Issue 15 / Beacons

December 25, 2021
Abstract black and white interstitial image for Ontology of God

Ontology of God and Other Poems

Justin Rovillos Monson
Foreword by Joshua Bennett

I first encountered the work of Justin Rovillos Monson as a judge for PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship in 2018, and again as guest editor for Poetry magazine’s February 2021 special issue dedicated to incarcerated writers: “The Practice of Freedom.” It’s difficult to single out what I appreciate most about his approach to this craft we love and have taken up as our life’s work, but his citational practice is certainly at the top of the list. He reads everything. And what’s more, he is willing to let a fairly expansive range of traditions (one poem, “Weapon or Considering the Evidence Used Against Me” begins with Frantz Fanon, Layli Long Soldier, and Kendrick Lamar in conversation) sing through him. There is no living poet, to my mind, that is writing quite the way Justin is about the interior life of mass incarceration. That is, how it feels to both be rendered physically invisible by the fact of one’s containment, and, to riff on Du Bois, to be the problem on everyone’s mind. 

Justin and I have been thinking through his first book, American Inmate, together for months now. The collection is best described, from my vantage, as something of a cosmic event in contemporary poetry, an incendiary occasion, every entry a barely contained conflagration that helps us see more clearly by its light. It’s not just that he writes with an agility and hard-earned wisdom you might expect from a poet some decades older than he is. It’s also that the crackling wit and masterful ear you bear witness to in these poems are always working in the service of asking the difficult questions that demand to be asked, now more urgently than ever, by those of us committed to anything resembling radical politics or the inauguration of a more just, beautiful world. What can freedom mean in a country that cages more human beings than any other in the history of our species? Or, put another way: What is to be done about our national obsession with chains? With the socially sanctioned fungibility of entire populations and state-sponsored killing as an everyday affair?

Monson wrestles with these questions as deftly as any poet writing right now. And he does so while always making room—elegantly and never without measuring the cost—for the triumph of the human spirit. For above all things, it appears, Justin Rovillos Monson believes in love: the love of family and kin beyond blood, of long-lost paramours, and of the global hip hop culture that serves in so many ways as his writing’s condition of possibility. He demands, through the sheer force and astonishing beauty of each line, that we remain believers as well. 

Ontology of God

Big Mike says I read that dogs

don’t have a sense of time       a minute

is like an hour an hour like a day

             a day like a minute. The continuity


is skewed & time is placed without

thought into various boxes. I think

what it must be like to be

a dog because                 yes       I be 


with my dogs in this massive cage

             trying to exhaust every thread

of thought surrounding time. Maybe

that’s why we say things like Oh, [name]


Yeah that’s my dog & use dog

as a placeholder for when we secret

the names of those involved

             in the robbery stabbing         extortion. 


              We want to shake off the slough

of our numbered bodies            hieroglyphs

              in our skin sluiced onto the floor.

We want to live in a space 


free of calendars & clocks & the minutes

             we must share              but the high

fruits are not ready to fall from this

life. Not yet. Ciph & Civ claim God 


body & who am I to tell them otherwise

               when we all want to claim

master                            key to lock                    silo

to grain & again own the con-


tents of our own dufflebags & spoken

languages without restraint. Still

when I call Doc he says What’s good

God? & tells me about my god-


daughter           her mews & her small body

taking hold of the world around

             her. When I buried my faith

I didn’t dig deep                        no           I didn’t 


& from the dirt sprung forth a woman

I asked her                      I said What is your name?

& she just smiled past me      which left

me confused. When I woke up


            I went to commune with the poodle

down the hall who quietly trotted

around while her master

played cards. 

Bodies of Water

There are no empty vessels when everything has proper weight.

 — James Wood 


Sitting in the substance abuse class we talk

about moderation                     the therapist

                Elissa loosening the clenched jaws each man 


has labored for years to claim as his own

                          opening the floor to the stories we

claim. The watch-words are criminal thinking 


& this is commonplace. This is everyday

in the joint                       correction. That’s what this is

             correction                           correction in the depart- 


ment of closely governed boxes.                  Bodies

of water are different                 no longer

signified in themselves                     but              these            bursting 


symbols                       overflowing with money &

drugs & the women we see in photo-

copied porn. They become our desires 


transposed amongst the pasts we had assumed

to be ours                       stories we lived in real-time

             yet are read fast by this institution 


as empty glasses                         vessels to be filled

& tossed long into whatever ocean

borders the nation with the most bullets 


& the most mechanisms to keep us

from loading those bullets. We are thirsty

for any other ocean                 for bodies 


of water                      not                       weighted with the remnants

of these floating cages                            of correction

             of anything unseen                               but still policed. 


I don’t know how I ended

up         here       yeah actually I

know. I called it              I made myself 


a dumb prophet & cuffed my own

wrists like a God who creates

& creates         & creates         too 


many worlds to wave his hand                     or

whatever he believes he’s doing

             over & grant the prayers 


of his reckless children. He gets

mad because he gets shown up.           He

fails at the feet of his 


creations. I know how

I got here.         When I first came

down    they tested my criminal- 


ity by sitting me down

in a small room                        an office

           giving me a battery 


of statements like If my fam-

ily gets hurt I feel the urge

to retaliate & some 


people deserve to be pun-

ished (that one I laughed at). I was

to answer with agreement                      or 


strong denial. I must have

passed                             my report read Low Prob-

ability of Reoffense 


            but a sentence is a sentence

            & now it’s almost a decade

with more to go & all my files 


in a drawer full of other

men’s histories                      so many

histories. Do you know 


the stories       Do you know who

I am       Do you understand

what I am           Can I tell you 


             I’ll try to sing this broken

song    & summon my tribe      ones

who will one day carry me 


home    & damn            damn       I know

it’s a moonshot but        maybe

you’ll come find me before I lose 


myself in this jungle. 

Artist Statement

When I stepped into the Reception & Guidance facility of the Michigan Department of Corrections, I was given an array of questions meant to determine the nature of my criminality. My results were promising: “Low Probability of Reoffense.” That was a decade ago. All the men I know well have inmate numbers and are told that they must watch for their “criminal thinking.” In classes, they are told something is wrong with so many of their thoughts, their memories. That’s not to say that rehabilitation isn’t an honorable—not to mention practical—goal. But then, one can only erase and rewrite so many times before the lines blur.

I’ve helped teach many of these classes, at once pushing the benefits of cognitive-behavioral therapy, and acting as a foil to an institutional bureaucracy that catalogs the minds of these men and decides whether they have earned their release. “Bodies of Water” attempts to work through, and with, this dialectic. But, really: we just want to own our own stories. We want to be alright.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 15, "Beacons". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.