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"What the Hell Did You Write in Your Last Letter to Make Them Think You're an Inmate?", "Do I Stay?", "What Personal Prisons Have You Built?"

“What the Hell Did You Write in Your Last

Letter to Make Them Think You’re an Inmate?”


         [question asked by Savannah Dudley]  


I have been where you are, 

staring through a void in front of me, 


unable to speak or comprehend what curse 

took a lien on five years of my life. 


Inmate’s not a label; a brand—it never leaves. 

Cons, freed, play a bigger con 


to think we’ve been redeemed, forgiven. 

I said as much, then joked 


about the Circuit Judge who damned you, 

as mine did me those years ago. 


Maybe my jests weren’t humorous.

One formed a bawdy limerick 


about His Honor’s wife & 

the bad men she’s stared down 


in her courtroom with lights dimmed, 

sheets & blankets folded toward the center.



“Do I Stay?”


         [question asked by Mela Blust]  


In sadness,

we tether to a place—

this stump, rock, 

fenced-in yard,

this damp basement, 

this cemetery.


Hurt arrives with rubber bullets

to force us elsewhere—

bow & accept

both pain & blame. 


Is this where we concede 

we’ve stood too long

on a map’s dot that could be dust?


We fight to keep ourselves 

waiting for the next 

argument or indiscretion

between bucks with antlers locked, 

dancing in circles,

neither a winner nor separation

until help arrives.




“What Personal Prisons Have You Built?”


—rehab workbook  


Sometimes it’s a lonely cell you live in. 

Cushioned orchid carpets & flower-


patterned shower curtains—home, also,

tethers. What good is freedom 


for one unwilling to leave? 

Why go anywhere when here feels safest? 


The TV rises above its stand like concertina wire. 

Shoes huddled by the door prevent escape as if locks 


or keys to locks one must acquire to exit. 

I hesitate as though a Circuit Judge 


commuted my sentence, set me loose;

I advised the warden not to take his call.


Ace Boggess is author of six books of poetry, most recently Escape Envy (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2021). His writing has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Harvard Review, and other journals. An ex-con, he lives in Charleston, West Virginia, where he writes and tries to stay out of trouble.

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