Fall 2015, Volume 19

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts



Review by Bill Neumire

In a time of poetry that often leans toward the fragmented and abstract, Reginald Dwayne Betts’ poems are politically and narratively clear and powerful. The poems of his latest book, Bastards of the Reagan Era, steam forward quite naturally from his first book of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, and his memoir, A Question of Freedom, to tell the story of his carjacking a man in Virginia at the age of 16 and being sentenced as an adult. He catalogues his sentencing and his time in prison as he maps the trajectory of his critique of the American criminal justice system from deep within it, focusing his latest book on a look back at the racist Rockefeller Drug Laws and Reagan’s War on Drugs that imposed disproportionately draconian sentences on crack cocaine users (as opposed to lighter sentences for powder cocaine users who were largely white). This latest installment is deeper in history and research, and more globally incriminating than even his previous work.

Betts has said that what an audience wants is “a song that threatens to tear you apart each time it's sung.” The stories here are dark, angry, even introspectively and honestly guilty at times—but they are told with subtle rhymes, ranging allusions, alarming similes, and always a fierce allegiance to sound. This is where Betts’ growth as a poet is evident. Shahid Reads His Own Palm was a book that utilized the repetitive ghazal form, but his techniques are more honed and wide-ranging now, though his voice remains quite itself. Of his style, Betts has said, “My biggest influence was the guy who slid Dudley Randall's The Black Poets under my cell door in solitary, then a close second would be Etheridge Knight's ‘Feeling Fucked Up,’ Nas' ‘It Ain't Hard To Tell,’ Isaiah Thomas's sixteen points-in-two-minutes-outburst, and a drawing I watched an eighteen year old kid do in the county jail.” His voice is quite consciously constructed, a mix of neighborhood slang and the traditional lyric I. He’s part raconteur, part activist, and part pure singer. He has spoken of poetry as a way of reclaiming the language of his youth, so we often get lines like the following section from the title poem:

                     (...) want
                            for things had me on corners running wild
                            with bammas named Ray-ray, and Quan, Dave: all
                            of us like dogs in them streets, we were afraid
                            is what I’m saying, all cliche and desire (16)

He’s as likely to drop some iambic pentameter (“All we who fought for scraps we couldn’t hold” (22)) as he is a neighborhood nickname. The speaker understands these poems as songs, just as he understands the sacredness of song, saying of his son in the prologue, “you were the first song / that found me worthy” (3) as though song were the quality that could repair some of the damage done by the America addressed in this collection. Unabashedly, our speaker reminds us, “There will be music because there is always music” (12).

Structurally, the poems are bookended with a prologue that refers to elephants (Republicans) and a final poem that refers to horses (donkeys, Democrats). This sweep is a gesture at letting no one off the hook, and the effect is enhanced by lines like “democracy, like communism, ends / in a body bag for the freedom fighters” (22).  The poems proceed via a Dante-esque journey, referring to the speaker’s  “caravan to hell,” his time in prison’s abyss [“this is hell to hell”] and watching “Black men returning to prison as if it’s / The heaven God rejected them from” (28). Though we’re never coerced, he often alludes to Dante’s vision, talking purgatory, fallen angels, and hell, as in these lines from one of 11 poems titled ‘For the City That Nearly Broke Me’:

                      Blood is the voice of an angel leaving
                            the body. So what are the two boys in
                            this hallway doing? Evicting angels that keep
                            us ruined in these bodies, forever
                            longing for a flight they refuse to give,
                            those winged bodies thrown from heaven (39)

The sense of history in Bastards of the Reagan Era is pointed and immense, and it was evident back in his first collection with lines like “Shahid’s fingers were left in a cotton field— / Now he forever cornrows the sky above” (14). But history also stands in for inescapable pattern, a hauntingly foregone conclusion, as in this section from ‘Elegy With a RIP Shirt Turning Into the Wind’:

                     there is a moment when he is not
                            weighed down by gravity, when
                            he owns the moment before he crashes
                            into the other boys’ waiting arms, and they
                            all look like a dozen mannequins,
                            controlled by the spinning sneaker
                            strings of the dead boys above them” (37)

For all its politics, the personal and interpersonal are ultimately what make this book more than facts and words. Betts discusses not knowing his father—also a convicted felon—and his collection directly references others like him whose fathers were absent, either subsumed by drugs or by prison sentences. But the humanity of the book is that this shadow is complicated by the speaker’s fathering of his own sons, illuminated in the prologue, ‘Elephants in the Fall’:

                     we imagined that you gave us
                            a different tune,
                            a way to bang keys into each
                            other until our lives
                            filled with unexpected music.
                            I hear you call me daddy
                            in this land where my father’s
                            name is sometimes another word
                            for grave (4)

The missing fathers ghost these pages, this speaker, and the men held as prisoners: “bastards, they call / us, buried in our fathers’ shadowed lives” (26). The title poem warns that there’s a limit to what facts can do, and perhaps this is what Betts’ poetry is for—to pick up with song and character and narrative where facts leave off. That’s the real danger of facts and statistics—that I don’t care much about a number, no matter how hard I try, but I care about a voice, a person. It’s through these moments of raw humanity that the reader can believe “We all in prison now” (65).

By the end, the book seems to answer one of its own rhetorical questions: What does all this say about America? It says, “this is the way America strangles itself” (34). It says, “You judge a nation by / Its prisons” (29). Consider us judged. Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina, Everywhere. There couldn’t be a more necessary cultural moment in which these poems could arrive, poems that incriminate and exonerate us all, saying, “May god have mercy on fools and their victims” (22). This is a book of haunting, of history, of how people become ghosts, or less than ghosts: numbers. The songs here, the rhymes and rhythms, similes and allusions and intellect, are a movement toward an antidote. Without them there is an unsettling, complacent quiet, and this book warns, “people / Die within your silence” (42). And the opposite of silence is song, is voice. And this book is booming with both.


  Interview with Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts
    by Bill Neurmire

Bill Neumire: How do you see Bastards of the Reagan Era in relation to Shahid Reads His Own Palm and A Question of Freedom? How have age, time, experience developed your perspective as a poet and a Man?

Reginald Dwayne Betts: BOTRE looks outward more. Shahid did some of that, but ultimately it was a book about prison and a meditation on a series of experiences that shaped me. Almost a kind of coming of age narrative in verse. The look was inward, far more than outward. And as a consequence, I think it was less political because it was more engaged with the development of a private identity. 

In Shahid Reads His Own Palm, there’s a poem called ‘A Head Full of Feathers’ that includes the following lines: “There is nothing good in his words: / Only stories of what happens / When men have power in the dark” (19). Who is this drowned man with a head full of feathers?

RDB: In Shahid, many of the poems find me trying to get at what it means to be a man in prison. This drowned man, his idea of the drowned man, it comes from a Cornelius Eady poem, Gratitude. Eady writes,

"I had in the tenth grade,
                   a real bastard
                                      who took me aside
                                      after class
The afternoon
                   he heard I was leaving
                                      for a private school,
                                      just to let me know
He expected me
                   to drown out there,
                                      that I held the knowledge
                                      of the drowned man"

It almost makes you want to weep. Because the Eady poem is about gratitude and have a particular knowledge of what your own survival means. But the flip of that is the understanding of what it means when you don't or can't survive. Of what happens if you are not someone with knowledge of the drowned man, but are he drowned man. All this shit is probably about my own inability to grapple with how inexplicable it is that I am here and not there. And what if the knowledge of the drowned man is an intimacy with despair, an intimacy with being lost in chaos of violence. The drowned man is not a particular person, but sometimes it is - and someone's it's just this reckless and binding past, that wants desperately to define the future and the present.

At the end of Shahid Reads His Own Palm, the speaker says, “And now— / When your son wakes—what will you say / About fathers?” (65). What do you say now (and what will you say in the future) to your sons about fathers? About their grandfather? About the experiences you speak of in your poems?

RDB: There are long stories to tell about my father, about what it means to know that amongst of all the history I pass on to my children, I pass on or will pass on an intimate knowledge of incarceration, of injustice, of violence. There is much to say – but mostly much to say for later. Because right now the time is spent figuring out what it means to be a father. And enjoying that process. Maybe in that end, that is what we all say – those things that we do. 

I thought it was fantastic when I saw that you’ve mentioned Isaiah Thomas’ 16 point outburst as an influence on your style. Can you talk about how that influence, from such a seemingly unexpected place, works?

RDB: I really do think that I write mostly from desperation. Desperation and recklessness. There is that place where what you can do and what you need to do confronts what you must do. That place is desperation. That’s where Thomas goes to drop 16 before anyone could finish a decent drink. But this is me explaining after the fact. The real thing is that I grew up watching the Pistons. And I want my style to have that mixture of panache and efficiency. This year is probably the first time since then that a point guard has been the best player on the best team in the league – in a legit way. And so I kind of think about chasing the audacity to believe it’s supposed to be me when I write – because in the end, that’s what you need to drop 16, to recklessly believe. And to write a poem - 

In A Question of Freedom, you said, “as a kid we always saw the white people around us as intruders or people looking to have power” (5). Has that feeling remained?

RDB: It’s changed. Under any definition my community was segregated. I recall when my mom and I first moved into the neighborhood. There was a white kid next door. We must have moved there during the summer time because before the school year started he moved. And that was the last white family there. An older white couple remained. I remember them because the guy built remote control cars. They would be so damn fast racing around the parking lot. He stayed, his wife stayed. No one else. And from there, as a kid, I just began to think of the white people around, usually as teachers, working in stores, as one of two things: intruders or people looking for power. But my world is different now. Very different. My friends span the cultures of the world, well I’m not that fortunate. But I have a lot of friends and their lives reflect a commitment to more than the xenophobia that reigns supreme in a segregated land. I can add to that I’ve been to college, that I’ve taught classrooms full of students that look nothing like me. So yes, things have changed a lot – but mostly because they have had to change, not because the world changed, but mostly because as a kid I just didn’t really know the world was larger than my own landscape.  

Knowing that you are pursuing a career in law, and that you’ve said, “I’d gotten it into my head that the power in poetry that made me want to be something better could be woven into a letter that would convince someone to fight for a man’s life when he couldn’t” (166)--how do you see the connection between your poetry and your practice of law? How do those two selves blend, and separate?

RDB: I wrote that? You know that sentence makes it seem like I’ve long considered the law to have power. It’s also crazy because it makes me realize that it took nearly six or so years of freedom to get the audacity that I had in prison. Because in prison, I really thought, I believe that the relationship between poetry and the law and power was one I could wield. But when I came home, even as I did the advocacy work – I’d lost my ability to conceive of those things working in concert. And despite there being a few poets who are lawyers – there aren’t many and most looked at my decision to go to law school like an odd one. This probably answers the previous question – I’ve gotten to the place where, like in prison, I believed power rested in the pen. 

You’ve said, “I want a poetics hurting to communicate, a poetics that builds bridges over chasms created when folks would have us believe our differences ruin us.” What chasms do you see your poems bridging, and how does that bridging work?

RDB: Right now I don’t know. Becoming a law student has given me some freedom in the work. I feel like I expect the poems to talk to someone and roll with it. I expect the poems to make noise, some kind of noise. And when I am in the place reading, I think that I am able to bridge something – to have some conversations with people that wouldn’t happen without the poems. 

I often hear poets asked to diagnose flaws or omissions in poetry today. I’d like to ask you the opposite. What do you see in poetry today that excites you, that makes you feel hopeful about the future?

RDB: That excites me? I would say I’m excited every time I hear about poetry in the schools. There is a vibrancy there. And I’m excited about being able to think of art as community. I see poets and mostly think of them as friends – and that’s pretty cool. Feeling that so much of this brilliant work being created is done by people I’m often in the company of.

Where do you see your work heading from here? 

RDB: That one I have no answer to.




BIO: Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Shahid Reads His Own Palm won the Beatrice Hawley Award. His memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, received the 2010 NAACP Image Award for nonfiction. He is a Yale Law student.