In a Mexican prison reading Tolstoy

The prince mused on the nothingness of greatness
on the nothingness of a life no one can comprehend
and on the nothingness—still-more—of death, which
also can never be understood or explained by the living.

We asked the prisoners, thirty-five young men hunched
over papers with pencils, to write a list of things they wanted
to write about. Some wrote sentences: A poor family
without enough to eat saves money and takes a chance

and becomes a family that owns the best restaurants.
A boy learns to fly and soars off looking for his father, finds him
and tells him everything. Others write words: freedom, friendship
and terror—many write terror. What do these words mean to you?

I asked. Words are dots and sentences lines so meaning comes
from the story filling the spaces between. And we have to invent it.
The count said he made a bayonet charge and repulsed the French.
He’d so longed to do this and so regretted not having done it

that it seemed as he told the story that he must have. Who can know
in such confusion what happened and what did not, and how do we live
with the gaps, especially gaps filled with terror and confusion
without making up a story? To warm up they wrote letters asking

someone who hurt them for an apology. I was scared when you left.
I didn’t deserve that. I hoped and hoped. There was no one to take
care of me. Then they wrote letters of apology. Dear Mom, I’m sorry
for never listening, for taking drugs and for forgetting who loved me.

Life here is a box inside a box inside a box inside a giant prison,
so mainly what I know this week that I didn’t know last week
is how much more I don’t know. Early one morning, I saw
through the big steel doors the front desk man practicing

the hula hoop in the dark. There are more faces on the sidewalk
and subway than anyone can imagine, and that’s just one sidewalk
and one subway. Men have sat on this balcony above this street
for three hundred years with the same joy and dread, just a different

sleeping woman behind them and story to explain it all. I’m still
working on mine. The men in class tell me that behind bars
it’s possible to know both the depths of terror and to learn to love
life again. They stretch to tell me of the nothingness of the knowable

and the greatness of the unknowable. Their heads bow over
their pencils. Even the most solemn mystery in the world still happens
countless times a day and we are all mostly struck dumb and the cars
pass and at night we wait for sleep. In my dream I come from the edge

of the city that is not a city or the country. I come from rain pooled
in the street floating with filth to no one to take care of me.
They connect the dots, fill the spaces with stories they make up
or remember. How can I know so little of nothing? Like the prince,

I had no time to think, but ample time to say what others thought
or that once upon a time I might have thought but have not had time
to think about again because I’ve been too busy saying it. How
can everything turn so fast, from no possibility of happy

to suddenly the music or the turn of a woman or the shadow
on the wall, or the sky through the bars, yes that—and the world
seduces again regardless of the terror? They write Pierre’s questions:
All the things that happen, why? And to what end? All the suffering

and unfair death, why? They use words to imagine a future,
dare to dream it first, know freedom when it is gone, understand
safety in fear, friendship in distrust and one prisoner shows me
four pages he’s written listing all the cages we build for ourselves.

Some are helpful like marriage, he says. And some are not
like drug addiction. The prince looked up and for the first time
since Austerlitz he saw the lofty sky and something
that had been long slumbering awoke. I come from the edge

of the city that is not a city, a place I’ve invented. I come from rain
pooled in the street floating with filth to no one to take care.
On the rooftop of a hotel in a city far from home I have seen
blue sky behind maids hanging pretty white sheets in the wind.