Fall 2015, Volume 19

Poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts

The Invention of Crack


Dark alliance. Crack smoked over this backdrop:
CIA seal, Contras. So much heavy weight.
How birds fly? How millions turn into guerrilla props:
AK-47s, & all else. White smoke. Rocks. The dead & dying.
Gary Webb’s tale of two horrors: Contra & crack.

Mr. Speaker, what is most
frightening about crack
is that it has made cocaine
widely available… Mr. Speaker,
I am afraid that the crack epidemic
will only get worse.

I wish to bring to the attention
of our colleagues an article,
“Extra-potent cocaine: use
rising sharply among teenagers.”
Confirms what many of us in the Congress
who have the responsibility of reviewing
federal drug abuse policy
have known for some time;
that the availability of “crack” -
cocaine in its purest state -
at low street prices will only
expand the abuse of cocaine nationwide.

Black man say crack will ruin. Senator Black Elect say scourge
& scourges & look behind the words & you know he knew
“there is always a prison for them.” This post Rockefeller,
after Carmona got laced with a life sentence for a hundred
dollars worth of heroin. Ain’t many black folks in Congress.
Keep saying Reagan did it. Black man say Reagan did it.
Reagan say look at the paper, the bodies in the street. Rangel
says scourge & you vote for him again & again & again
& the pen is still filled with the bodies. Ain’t no conspiracy here.
Hand to hands scared him. Black man watching the projects
turning into a war zone. Probably thought if no one notices
the zombies in the street he should. Don’t tell me he trafficked
in the New Jim Crow too. Rangel says scourge. All these years,
all these years & the bodies in prison & we done
stop counting but I know what he told the papers:
We’d stop counting. Stopped counting how many babies
lost their mothers to the pull of smoke running from aluminum.
We had. Stopped. Counting. Mr. Senator was out to duck ruin.
Ours. It seems. You think we counted our lost? Lost
Pounds, lost brothers? All the women who bartered
With the dirt their knees gathered in the dusk?”

            The newest scourge on the streets
            is a frightening low-cost substance
            called crack. This form of cocaine
            which users freebase, has been proved
            lethal time and again, and it’s responsible
            for an alarming number of episodes of death
            and injury in recent weeks.


Nickel bag, Dime bag, Eight ball:

            We invented a way for niggas to be
            Good at math. Call me crackhead, call me
            fiend, but I know my Daddy’s name
            is what I tell them young boys,
            Even as they wave me on to the spot
            Where a kid my son’s age passes out rocks.

Jesus, some of us still be praying with aluminum between
Our lips. All our music reduced to something clever to say
about dope. Call it white lady. Call me snowman. Say
I move avalanches. I drought the city. From the first to the fifth
I got it all back. Crown me rap star. If I ain’t a hustler
what you call that. I was just trying to feed my babies.
Move weight. Fly birds. Call me Ricky Ross. Call me
Dopeman. Pusherman. He who gots bricks. Move that dope.
This, all of it, the abyss where men come to die. & the rest
of America goes to watch. Where Rangel at? Ha ha. & they
still say whitey did it. I been had my money on the man
that stay in office, that gets in office, that suits up to go
prosecute, that suits up to go defend. I say they did it. What?
Watch when the city went to ruins. Inheritance ain’t nothing
but memory. When the mayor & the reporters smoking too,
why we the only ones in jail? Where all those men who dreamed?
They keep saying in the 80s a Smokey, Teddy, Luther would have
Crooned to a crack pipe. We pray that Thou wilt grant, O Lord,
Whatever will that will bury what brought smoke, crystalline
white rocks to our streets.

            “Rayful. Freeway Ricky. Supreme. Everyone wanting
            To be Escobar. A poliferation of bodies enlarged
            By cameras. Philargyist: lover of money, antecedent
            To Andre 3 stacks, to all those pockets full of stones.
            They say where the earth has no water there is a man
            Craving the shiny glimmer of a nickel, or of the ragged
            End of pipe in their mouths. 1980 something.
            Corposant & corpse. Or fuck your hearse.


It take a nation of millions to hold
us back? Well they got that. We got that too.
Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate
your own fool self. Father forgive…

So the penitentiaries are barrels full of
Children running away from Jake, Bodine,
5-0, all these names for the same dance. On the Run.
& watch when the researchers come, notebooks in hands
writing about the dispossessed. About the clean & dirty.
Their idioms of death & whatnot. King me muthafucka,
they say when the research drops. Expert on the Negro
Problem. They become oracle & insight. & we get all
the dead bodies around us. Say so many people died one year
the District was worse than Vietnam. Per capita they say. Per
capital. Meaning all the capitals in the world was better to be in than
here where Sam did go to college no matter what the news say.
& he came back & paid rent like all these good folks
with dogs & shit do now. Talk about the victor writes history.

The Reagan Era, the cocaine era, them boys from Dunbar
could hoop is what I mean to say. All the dope gets in
the way though. Me remembering their story
a bag at a time & ain’t none of them get high.
My uncle caught touchdowns for Bladensburg,
where his story. My aunts ain’t get high, my mom,
where their story? All their history buried in the
narrative of the shooter, of the one pitching them kilos.
We buried a nation inside the lungs
That fill with smoke, & the smoke smothers the nation,
& the nation is the small child crying in the corner,
& the barrels are filled with crabs….

            Joseph E. Lowery, president
            the Southern Christian Leadership
            Conference, urges blacks to turn in                
            drug pushers regardless of race.
            “We are devastated spiritually
            and emotionally by what crack
            and other drugs are doing to our people,''
            he said, ''Drugs represent the new
            lynch mob that is more effectively killing
            our people than the old lynch mobs.''

Always that same hurt,
            You think a man don’t
Know what a high can do?
            Flattened an entire city
Block a few guns did –
            I tell my shadow we made
 It all possible. You know
            Getting high ain’t the move,
But ask someone who’s been
            There, shit feels like coming
For days, that’s what they
            Said about heroin – crack,
It feels like God has dropped
            A piece of heaven behind
Your eyelids. After that, all
            You want is to be that close
To an angel again.

What We Know Of Horses


& when my brother says Swann Rd.
is the world, he ignores boarded
vacants, broken windows - this place’s
shattered glass? He tells me
“believe the world is tenement house,
a pocket full of stones, a world
of ghosts, & what’s left of ash &
smoke after each inhale.” I visit now
that a prison cell holds his world.
Dead men circle every block
we know, thread this world
with quotes from psalms, “the sorrows
of death embrace me,” “some trust
in chariots and some in horses.”
They embrace metaphor, disbelieve
gravity, breathe in a haunted world.
& what of my brother? Running
these streets, he was a horse –
graceful, destined to be
broken. Why admire horses?


Why compare everything fast
& beautiful to horses?
My daddy’s generation had a saying
for men lost in the world,
it was true of my uncle, my cousin –
men strung out on horse,
chasing the dragon, shivering
with the memory of that stallion
gone postal in their veins –
called them lost in place,
with cities buried inside them – horses
inside them stampeding.
My brother put his faith in horse,
& there is no map to find him now.
He tells me he inhales
the funk of men doing life
& knows he is in hell,
that he has dug his grave
amongst bricks that embrace him. 
He - exile, with only rusted iron 
& bricks bracing his two hundred pounds.


Who admits this cage embraces
him?  “History is written
on the back of the horse” broken
by the world. We all in prison now.
I stare at this man, my kin
ruined by embracing
night. Call this place a horse collar,
& watch how it cuts into skin,
how the leather embraces
all of our necks. Even as a visitor
behind plate glass I brace
myself for cuffs. This not Swann
Rd., this burden placed on me,
these memories of courtrooms
& the places where bodies were found.
& still, I want to stop & embrace
my brother, to hold him close
& pause to inhale the scent of prison,
to tell him what I smell, what I inhale,
is still the body of a man.


How can a man inhale
so much violence & not change?
I light my Newport, inhale.
Think on how his voice has changed.
My man, now a feral horse
wearing kick chains: unable to sleep,
always on guard, inhaling
the air for prey, as if he is still
the predator, as if  he can inhale
death & keep on living. Death
the elephant in this world.
I imagine the other men here, all
in a world filled with a casket’s aftermath.
How much grief can you inhale?
My brother tells me he prays
at night, he wants to leave this place.
But we know all his wild hours placed
him in this mural of blood. 
His hunger placed him in C-block,
Cell 21. It suffocates
& nothing replaces time.


“You okay in here?” I ask.
But he’s in a place
only he knows.  When he walks
away he embraces
the kind of rage I fear. A man
killed a man near him, placed
on a gurney & rushed
down a sidewalk.  Dead
in a place where no one gives
a fuck if you’re breathing.
To be a horse galloping away
is what I want for him,
he wants horse trundling through
his scarred veins. Prison
has taken the place of
freedom, even in his dreams.


& I know, this is not a “world
where none is lonely.” & I know,
he is lost to the world,
& I know he believes this:
“I shut my eyes and all the world
is dead,” & I know that there is
still a strip, a place
that he believes is the world:
Swann Rd., where he can inhale
& be free. Sometimes his cuffs
are on my wrists & I embrace
the way they cut, as if I am the one
domesticated, a broken horse.


            Note: Both poems are from Bastards of the Reagan Era, printed by Four Way Books in 2015



Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two young sons. His latest collection of poetry,
Bastards of the Reagan Era, has recently been published (September 29) by Four Way Books. Betts is a  recipient of fellowships from Soros Justice Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies, and the Bread Loaf Writing Conference. In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Betts to the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, where he continues to serve as a practitioner member.

He is the author of two additional books, the NAACP Image Award winning memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison and the collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm. He received a B.A. from the University of Maryland, an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College’s M.F.A. Program for Writers and is currently a student at the Yale Law School.