When Marilyn Buck died last August 3, she had lived outside prison, on parole, for only twenty days. At age sixty-two, she had spent her last twenty-five years in various maximum security prisons. Before that, she lived years underground, supporting and taking part in actions with the Black Panther Party and later, the Black Liberation Army. Marilyn was a white woman who carried a great deal of pain, most of which came from her unflinching acknowledgement of the centuries of untold inequities suffered by African Americans and other people of color at the hands of “freedom-loving” white America.
In or out of prison, she decried these inequities and dedicated her life to trying to stop them, even as they became often subtler, more nuanced in the postmodern days of post-Bull Connor affirmative action. Despite her decades behind bars, Marilyn worked hard with, and for, other women incarcerated with her, who loved and deeply respected her. With little hope of ever being released, Marilyn kept her mind alive, earning a B.A. in psychology and an M.A. in poetics from New College of California in San Francisco. She kept her voice alive by writing poetry, for which she won three prizes from the PEN American Center Prison Writing Program, and publishing two books and a CD of her work. In an interview for the July-August 2001 issue of Monthly Review (https://monthlyreview.org/0701day.htm), Marilyn described what it was to write in prison: “I tried to find ways to tear down my walls, to protect myself less. It’s always a risk, because when you open a door, you don’t know what’s going to come in, or what’s going to go out….But I felt like, if I didn’t take that risk, that I was going to smother the essence of who I was.”
Fluent in Spanish, she also translated State of Exile, poems of Uruguayan poet Cristina Peri Rossi (City Lights, 2008). Her supporters outside helped her reach the larger world and created a website for her (http://marilynbuck.com).
A few years ago, and against all odds, Marilyn was told she was to be granted parole in 2010. After existing for years with two people in a six-by-nine-foot cell, Marilyn was finally to have a life outside, some privacy, her own room. She hoped to explore the streets of New York, see the ocean, maybe even—horrors—sometimes go shopping.
Marilyn was preparing Inside Shadows, a collection of her new work to be published in 2011, when she learned she had an aggressive form of uterine cancer. She endured an operation and chemotherapy, but soon became so ill that her attorney, Soffiyah Elijah, was able to convince the U.S. Parole Commission to let her out early. Marilyn died at home, four days before what was to have been her official release date.
A prisoner’s observation: I read about “shock & awe,”
your country stripped Iraq: lights, phones, TVs
even the water
in my country, they don’t take your clothes
they don’t send you thousands of miles away
here prisoners know shock and awe
here they stripped me bare, took everything
my locket with my children’s pictures, I’m cut off
lucky they didn’t cut off my tattoos
They tried to steal me from myself
took my name, added a number
Only Ramos remains: Ramos 72283-212.
I am not a number I am
Sara Maria Ramos-Portillo,
not a number. I have my tattoos
every night I touch my husband’s name,
Angel Luís, with angel’s wings
over my heart, and one with flowers,
tiny red roses woven around my wrist
with Tina and Luís my children’s initials,
they can’t take them away from me
I remember who I am
and where I’m from.
I will not lose my story
My skin tattoos my song.
Benny is back.
Her sister begged her to come
home to Long Beach to help her
mother was so sick.
I can’t, I can’t, I can’t
I mustn’t cross over
I’m stuck here in TJ, I’m afraid
I’ll go back to prison
Por favor, hermana, come
por favor hermana, don’t ask me
Nothing will happen, Mami needs you
she’s so sick and needs you to talk
for her, to the doctor, you speak
English too good
No lo puedo,
si puedes. I’m coming to get you
you’ll see, it is going to be okay
No, I’ll come alone
on foot with the day workers.
Benny is back
three years now,
her mother died,
never saw her again.
Benny leaves soon
ICE will send her back