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The fourth

By Kevin McIlvoy

Editor's Note: Due to the formatting of this poem, it is best viewed on a desktop browser.

And while from death I’m free, / I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on. / And while from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. / And while from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be, / and through eternity / I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, / and through eternity / I’ll sing on.

(“Wondrous Love,” 1811, the Second Great Awakening)

That night in the penitentiary cell block where

the fourth murder in six months had been called

a suicide, the inmate guide showed him the layout of

the four floors ringed in razor wire. The inmate whispered,

This, this death of somehow throwing yourself over

and down would be a feat no matter how much

you wanted to be done with dying here.

This, this death, being flown already dead into

the air and over the wire and your own

weight crushing your body when you hit and not

a stitch of clothing on is unsurprising compared to

the other ways prisoners can die.

Listen. Will you listen.

I have one chance to tell this.

The three killed were falsely convicted.

They would have been released eventually

because one jailhouse lawyer, one old man,

had puzzled together the facts, made

appeal files that brimmed, spent endless

hours gleaning and fail-proofing the cases.

This one man took this long shot

of smuggling the files out of his cell.

He risked having them intercepted.

Why, you ask. Why not ask why the state

would care so much about the covering up that

it would murder the defender of three innocent men

imprisoned through three different kinds of coercion?

Listen. Will you listen,

young preacher’s boy.

You aren’t asking why one thirty-year convict

with everything to lose would commit this act

of love, knowing if he was caught he would

be flung to his death like garbage by guards the other

guards couldn’t restrain without losing everything.

But you’re here every month, mister college boy, and

the strip searches have gotten worse for you, am

I right – and the guards’ threats deadlier.

And what will you do when a Security guard makes you bleed

out your ass and puts the bloody glove in your face

and tells you to come visit again as soon as you want.

What’re you – free-living, light, not even thirty,

clean white as the iron gate of a plantation.

If you don’t return here, little lost lamb,

we’ll understand that you decided to live.

Will you listen. Listen.

Will you remember that fourth man’s love,

his commitment, the price of his decision.

Will you scratch this story down,

this death –

this death –

this death.

And his death.

His flight.


Kevin McIlvoy’s poems appear in Consequence, Willow Springs, Olney, Barzakh, River Heron Review, LEON, and other magazines. His novel One Kind Favor (2021, WTAW Press) is his eighth published book.

He has published five novels, A Waltz, The Fifth Station, Little Peg, Hyssop, At the Gate of All Wonder, and a short story collection, The Complete History of New Mexico.

His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s, Southern Review, Ploughshares, Missouri Review, and other literary magazines. A collection of his prose poems and short-short stories, 57 Octaves Below Middle C, has been published by Four Way Books.

For twenty-seven years he was fiction editor and editor-in-chief of the national literary magazine, Puerto del Sol. He taught in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1987 to 2019; he taught as a Regents Professor of Creative Writing in the New Mexico State University MFA Program from 1981 to 2008.


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