Number Lesson

Count me to sleep, blue lights like four angels
guarding my bed in the doublebunk barracks
all night till the siren arrives to cry count,
recount, countdown the days, repeat after me
fiftyfour, fiftythree, remember your number,
the changes you see are your own, it endures,
they descend, like a line marching single file
to the barracks for chow, in the orderly sequence
of domino peg or handball score
that mounts, rehearsing a circular menu
(too much pepper in your serve today),
collapses, returns in an endless lesson
to teach you not to step out of line
while you wait to be counted or count your waiting
by visiting Sundays at endless tables
as narrow as barracks and empty from touching.
Do you touch the pictures that promised touching
in letters you count at the compound gate
and compare before count comes, answer like serves
in a far competition whose rules are suspended
or made endless and simple, like the blind permutations
two and one, three and two, of the baseball game
that insists on instructing the sweating night,
three and one, two and you, while the blankets pulse
under watchful blue lights in imitation
of the touch you're surprised to forget so soon
like the proof of an absent geometry
that you counted on learning, never quite mastered,
recall, recount in the womb of the gym
where sweat remembers another motion
in your arch to push the numbered iron,
to atone with a ton on the calendar wall
in weights rising by fives, four sets of ten presses,
a month of Sundays, while sweat tickles down
like a missing touch or the blood that trickles
to earn you five days in a plastic bag
that they stamp with a number you won't remember
when you shape yourself into geometry
to be counted by fours before filing to chow
in the world of tin cup, big spoon, stamped platter
where you deal in packs for nothing that matters
and can find your own way back to the barracks
and an empty nap on your numberbunk
in the blue afternoon. Last of the seventh,
a letter sealed with the kiss of your number
flies like a bird to the volleyball court
where a nest of hands raised to answer or punish
marks time like worn clothing regathered on Thursdays
and endlessly circled in a game of losers
of no account and never quite clean.
Are you losing your touch? By twos and by sevens
the dayballs swish through the hoop of your patience
with slight variations, leaving you nothing
but a mattress of numbers that bring no more ease
or relief than a pad of answered assignments
that no one will count, though you count your fragments
like insomnia hours, and learn to forget
what is missing, what was it? Numbernumb to the moon
which is sliced into diamonds by impassible windows
but escapes like the ghost of a recess ball,
you accept the lights and their integral blue,
the seven and four, the three, the two.


                                                        Santa Rita Jail
                                                        August 1967