Hannah Star Rogers
New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2015. 72 pages. $15.95.
In the case of his own life, Betts insists on the adage that the personal is political. In a collection that stitches the broader political landscape of the Reagan years to the intimate landscape of his own relationships, the poet proves that we cannot separate near from far effects and that collective experiences are, in the end, our own experiences. Betts’s first poetry collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, appeared in 2010 from Alice James Books, a year after his nonfiction book A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin, 2009). Bastards of the Reagan Era continues his exploration of black masculinity and its inflection by family, community, and the state. The book opens with songs of joy in the form of odes to Betts’s two sons, Micah and Miles. “Our song,” he writes, “is how right we got it / when the light from that moon spilled out of your mother’s belly.” This emphasis on fatherhood may remind readers of the wealth of recent books by African-American writers on family, including Douglas Kearney’s challenging and hilarious Patter and Greg Pardlo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Digest. In Bastards, the poet speaks to us both as father and from the perspective of his own adolescence; his trials included the complications of poverty in Suitland, Maryland, and the carjacking that led to his eight-year incarceration, where he entered the world of poetry through another prisoner’s copy of The Black Poets.
The effects of this poverty, and the city in which it takes place, are examined explicitly and implicitly across the collection. In “Elegy with a City in It” Betts celebrates and clarifies the city, which we can assume to be a hybrid of Suitland and nearby DC: “& still when I sing this awful / tale there is more than a dead black / man in the center there is a city still / as all the bodies that make ’86 real, / a city still, & awful, still & bloodied.” This emphasis manifests in the Coleridgean repetition of the title “The City That Nearly Broke Me.” The eleven poems that bear this title perform different aspects of the self-reflection through narrative that Betts undertakes in this book. He critiques, apologizes for, explains, and pities his former self, giving readers a sense of deep understanding and creating a voice we trust to examine larger social structures from many angles. Even when Betts is not invoking “The City” directly, he is moving toward and away from communities understood as places. Betts portrays the relocation of prisoners from one facility to another in terms of their movement to and away from the city, demonstrating how memory and place shape one another.
“The City” is the center of Betts’s personal community, but the location translates into political connections that bring what may at first appear distant closer. Betts recalls his early leftist leanings and how he and his friends understood themselves as engaged in a global political struggle that stretched from D.C. through the Black Panthers, to the Contras. These poems help us to understand the context of the events of the time, many of which occurred far from the daily lives of Betts’s characters, while insisting that we translate those distant connections into more immediate terms. In one poem, for example, the poet recalls the mystery of the twenty-two grams that leave the body at death, often figured as the weight of the soul, but takes this evaluation a step further, assigning that weight the value twenty-two grams of crack would have: $4,000.
Here economic forces and their implied violence meet in the poet’s imagination and are elevated, an endeavor Betts undertakes throughout: to connect the distant—in place, time, or possibility—to the immediate and the bodily. The accomplishment of this book is to be at once radically political and radically close: bringing cause and effect close enough to hold in a poem. Note how violence, the body, and the imagination all speak through the onomatopoeia of gunfire in “Elegy with RIP Shirt Turning into the Wind”:
Some days, away from me,
the air turns & I pray
pistols into my hands, as if
there is a peace that will open
up with bullets, with the blucka
blucka blucka of a hammer’s siren.
The poet is a master of sound phrasing, as his staccato “blucka” attests. Religion enters, transforming the poem into a surreal prayer that associates peace with the sound of the “hammer’s siren.” Betts draws the image of the gun into the poem and transfigures it. The poem both plays on and insists on the contradiction of violence and religious peace; Betts pulls this elusive contradiction closer. As the poem proves, he is not afraid to make the individual’s story grand: to say this is important, and to show us why and how.
Take the title poem. Betts announces this nine-section poem as speaking for and explaining the situation of a generation. The word “generation” is the right one—here, as in the book’s opening poems, familial relationships serve as a form of cause and effect. If this book has a center, surely it is the final line of this poem:
A fight for freedom. But I digress.
We were all running down our demons with our
Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was
Like them, unwilling to admit one thing:
On some days, I just needed my father.
Here the politics of fatherhood, which have been so present in recent discussions about mass incarceration and the African-American family, become incredibly personal (though the poet does not claim fathers as a fix for all that ails the community). Political winds carry “fathers” back and forth from place to place as pawns in a larger system, yet here the poet insists on rehumanizing this detail. This direct point is both a private admission and a simple prescription: a plea for the world to be kind to children in a most real way.
The poet introduces us to a cast of people who come in and out of the poems. Many, but importantly, not all, are involved in the push and shove of the drug trade:
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 the 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.
This poem calls attention to the lives of non-drug users, those not being covered by media, whose lives are affected by the War on Drugs. The book presents a counterargument to the story of poverty the media or other art may tell: Betts will not allow us to believe that everyone involved in the disaster of poverty will come to violence looking for a solution. Here he forces us to picture the horror visited on people who were not implicated in crime or violence, but are nonetheless suffering from the consequences of the situation. Betts moves back and forth between the implicated and the implications: responsibility hangs in the balance, and he lets no one off the hook.
The results of our collective silence on these issues is brought home in a metaphor which surfaces again and again: through our agnostic attitudes, apathetic responses, and lack of social justice, we are suffocating ourselves.
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. . . .
Bastards of the Reagan Era is a testament to the poetic possibilities of linking the personal to the political. Betts’s personal story of being introduced to poetry in prison is its own redemptive tale, though this work is not in the business of offering solutions for a generation, so much as an opportunity to reflect on the tension between the individual and his situation. Betts demonstrates that poetry can bring us into contact with the personal in ways that convict us of the political.