By Heart is a new collaborative memoir by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson. Tannenbaum is a poet and educator who has taught poetry in schools since the 1970’s and has been involved in teaching poetry in prisons since the 1980’s. Spoon Jackson is a poet serving a life sentence. The two met at San Quentin State Prison and formed the friendship that led to the writing of this book.
Through alternating chapters written by Jackson and Tannenbaum, the life stories of both emerge. Tannenbaum grew up in Los Angeles in an extended Jewish family where storytelling was an inherent family gestalt: her father’s “Bob and Emma” stories, fictionalized accounts of his own childhood, her Aunty Riva’s stories of “escaping Russia just after the revolution, tutoring the niece and nephew of the grand duke of Finland”, and transforming herself from “Riva Velinsky into Vera Villard” in order to “teach French to Beverly Hills matrons.” As a child, the precocious, highly sensitive Tannenbaum learned to tell herself stories as a way of harnessing her wild, imaginative energy. Through volunteering in her daughter’s kindergarten class as a young mother, Tannenbaum was lead toward teaching poetry as a way of “reflecting to others their own joy, beauty, curiosity, excitement and humor.”
Jackson was raised in Barstow, a California town at the edge of the Mojave Desert, one of 14 siblings, all boys. From an early age, he was deeply connected to the natural environment, and spent a great deal of time exploring the dry riverbed behind the “two-room, cement shack” where his family lived. “When I lay on the bridge, and a train ran across, I felt its power like a herd of elephants or bison stampeding across the sky.” “I had a secret spot beside the river, and sometimes I would whistle and semi-wild dogs would come running from all directions.” “Life seemed to go on forever.” Spoon’s childhood experiences with educators, unfortunately, were not positive: he seemed to be singled-out early on as a target of corporal punishment, and was beaten at home. “My hopes, my dreams, my desires—the whole world, everything around me—seemed violent: society, school, church, the pigeons, chickens, hogs, and dogs we raised at home.” “My father moved to California due to the racial violence of the time. My father hit my mom and they both hit me. I fought at school, fought with my brothers….the teachers gave beatings. My brother Jerry went off to war in Vietnam.”
If you are worried that this book is going to play out as “white woman saves black man” guilt-assuaging fantasy-rhetoric, do not worry. By Heart is not that kind of book. Spoon Jackson had already begun “diving deep” into self-reflection during the eight years he was in prison before his first poetry class with Tannenbaum. He had enrolled in high school and college courses. He took advantage of long weekends locked-down to read “books I never knew I could grasp.” He had already come to a spiritual crisis about his situation: “Silence, books, and letters showed me my path and kept me growing. Why did I have to kill someone? I nearly went mad trying to fix what I had broken. How could I make peace?” Jackson’s meeting with Tannenbaum is not about one person saving another, it is about two artist’s influence on one another’s work and lives.
If it seems difficult to let go of the idea that a person in prison is there to be punished, and seems like a turn-off to read a book that paints any prisoner in a positive light, consider this: like Art, and Love, the word Justice is an cultural cipher, an encryption or code that stands for a complex set of ambiguous, often emotion-laden meanings. A cipher itself has no meaning, it is a shorthand. It is all assumption and connotation. Justice, like Art and Love, must be de-ciphered in order to be understood. One way to start is to ask questions. Does the United States really have 2.5 million people who should be locked up and forgotten? Is it really appropriate (and a reflection of justice) that one in 100 people in the U.S. are in prison, or that the U.S. has the largest imprisoned population in the world? If we give up and ignore a problem, does it go away? Does it solve itself? Once a person is locked up, do we give up on them?
By Heart is a book that offers two people’s perspectives on de-ciphering Art, Love, and also Justice. As Tannenbaum puts it, “I pray to hold in my hands the paradoxical whole.” As Jackson puts it, “I am not happy, nor will I ever be happy, in prison… I will be released… one day, by a beautiful real life or by a beautiful real death. In either case I have found my niche in life which is something not even death can take away.”
By Heart is not selling anything. It is not a veiled attempt to push a political cause. But it cannot and should not avoid the inherently knotty questions of power and punishment, without which this story never would have happened. As a colleague of Tannenbaum’s put it, “The men that I work with have done horrible things. But in their work with me they are funny, bright, creative human beings who often make beautiful art. I can’t reconcile these facts. All I can do is hold them in my two hands.” Like all good books, By Heart disrupts our assumptions, causes us to question our preconceptions, and reminds us of a commonly held humanity that is always the subject of Art, the engine of Love and should be the only authority of Justice.