BC Poetry 2018: "Prison Industrial Complex Explodes" by Mercedes Eng (Talonbooks)

Q. 4.1
Has your institution undertaken
initiatives to incorporate the language skills of employees
from various backgrounds?

they let out Jessi’s dad when Carole gave birth to 
their daughter
beautiful Carole, paper-bag-coloured skin a black waterfall 
of Pocahontas hair
Jessi was lucky to get a golden halo

Jessi’s destatused mama died of the system
they let out Jessi’s dad to look after her
once the price of her mama was extracted

I wonder how it is for beautiful
could-pass-for-a-white-girl Jessi
would-be-pheneticized-as-a-white-girl Jessi

Jessi who not only looked like a white girl
but the right kind of white girl
the kind of white girl boys and men go to war over
the kind of white girl who needs more lebensraum
the kind of white girl I used to wanna be


Mercedes Eng teaches and writes in Vancouver, on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories. She is the author of Mercenary English (CUE Books, 2013; Mercenary Press, 2016), a long poem about violence and resistance in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver. Her writing has appeared in Jacket 2, The Downtown East, The Volcano, on the sides of the Burrard and Granville Bridges as contributions to public art projects, and in the collectively produced chapbooks, r/ally (No One Is Illegal), Surveillance, and M’aidez (Press Release). She is currently working on a women’s prison reader and a detective novel set in her grandfather’s Chinatown supper club, circa 1948.


Combining text from government questionnaires, reports, and corporate websites, lyric poetry, and photography, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes examines the possibility of a privatized prison system in Canada leading up to Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government passing the Anti-Terrorism Act, also known as Bill C-51. This legislation criminalizes Indigenous peoples’ attempts to protect their traditional and unceded territories from ecological destruction by classifying their actions as acts of terrorism, and it criminalizes refugees who, as victims of colonization and globalization, attempt to flee genocide and poverty yet are targeted as suspected terrorists. Simultaneously, the incarceration of Indigenous people, refugees, and people of colour is rapidly increasing as corporations eagerly court the government for private-public partnerships to fund the building of new prisons and detention centres.

The impetus for Prison Industrial Complex Explodes was the discovery of a cache of Eng’s father’s prison correspondence: letters from the federal government stating their intention to deport him because of his criminal record; letters from prison justice advocate Michael Jackson advising her father on deportation; letters from the RCMP regarding the theft of her father’s property, a gold necklace, while in transport to prison; letters from family members and friends; letters from Eng and her brother. The cold formality of the government letters in accidental juxtaposition with the emotion of the personal letters struck a creative spark that led to the writing of this long poem.


Arrived November 2017. You can watch a video of her launch here.


Purchase from the Talon Books website or at your local bookstore. $17.95.


Examining the possibility of a privatized prison system

The copyrights of all poems included in the series remain with their authors, and are reprinted with the permission of the publishers.

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