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Poetry Sunday: Guest Editor Susan Cohen on ‘Dark Prison Ledger,’ by Lynne Knight

Dark Prison Ledger

Nothing he told us was true.
But we wanted to hear it,
how we wanted to hear it.
We did everything we could

to get him to say it. He spoke
many languages, he cried out
like someone swept by the force
of veracity. So we put away all

our instruments. The rack, the bit,
the noose that had been
of use. And at last, broken
free of pain, his cries went forth

far beyond the unnamed city
while we stood at our windows
hearing the wind open pages
in the book of our shame.


First published in RATTLE, Poets Respond, December 14, 2014.

   Knight author photo_7-1-16  Lynne Knight book cover_Again_5-9-16

Lynne Knight is the author of four poetry chapbooks and four full-length poetry collections, the most recent of which, Again, appeared from Sixteen Rivers Press and can be ordered at here. Her work has appeared in a number of journals, including Kenyon Review, Poetry, and Southern Review. Her awards and honors include publication in Best American Poetry, the Prix de l’Alliance Française 2006, a PSA Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, the 2009 RATTLE Poetry Prize, and an NEA grant. I Know (Je sais), her translation with the author Ito Naga of his Je sais, appeared from Sixteen Rivers Press in 2013. Two full-length collections are forthcoming, one from Terrapin Books, The Persistence of Longing, in 2016, and The Language of Forgetting, from Sixteen Rivers Press, in 2018. Her website is


Poet’s Note

I wrote this poem—and I wouldn’t have written it at all if it weren’t for RATTLE’s Poets Respond series, where it appeared—after reading about the CIA torture report in December 2014. It angered me that those responsible for the torture continued to deny its existence or, just as deplorably, to insist on its efficacy. But I recognized my own complicity, through silence, and that recognition drove the poem into being. I wanted to keep it simple, even stark, so there would be no possibility of hiding the shameful truth inside beautiful language. But I still wanted it to come out on the side of the lyrical rather than the polemical.


Comments by Guest Editor Susan Cohen:

Comments by Guest Editor Susan Cohen

For decades in this country, most poets refrained from attempting overtly political poems. Reviewers dismissed the efforts of even the best that persisted, including the work of Muriel Rukeyser and Adrienne Rich, as didactic. Denise Levertov won accolades for her poetic response to the Vietnam War, but many critics later deemed it some of her weakest work. Writers in other parts of the world risked statements in their art, sometimes suffering arrest, jail, and even execution, while a general literary consensus ruled in the US that politics made for bad poetry.

When Rebecca Foust honored me by asking if I would write an occasional guest column so that she could spend more time on her own award-winning poems and stories, she also mentioned that her readers might enjoy some variety. I immediately thought to look for a political poem, perhaps because my background is journalism. (Okay, I’m a news junkie.) I also knew I’d have no trouble finding one, unlike ten or fifteen years ago. Both the hyper-charged times and recent changes in publishing—print-on-demand books, a proliferation of themed anthologies, and the online presence of journals—increasingly enable topical verse.

Current events poetry now appears almost as quickly after events as the news cycle. This raises fascinating questions beyond whether political poems can be good by literary standards. Can poetry contribute to our public dialogue in a different way than prose? Lynne Knight has taken up the challenge, repeatedly publishing in a RATTLE magazine weekly feature called Poets Respond, where “Dark Prison Ledger” appeared on December 14, 2014. Though she wrote this in a few days and it veers from her typical terrain, Knight applied her usual, considerable craft.

Her poem is free verse, yet borrows some techniques from traditional forms: four-line stanzas or quatrains; lines of equal length and a generally similar number of beats, though not of strict meter; and occasional rhyme. I find this a very pretty poem. Its four stanzas of four lines sit neatly on the page. It reads pleasingly to the ear. And that becomes part of its power. The language, while lyrical, does nothing to beautify the horror of torture, contrasting with it instead. So, the first stanza, with repetitive rhythms and the choral “we wanted to hear it” immediately lulls us with music at the same time that the words, including the title, fill us with tension and foreboding. The reader is taken somewhere dark with an unidentified “we” interrogating an unidentified “he,” and hoping to extract an unidentified “it.”

That this is poetry can never be in doubt. Just look at the precision of Knight’s line and stanza breaks and how they add to our suspense. “We did everything we could // to get him to say it. He spoke / many languages.” Each enjambment, meaning the way she continues a sentence into the next line, opens up possibilities that she then closes, mirroring the sense of interrogators applying pressure, their brief anticipation, and their disappointment. “So we put away all,” Knight teases us into the third stanza—and for an instant it might be hope, scruples, restraint—but resolves on the chilling word “instruments.”  Now, when we fully understand we’re witnessing torturers and Knight begins to list tools, she also chooses to introduce her most lyrical moment: the iambic swing and full rhyme of “The rack, the bit, / the noose that had been / of use.” The hard consonants of “rack” and “bit” punch right to the gut, followed by another powerful enjambment, “And at last, broken / free of pain. . .”

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