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poetry Our Aquarium

Los Angeles poet Bonnie S Kaplan works with former prisoners and parolees, easing the transition back to the community. Her poem Our Aquarium hints at the difficulties of adjustment.

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My students, now out of prison,
attend school seven floors above Skid Row.
They ask if I’ve fed the fish.
Our class mascot, a scarlet Betta,
dances for us like a Geisha, sinks gently
to the bottom of the aquarium
spreading his silky robes.

Dime-store tropicals sold in eight-ounce cups—
it’s a myth that Bettas thrive in small containers.
The toxicity builds quickly. They drown
in their own ammonia. I give our fish
a four-gallon heated tank,
ornamental ferns, a dark green algae ball
from a lake in Japan.

A leaf suspended like a hammock
lets him rest near the surface, suckle air,
blow bubble nests with saliva.
Bettas thrive in the rice paddies of Thailand,
puddle jump, burrow in mud,
with their lung-like labyrinth
they could live in spit.

Betta fights are blood sport in Asia—
two males in a tank, bets made
on who will live. In nature the males
can retreat, swim away.
My students insist our fish is lonely,
no safe roommate for a Betta, they must live alone.
Males with no escape will fight to the death

Some of my students spent years
in solitary confinement, thought too dangerous
to house with others, came up for air
only to walk the yard. After release
they’re still tortured by artificial light,
stainless latrine and cinderblock.
They can’t bear the solitary fish.

Bonnie S. Kaplan is a longtime teacher of adults in the California corrections system. She currently works in Downtown Los Angeles at the Weingart Center in a transitional housing and drug rehabilitation program where she helps parolees prepare to re-enter the community. Kaplan’s poems are published in Adrienne Rich: A Tribute Anthology, This Assignment is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, *82 Review 2.2, Cultural Weekly and Out of Sequence: The Sonnets Remixed. More work can be found at