A Journey of Two Writers

By Heart/Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives

Judith Tannenbaum & Spoon Jackson
New Village Press, Oakland, CA. 198 pgs.
ISBN 978-098155935-3 (Pbk)

A Review by Dianna Henning

When you open the pages of By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, a Memoir conjointly written by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson and published by New Village Press, you also open prison gates and enter the marginalized world of the imprisoned where the clanging of doors as they are opened and closed remains indelibly imprinted in your mind. You also feel throngs of men, the small space, the over-crowding. This is a heart rending book that depicts both writers’ childhoods, their struggles and eventual transcendence through art, poetry in particular. Judith says of her childhood: “I spent a great deal of time scanning the terrain between what appeared on the surface and what lurked underneath.” Both writers dare look underneath the surface in order to reach deeper into the human psyche.

This is a book of searching, synthesizing and blending—there is the teacher (Judith) of creative writing and the one taught (Spoon), but here, in By Heart and sometimes glimpsed through one’s own accumulated life experiences, one sees how the teacher becomes student and vice versa—all real learning derived in a growing circle of reciprocation. Through the unique peephole of words, a ladder up the steep climb of transcendence becomes a possibility. This is a heartwarming book—a testimony to hope, courage and everything heroic in the human spirit.

For thirty years, first meeting in San Quentin Prison, Spoon’s and Judith’s shared experience has been an unfolding of two creative spirits in which each gains vital access to the prayerful attention words make in the heart. As someone who also worked through the prison arts program (Arts-in-Corrections) I found that the men participating in the program dropped their prejudices at the visiting-room door, helped one another out with loans of paper and pencils. If one writer couldn’t make the workshop for some reason, a buddy would carry in the work, the revisions, stories and poems. There was a generosity of spirit that followed me out beyond the walls, long after the massive iron grate doors of Old Folsom and the automatic doors of California State Prison, Sacramento closed, that lifted my life into a fuller comprehension of the complexity and richness of diverse cultures, as well as the social problems that often affect the lives of those who lack opportunities for advancement. It was a gift to have garnered the privilege to participate in the prison arts program and to see men make discoveries into their own souls and grow.

In By Heart, I was particularly struck by Judith’s patience at the door of such discovery—she learned how to work with Spoon and gained his trust. She allowed him his silence, his need to quietly observe and respected his need to wear his signature sunglasses in workshops, something I had difficulty with when he arrived from San Quentin to Folsom. I simply didn’t know his background, especially with abusive teachers during his adolescence: “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 hit my mom and they both hit me. I fought at school, fought with my brothers….the teachers gave beatings.” But I did sense in Spoon a penetrating intensity, a brilliance which makes for ripe fodder in creative works and Spoon Jackson wrote many inspired poems and insightful annotations. I’ve since concluded that those signature sun glasses he compulsively wore offered him a chance to unobtrusively observe—they gave him a sense of space in a crowded place.

That very strangeness and crowding is keenly evident in Spoon’s own words: “What could I compare this new life to? Perhaps the flood control tunnels under the railroad station we roamed in as kids, the way those tunnels shrunk and grew darker and more suffocating the deeper we descended.” Despite this, this book does not ask for forgiveness. It does not set out with an agenda to condemn the prison system, create a social polemic, nor does it ask that we as readers have sympathy for those imprisoned. It simply asks that we suspend our previous perceptions regarding human nature and learn to accept the duality inherent in life.

By Heart reveals what a fragile task that is—to stand on shifting ground, but it is shifting ground that propels the writer to enter his/her own truth. To hold two truths at once is no easy task. Judith later says: “Spoon, for example, was a little boy with a rich imagination. He lay on sand dunes and looked up at the sky; he pondered what adventures the rainbows above might lead to. Spoon was curious, at home and in the physical world, and open to learning. Yet adults at his school didn’t see or relate to that little boy.” Later she wisely says when asked how her students changed: “All rehabilitation is self rehabilitation.” If, that little boy, when he was full of wonder at the world, had been nurtured and challenged early on, which should be the right of every child, the story of his life would have quite likely unfolded in a different way.

Spoon was raised with fourteen siblings, a huge family by any standard, in Barstow near the Majave Desert. Judith was raised in a strong Jewish family—both situations, albeit different, allowed growth of the imagination. In his early years Spoon committed a crime which landed him in prison. But there is a difference between Spoon Jackson and some inmates. Instead of wallowing in self pity, instead of blaming others, Spoon took the hero’s journey which Carl Jung so often speaks of in his books. He enrolled in the prison’s college program, became a voracious reader, and did serious soul searching. He experienced his dark night of the soul, and through art transcended the difficulty he’d experienced in his younger years.

Each writer in By Heart unfolds his/her memories in alternating chapters which gives the work an intimate conversational tone. This helps the reader to feel warmly invited into their lives—neither one trying to prove anything except discovery of his/her own artistic process. Photographs are interspersed throughout the chapters giving the reader a chance to meet the authors. The photos of Spoon are often pensive, thought-filled; a contagious vibrancy in Judith’s—these writers become friends to the reader as their memories unfold and through aid of the pictures they become real people.

There is also well wrought clarity and a down to the bones honesty in this collaboration that becomes a sacred invitation to begin one’s own journey into transformative discovery. Spoon so poignantly says at the end of the book: “Forging my path in life is a melancholic mixture of wonder and sadness.” It is perhaps that sense of wonder that spurs all writers to enter that sometimes terrifying tunnel of the soul where the eyes open into depth and understanding.

It is through wonder that we are uplifted by this unique collaboration. That is what I loved about this book. That is what By Heart impressed in my heart.

Dianna Henning is author of two poetry books: The Tenderness House & The Broken Bone Tongue. She has published in numerous magazines and has taught creative writing through California Poets in the Schools, The William James Association, several CAC arts grants and recently worked with Native Americans through a CA Humanities Stories Grant.