Idaho Arts Quarterly » Musings

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary

1870-1973 listed a historical building 1974


Compound of swollen houses, iron mesh windows

4 outpost towers, crumbling basketball court

'Maximum Security Block' of long night gloom

joyless as the day each convict was ecce homo

snakehouse, cellhouse, stink & sweat cling

inmates in 4s, stacked in double shelf-bunks

snoring between fantasies: Abel slain by Cain.

Honeymoon cells & gang rape: one is held

arms pinioned, mouth hand-gagged: queue to ram him

push your fist through the bars, or only just

yes sir: we may obey thump of pistol shot, rifles' squeal

we demand riot & arson. O welcome setting sun

that mocks us in the line at lock-up. Tense

each turns to the gloomy grotto, shuffling inside, tombs

locked by creaking levers, the final crash: cages secure

can I go to momma's room in the hospital wing

& beg to die in peace? Flesh is cheap

easily torn; we are lost: we are forgotten

'year' is a dirty word. Count months & weeks

keen-eyed on diurnal days, brave the darkness.

Lady of dawn creeps in time's white lace.

Some go silent, mumbling buzzing wasps making wax

never honey, deep cut veins throbbing

a pinhead of blood at first, someone falls

someone laughs loud, we know they lie

in rows at table spooning slops, work parties beating

mis-shapen heads of rocks; spine & flesh needled in

heat, eyes bulge, tongues are desert weeds

tallow skin & enamel paint flaking, knuckle spores

on doors; wardens wear blue bowties at the circus

we are beasts, only tear gas makes us weep

debased language is counterfeit cash, faces cracked

& cracked words, our tilting faces at half-mast

convicts jeer in the shower, wardens clasp truncheons

fat ends tapping in cupped hands

water is white blood dripping from noses

the governor's roses are soft

soft as a wife's underwear

soft as her beauty that offers freedom

offers the world from her tinplate corset

try touching these roses up the wrong way:

they have talons, eagles' toes and beaks

In Siberia you are behind a steel door, 6x3x8

for breaking the rules. A shower a week

meal a day, Bible by the halo of light

through the ceiling air vent:

you are a horse at the starting

gate of the Derby that never begins

each minute dulls the heart, panic-time shifts

to no-hour, forever or ever


how would you walk to the drop?

tv is dizzy, picture reels, chains callous the ankles

clank along the concrete floor: a short walk

the signalman, our executioner pulls the lever

chimney crashes through the roof

chokes the chicken that lurches up detritus

broom handle snaps, rusty gate swinging

17 ft high walls: July sunshine, guards on duty

rifles like hunters, watching a Trusty bearing

the dusty stars and stripes, put in the washer

with soapflakes, into the dryer to make it stiff again

and ravens soar free above Table Rock

Boise foothills: heaped sleeping

giants with conifer moustaches

tree-tufts of hair. They rise in the night

these King Kongs to open our parrot cages

& take out the squinting squiggling beings

fling us like bunches of withering grapes

to the warm slopes, where we bloat

and swell far from this sandcastled hell

O God are these your offspring hills

wearing raggy brown garments in pleats & folds

chalked with death's icy sheets in December?

rub your chemise of sky with buttoned stars

fastening out the nights. Cook these uplands and rocks

cook them in purple sage and cottonwood

sprinkle them with falcons, hawks and owls

give us this day our daily pumpkin crust

in your aeons of time, restore our freedom

we are felons to the ache of being

to the ache of being beyond strength

in the outer reaches of this Idaho desert

Wail from the woman's ward like a prairie gale

our delicious sisters suffer beyond the lintel block

carved in 1920. Lyda Southard is criss-crossed

in a grid shadow: the slow moving tattoo on her summer arms

who are the men that locked us up with forked keys?

blessed are those who escape & prepare to be lost in the world

who will come down from the Table Rock?

who will open these iron vaults & take us to the river's edge?

who will lead us across the cool waters, lead us home?

To read more of Kevin Kiely's work, visit