ranging from days to decades. From Solitary Watch: “The number of people held in solitary confinement in the United States is notoriously difficult to determine. The lack of reliable information is due to state-by-state variances and shortcomings in data gathering and ideas of what constitutes solitary confinement. Currently available estimates suggest that at least 80,000 men, women, and children are held in some form of isolated confinement on any given day.”

(2) pgs. 2 & 6: “secrets of the state,” “more hormones” alludes to Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman and United States’ soldier who was imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act and other offenses. She leaked 750,000 classified and sensitive documents as a whistleblower to the journalist outlet, WikiLeaks. While in jail, she began hormone replacement therapy, and part of her time was spent in solitary confinement. President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence in 2017.

(3) pg. 4: The Jungle refers to a refugee camp located on a former landfill site near Calais, France, where migrants from Syria, Palestine, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and other war-torn and unstable nations were attempting to enter the United Kingdom.

(4) pg. 5: In a 2010 interview Matt Lauer asked President George W. Bush, “Why is waterboarding legal in your opinion”? Bush responded, “Because the lawyer said it was legal. He said it did not fall within the Anti-torture Act. I’m not a lawyer, but you gotta trust the judgment of people around you, and I do.”

(5) pg. 8: “six by eight walls that close to a crush” comes from what Albert Woodfox, one of the Angola three who spent 43 years in solitary confinement, said about such torture: “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong…” Woodfox and Herman Wallace were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972 with no physical evidence and unreliable witnesses. Woodfox still claims his innocence and said he and Wallace were set-up because they were Black Panthers. Woodfox was finally released from prison in February 2016. Wallace was released from jail in 2013 and died soon after from liver cancer. He spent 40 years in solitary confinement. Robert King is the third of the Angola 3, released from jail in 2001 after 29 years in solitary confinement.

(6) Every stanza has 8 lines with 6-syllables each to account for the 8×6 cell that solitary confinement prisoners are forced to suffer in.


Joshua Zelesnick’s poems and essays have been published or will be published in Jubilat, Texas Review, Drunken Boat/Meridian Anthology, Matter, Word For/Word, Juked, 8 Poems, POETiCA REViEW, Labor Notes, Counter Punch, Yes Poetry, DIAGRAM, and other journals. His chapbook Cherub Poems was published with Bonfire Books in 2019. He teaches at public school in Pittsburgh where he lives with his partner, two young daughters, and doggy Coco in a garden co-housing community. With friends, he helps host a living room music and reading series.