The famed incarcerated poet, Ed “Foots” Lipman was born New Year’s Day 1941. After he spent nearly half his of 34 years behind bars, he died of natural causes on Sept. 8, 1975.
“I have never been so affected by poetry…I looked up his name on the internet, found little to nothing, and felt overwhelmingly compelled to change that,” said researcher. S.J. Lawrie.
By publishing Only By Flashlight, Lawrie brought to life Lipman’s collection of 55 raw and blunt poems.
I had the opportunity to experience Lipman’s work while attending Zoe Mullery’s creative writing class. Our group of about a dozen incarcerated men sat around and read some of his 1970s-style poems. We smiled, shook our heads to affirm a familiar feeling reading his work gave us. We understood Lipman’s perspective. It wasn’t surprising for us that the outside world missed literature relevant to how society operates. We constantly discuss and write about the ease of overlooking the locked away population — out of sight, out of mind. As a consequence, outsiders aren’t well-versed in how incarceration can evoke penitence in so many different ways.
When I opened Only By Flashlight, I did what I always do when reviewing an anthology of poetry. I scanned through the titles and read the ones that stood out to me.
“Because Truth is Seldom Silent” is about poetry’s ability to speak truth to power. “Losing & Lasting” is about guarding one’s dignity in spite the inhumane nature of prisons. “Harry Houdini was Right After All,” a poem ahead of its time as Lipman spoke about the failure of mass incarceration.
Going through Only By Flashlight, poem by poem, is an adventure worth taking.
Lipman thrusts readers into the sense of an incarcerated perspective. Outsider readers discover the damaging effects of accepting the powerlessness created through mass incarceration.
Only By Flashlight delves into topics relevant to San Quentin, such as how correctional officers and prisoners treat each other, medical care (or lack thereof), or doing time while missing the tender touch of a loved one, and of course, the food.
Many of Lipman’s poems are short and to the point:
Untitled for brjw
Sitting at this grill-gate
Early in the morning
Waiting for something beautiful
Reminds me to write
this poem slowly
because Beauty passes quickly
and doesn’t carry keys
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this prison tells its own tales
i listen & am unable to decipher
any particular moral; you have hidden
in your rustic gaze
any hope of my salvation, any
chance of my survival
What I appreciate are Lawrie’s effort to bring quality literature to light by investing time, energy, and money into giving a respected place in history to someone, despite reservations: “I am aware that to speak about a man having never met him is a dangerous endeavor.”
He relied on scant history about the man – history that was obscure in every facet except his criminal history.
Lipman now has a way to speak in a very silent way to the moral costs mass incarceration inflicts on our communities.
Juan’s Book Review