Voices From Solitary: Solitary Poems

by | June 23, 2022

Charles Tooker, 47, has been incarcerated since 2016 and is currently being held at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad California. Having spent three of the last six years in solitary confinement, Tooker told Solitary Watch that creative expression is his biggest coping mechanism. His passion for the arts, he said, was present prior to his incarceration, and he earned both Bachelor of Fine Art and Master of Art degrees.

The following poems were composed while Tooker was in solitary and reflect on different aspects of his experience in isolation. The first piece, titled, “Its a Lifestyle: Ode to PTSD,” is a spoken-word piece “inspired by incessant, relentless PTSD triggers in prison, eliciting knee-jerk mental, physical, and [even] vocal reactions.” Tooker’s second poem, “Untitled (Unexceptional and Unforgettable),” was originally written as part of a commission from the LA Compassion Prison Project. Tooker described the poem as an “ode to my first 3 years in solitary confinement,” and explained that was written in conversation with the third poem, “Appeals to the Bowerbirds.”  —Sara Rain Tree

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

It’s a Lifestyle: Ode to PTSD

Taps, knocks, buzz-whirs,
Traps, locks, cuss-words.
Curse my reaction!
Regain neuro traction.
Control breathing and placate seething.
In through the nose, out through the mouth––
     that’s for the birds; send it south.
Step away, count to 10, then back to 1. 
Oh, it’s a lifestyle, my friend, you’re never done. 
Merely existing yet hoping to live, and to beg that we forgive. 
Or, at least, beg your pardon as I sow my garden. 
Meanwhile, weedin’ and weedin,’ cultivating
     my addled vision of Eden. 

Alas, forever tortured by but a pin drop;
A quick start, sudden stop.
While you simply thwart pain by knowing
     red on yella kills fellas,
I limply shun sidewalks in the rain, 
     terrified by umbrellas. 
Ration and reason are so last season;
The new black is passion and mental treason. 
Ripe to scratch out my eyes from phantom sorrow; 
But I recall I just used them today, and’ll likely
     need them again tomorrow.

So you think you can tell Heaven from Hell?
Blues skies from rain?
Can you tell a green field from a barren plain?
Do you think you can tell?
Taps from knocks, buzzes from whirs;
Traps from locks, cusses from words?
I can’t…and I can. 


• • • • •

Untitled (Unexceptional and Unforgettable)

“i’m going abroad now, please feed the fishes”;
     his last and lonely wishes.
Scrawled red on the wall but in no way violent; 
     in forced solitude and deftly silent.

Well-nigh a decade then, he’d lived next door; 
     plagued and poor, El Bey the Moor.
Though we’d never met, we never left the other alone;
     brotherhood as weightless as a bird bone.

As lighthouses and windmills trade signals at dawn;
     reflections for revolutions daily shared with a yawn.
He’d say, “Don’t ever cave, rule your cave; the trick
     is to be brave, but not too brave.”

No, we weren’t proud of our address, but we still had a name;
     be it a Moor’s, mine, or yours, we’re all one and the same.
The forgotten, the disgraced, the one-night stands;
     figure 8s on broken skates in subterranean lands.

I can’t fight back the tears that I’ll never cry;
     he was meant and made by them to die.
They threw at once the rock, the paper, and the scissors;
     to bludgeon, to conceal, to carve mental fissures.

They found a martyr on cold concrete that night;
     for them, it wasn’t too firm, rather just and right.
He chose to sleep, and it was hardly a choice;
     rendered lifeless since they first entombed his voice.


• • • • •

Appeals to the Bowerbirds

All of my friends are murderers, dear;
But I welcome all the drama and polish the veneer.
While Cain loved Abel, he was born to die; 
With promises of heaven—fly, bowerbirds, fly. 

Everybody wants to rule the world;
With a borrowed crown and flags unfurled. 
Stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea;
I lure a mermaid queen to take confession from me. 

Never had an inkling I’d end up in singsing, 
Scratchin’ these loose-leaves; what comfort they bring.
And nature moves on like I was never there; 
At times touched by the wind, icy fingers through my hair. 

While suffragettes cry and mourn each day,
Tears mixed with rain in April, dried up come May.
Appeals to the bowerbirds, colored with song; 
Welcome June and July, days passed and forever gone. 


• • • • •


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