Born 1976, Detroit / Lives in Macomb Regional Correctional Facility, New Haven, Michigan
The sun is out, the sky is blue, and people are committing suicide on a rainbow. Some hang by their necks from the fuschia inner arc while others jump or lay dead in the grass as a squirrel watches (Rainbow Drawing, 2014). The scale of the dead in relation to the rainbow is deliberate. “This is life,” writes James Dean Fuson, “A lot of times things seem to be fine but if you look closely, things are not fine.”
When Fuson was seven years old, his mother overdosed on heroin. His father was an abusive alcoholic who later went to prison for murder and died from cirrhosis there. Fuson was in and out of schools, outpatient centers, and homes and would eventually drop out of Detroit’s Western International High School in 1993.
“January 24, 1994 was the last day of my life,” he writes in the introduction to his 2013 book, Twenty Years: Reflections of an Empty Sky (Free School Press, 2014), a serpentine, autobiographical narrative observantly distilled into 261 non-traditional haiku. It was the night Fuson participated in the murders of his grandparents, his caretakers after the passing of his mother and incarceration of his father. It’s an event that changed the course of his life, and for which Fuson carries perpetual self-condemnation. As a juvenile, he was sentenced to mandatory life without the possibility of parole–a sentence later determined to be unconstitutional–in the Michigan Department of Corrections, and James Dean Fuson became MDOC No. 244473.
“MCL 750. 316
MDOC No. 244473
Level 4 to Level 2
Housing Unit 3
Cell No. 98
Assignment No. 602
2nd for chow
036 now 436 Class II
Prisons exploit repetitive practices as a method of control and order, and for Fuson, this deeply depersonalizing operation of numerical inscription as identification for human inventory shapes an environment wherein tragic or tragicomic drawing and writing like Disindividuated (2014) is possible. Repetition is, among those who experience incarceration, an enforced, rigid system of order that is embedded in time and that reorganizes life itself. Daily life is Sisyphean; always suspended in a series of recurring events: count, chow, lights out. In Twenty Years, a standout haiku laments:
“the same everyday
the same everyday
the same everyday”
Straightforward, litany form is common in Fuson’s longer form poems. “Sometimes poetry is so obscure and ambiguous or riddled with personal insights and commentary that it’s not understandable,” he writes. In poems like Direct Order and Tell Me, Fuson directly writes what he can’t say to an officer or aloud.
“You tell me to keep moving
You tell me to wear belly chains
You tell me I’m out of place
You tell me I belong here”
(excerpt from Tell Me, 2015)
For any writer or artist in prison, repercussions of speech and tone make it as challenging to discuss these conditions as it is to live them, and often, the poem or drawing is the cipher through which a poetic Trojan horse can exit the institution and enter public discourse. Fuson occasionally writes critical essays and published op eds with noms de plume to circumvent backlash, but poetry, playwriting, and drawing–where criticism of disciplinary institutions is veiled but not hidden–enables safer and less surveilled territories of making. In a series of concrete poems, Fuson equally measures the power of typographically building a house–intended to represent a prison or permanent house arrest–with the linguistic weightiness of reiterating the words “days,” “months” and “years,” (Imprisoned, 2014).
In a set of drawings that make use of Harvey Ball’s smiling, humanoid face, Fuson upends its patently positive characterization by inserting it in places that represent debasement and trauma, as seen in Self-Reflection (2016) and Life Distilled (2016). The smiling face is borrowed contronymically, to emphasize a kind of profound, masked sadness under the smile. He writes, the smiley face “is forever linked to the phrase ‘Have a nice day,’” a reminder of something Fuson has rarely had the privilege of experiencing. In the kaleidoscopic circular drawing Lost in a Crowd (2016), a near-psychedelic repetition of smiling faces, drawn one after another, is fantasized. It’s a dream and a nightmare all at once; a desire to be in a crowd of smiling faces that is eclipsed by the reality that there is no crowd of smiling faces in prison. Like the rainbow, things aren’t what they seem, and things are not fine.
Jonathan Rajewski, April 2019
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