From the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review
Bastards of the Reagan Era. Reginald Dwayne Betts. Four Way Books, 2015. 72 pp. $15.95.
The Orchard Green and Every Color. Zach Savich. Omnidawn, 2016. 96 pp. $17.95.
What does anyone—any one of us—represent? Whom do we represent? In “The Poet” Emerson fuses democratic idealism and aesthetic power when he asserts that the poet is representative: “He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.” Emerson’s “common wealth” suggests a shared bounty of vision and experience but also a republic, a political commonweal, founded on the natural order of “beauty”: “The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty.” To represent is to stand for, in behalf of, but it is also to make, create, and re-create. Thus the poet carries us forward into a perfectable future by recalling those “primal warblings” where “[e]very word was once a poem” and also by formulating an original sense of nextness: “For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.”
I know, I know. We might linger over the many presumptions in Emerson’s language—the paternity, the quaint if not impossible idealism, the Platonic “natural” hierarchy of things, all the related political and aesthetic assumptions. Yet I want to press on the issue of representation anew as I look at two new books of poems by emerging male poets who seem, at first, to represent far-distant points on the continuum of cultural engagement and personal revelation. What does it mean to represent?
Reginald Dwayne Betts renders his “new confession” in the language of the “city,” along a self-identified “one-way street,” where “a woman leans against a man who leans / against a brick wall watching cars stop like dead men.” This particular one-way street is one of many apparent dead ends in “the city that nearly broke me.” Throughout his powerful new collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era, Betts’s idiom is a hip orality, tutored in jazz and hip-hop and tempered to the heat of a hard neighborhood where a “man [is] rapping ’bout bricks / & all his homies in the pen & pouring out a little liquor,” as he writes in “A Toothless Crackhead Was the Mascot.” Betts represents a social self—in this case black, male, urban—and writes in equal portions of confession and accusation with a powerful combination of documentary precision and autobiographical authority.
That is, everything Betts touches, everything he says, is tinged and “stressed” with doubleness of purpose. Even his compelling title indicts the 1980s villains (Reagan, Bush, Cheney) but also identifies a mostly fatherless generation of young black men, bastards themselves now in middle life, who were and still are among the casualties of those military engagements—the wars on drugs, on the poor, on the wide range of ethnic minorities—undertaken with particular zeal during the Reagan years and continuing today. That’s the fundamental social narrative of this strong book. In his earlier memoir, A Question of Freedom, Betts recounts his personal role in the story, arrested at sixteen and sent to adult prison (for nine years) for armed carjacking. It’s a story of abuse—of boys, of men, by men, by the justice system, and by a long history of enslavement of its many kinds. Betts’s self-salvation comes through determination and through study, in fact, through poetry. The poems in Bastards tell the story again in hard, lyrical narratives, as in the title poem:
A grave: a place where men go trouble death,
This corner, prison, purgatory holds
My breath and body, fucks with my mind until,
Until the time becomes my coffin; we
Inherited a world wretched with crack,
A world beginning with a trek like this:
A van, the wine-dark asphalt, cuffs, the night
Of early morning and all that I can’t
Imagine changing. Men around me chained,
Like me. . . .
This is the dominant environment of Bastards, here in the “city that nearly broke [him]” with its fists, drug busts, and coffins, far indeed from Emerson’s Brahmin New England. In fact, “For the City that Nearly Broke Me” is the title of eleven of this book’s twenty-three poems, reinforcing a hard and brutal redundancy central to Betts’s subject and style. This city is variously a literal municipality, a cellblock, a neighborhood, a system, and a social structure, favoring and destroying by means of economic, class, and racial divisions and the concomitant exercise of power. In one of these poems “a woman tattoos Malik’s name above / her breast & talks about the conspiracy / to destroy blacks.” Another catalogs fanciful place names—Tooley Street, Oxford Knolls, Lancaster Square—like a litany of false chances or perhaps locations on a rap sheet, while yet another performs the inevitable task of memorizing the men and boys lost to the violent life of this “city”:
For Shawn, & Malik, Quan, & Moe—
their names all echo, legacy
of Maryland Ave., Georgia Ave.,
& Alabama Ave.—names robbed
of flesh by callow boys (all peach
fuzz & pistols) ruined by
a rack of streets that bleed white chalk.
For David, Craig, Amir & Black. . . .
Alongside Betts’s primary narrative, the story of economic and racial disenfranchisement, resides his other emphasis: to represent the history—and the broken lineage—of “representative” men and masculinity in his city. To be sure, there are boys and men everywhere in these poems. Yet an absence of role models produces an even more profound effect: fathers, teachers, benefactors, protectors, men to emulate have been replaced by gangbangers, pushers, cons, conmen, and corpses, and so the “damned young” inevitably succumb to the violence around them. They become “heirs of cell doors” and finally “dead men [circling] every block we know.” In “What We Know of Horses,” Betts focuses directly on the problem, performing one of his book’s most powerful conceits. Asking the obvious question of Bastards, “How can a man inhale / so much violence & not change,” he completes the conceit by transforming or “changing” one man, a “brother” inmate: “Running / these streets, he was a horse— / graceful, destined to be / broken.” It’s a term used throughout the book by men in admiration of other men: the horse as carrier, athlete, stud, the “feral” animal like “that stallion gone postal in their veins.” It’s also one of their names for heroin. The obvious irony of the trope is that the term becomes as dehumanizing and devastating as it is admiring. Such is the heartbreak inside Betts’s poems. “On some days,” he writes in the plain, unself-pitying final line of the book’s complex title poem, “I just needed my father.”
Like Betts’s memoir A Question of Freedom, Bastards of the Reagan Era is a captivity narrative as well as a contemporary memoir in verse. The hard streets and harder cells are the setting for Betts’s tale of confinement and survival, and from within imprisoning spaces and subcultures he finds forms of resistance and eventually a prospect for freedom. He learns to hear and represent the music in the hard noise around him:
You—all reflux and reflex.
Abandoned. All mystery divined.
All misplaced haymakers. Men
in your shadow gamble with horns
& halos. Fat Gary. Brandon.
Oatmeal. Peanut. The names
true as the drums they got shouted
over, names etched into recordings,
pitched like coins into a pool
of piss. Bodies just past your borders.
Thus Betts’s art resides less in transformation than attentive illumination. To transform would be also to erase; instead for Betts the particularizing work of naming acts both as an installation of memory and a recording of music, the artful repetition of sound and circumstance. Here, in another, “For the City that Nearly Broke Me,” notice the many hard front-beats, the spondees and trochees—metrical features of both hip-hop and oratory, the poetics of emphasis.
If Betts searches for mentors on the streets, he also learns to find guidance from poets. He represents a contemporary black poetic, purposely male in this case, that traces its steps from Amiri Baraka back through Mbembe Milton Smith and Etheridge Knight. To be sure, these poets provide part of the father figure Betts seeks in a decasyllabic line like “On some days I just needed my father.” His models further derive from the long history of blank verse, as his masterful title poem indicates, and from a variety of other traditional verse forms. That is, if his language sounds peeled off the street corner, where speech becomes spoken word, his technique is tutored as well in the page. He writes at times in compressed syllabics,
it’s all counter
walking the street
& staring down
the corner’s eye,
all minding your
contemplations . . .,
at other times in dramatic monologues, intricately braided narratives, and one masterful canzone, “Elegy with a City in It.” It’s an art composed of equal parts politics and poetics, social awareness and personal revelation; and while the circumstances are as far from Emerson’s as we could imagine, still Betts seeks a similar prospect in the future—if not a perfectable future, at least a possible one.
Thus we come back to the book’s beginning. As proem and two-part prologue to Bastards of the Reagan Era with its sustained narrative of violence and pain, Betts’s first piece, “Elephants in the Fall,” serves as an invocation to hope and to the possible future of the “new age,” as Emerson prescribed, “waiting for its poet.” Addressed to that future in the form of his own two sons, Micah Michael Zamir Betts and Miles Thelonious Betts, the poem deconstructs each boy’s name and, as well, defers the book’s coming troubles in behalf of tenderness and hope: “All our thoughts were beginnings,” he announces, as if to reiterate Emerson’s assertion that “every word was once a poem.” Here Betts frames his own artistic creation as an offering of gratitude but also of important paternal presence: “you were the first song / that found me worthy.” And so we hold this poet’s work alongside his life, watching as Betts himself has gone from inmate to poet to parent to law student at Yale. He offers something he did not have: the presence of the father, representing a life of brutality and, hard won, of hope.
Emerson’s injunction in “The Poet” speaks to a great “public power.” He describes a relationship between poet and audience that is explicit in its political bearing and utility. Echoing this, Betts’s sustained narrative represents a struggle, both personal and collective, acted out in public, for public consumption, and offered with the hope of common or civic improvement. His poems are rich in detail—each song, each infraction, each peril spelled out in hard, clear words; he is, as Emerson put it, “so much an artist that he [can] report in conversation what had befallen him.” Zach Savich’s The Orchard Green and Every Color, this fine poet’s fifth and best volume, represents a considerably quieter, more interior aspect of Emersonian representation. It is as elliptical as Bastards of the Reagan Era is sustained, as static, hushed, and spare as Bastards is linear, full-voiced, and fully fleshed. In fact, what Savich represents is hardly a story, hardly apparent at all. Its central narrative circumstance is visible only by means of slight yet representative images and metaphors, or as Emerson called them, “emblems.”
The relationship of interior to exterior worlds is fundamental to Savich’s aesthetic, as to Emerson’s. Early in The Orchard Green comes this lyrical passage:
There’s little evidence of the bee’s contact with the blossom
Outside the blossom
By alternating crops, you make toil easy
Cardinal in some stacked panes, or in each of them
In my time travel dream, we agree to visit the present
This is the entire third section of the book’s first poem, “My Summer Hospital.” It cuts from subject to subject quickly, with no transitions, hardly any punctuation. Only the blossom indicates the bee’s contact, as the fragmented procedure of images represents something of the speaker’s ruptured or disrupted imagination in its “present” condition. Nothing in The Orchard Green is explicit in explanation or narrative, only in image. As he verifies, “My elegy is just ongoing consciousness.” In such gestural moments, Savich makes his art of gaps as well as the barest of suggestive traces: “Wind where the chimes will be // Beautiful, in a passing way / Thus, more beautiful the more it passes me // Much as those birds that never touch the ground.”
The Orchard Green and Other Colors is a book of trauma, of shock and aftershock. It is about cancer, though the word never appears. As a representation of the onset of illness and the treatment of disease, its intense yet reserved aspect suggests the “formal feeling” that Dickinson discovered “after great pain.” At times in a kind of disbelief, at other times in helplessness or disability, Savich’s touch remains ever so light, as his attention is as attuned to the absent as well as the provisional, like that wind “where the chimes will be.” The relation of intensity to brevity, and trauma to sparseness or silence, produces throughout The Orchard Green a powerful paradox. As he writes in the opening section of “First Position”: “I have been practicing a knot so complex the rope goes completely straight at times.” It’s an aphorism Emerson would recognize and admire, so distilled is its knowledge and experience.
Betts speaks in Bastards from within of a number of social groups—families and inmates, gangs and poets. The community of The Orchard Green is singular, and the struggle is played out literally inside the beset body—one body as its own small village, its precincts in rebellion. In “Exit Centrifuge” he notes that he’s “hotter than a raspberry in a wineglass.” The central image or emblem of heat returns a few lines later:
What warmth is unseasonable
I lift from lower than the knees
I wipe my sweat with a hotter cloth
I look for the source of the echo
I see an arrangement of sky
Here heat is less seasonal than bodily. Fever? A feature of radiation or chemotherapy? In fact, a blood centrifuge is often used in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Again in “Benches in a Small Backyard,” the juxtaposition of details depicts both inner and outer weather, the dissociation and reawakening of the imagination in crisis:
Which tradition is waking
Which planet is the sun
I walk beneath the music
Braided grain ends, as though there is order
Beneath the hangdog tree and pronged goose honk
I have lived among leaves in equal part turned, turning, and green
Landscape and self, outside and in, a damp marsh and the clotting components of blood cells—Savich’s minimal lyricism amplifies the import and relationship of each image, like the slow wash of the body extending into its own landscape.
Notable in the last sentence of Savich’s previous passage is the subtle suggestion of its verb tense. The present perfect, rather than the simple present, prefigures the organic and temporal procedure of “turned, turning, and green” of the leaves. Time in The Orchard Green is variously stilled, disrupted, and slowly released, like a held breath. Dire illness led Keats to speak of his “posthumous existence,” a writing-after-death that intensified his great odes. Likewise, Savich notes in “The Bundled Roots of Saplings” that “I write you from the afterlife.” It’s an artistic stance that can produce remarkable, even visionary acuity. This poem finds Savich again, soft-voiced and soft-footed, reflecting an interior circumstance with organic, exterior trope:
Hills mint-moistened, breezing about
As recipes on a fridge in earliest summer
Here is an orchard under this
Saplings with their bundled roots
Starting already to bear
We bundle roots to transport, transplant, and protect tender plants. Savich’s saplings insist to bear fruit, compressing their growing season into a quickened calendar. Just so, he turns fully to past tense in the poem’s next section, referencing himself and his “posthumous” ability to self-reflect: “I wished for the excesses of my age / and I wished for more eternal excesses.”
Betts’s poetry is rich in setting, circumstance, and detail; it’s linear and sustained, whereas Savich’s more lyric work is intensely selective and muted. We infer as we glimpse a circumstance through the “ocher brush” and “iron filings” of the least details. Reading The Orchard Green is like walking into a gallery of Robert Ryman paintings—singular color, bare innuendo—after a roomful of busy Breugels or Jacob Lawrences. In fact, Savich himself asks, “Is my painting snow,” as if to confirm his strategy, and self-responds: “The things I like are the things that happen.” This is the quiet procedure of The Orchard Green and Every Color: to move into and through pain and to find, still, the prospect of pleasure in the simple happenstance of nature and the sensual—even if stunned—body. Such is the hushed, hard-won realization of Savich’s new work:
Behind my eyes are the long stones that keep a field unplanted
So the fertile top is pristine
I say pleasure
I say escalate
Knowing little but faithful to the little green even dew sets off
I stay one step ahead of my gaze
It’s all right, I’m in there, and it’s all reunion
Any moment now in some other time
“For All We Know” is one of the book’s last poems, and it fruitfully returns to the temporal trope Savich uses earlier. How to rationalize and temporalize “pleasure”? Emerson agrees: “A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.” Who knew the spare could be so vivid, the severe so forgiving? Savich’s work becomes a calculus of such paradoxes, where a precipice may be a doorway and a season is a moment’s tiny panorama.
Why should, why do we strive to make artful designs in a predatory or hurtful world? Emerson is hopeful and encouraging to the end: “Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things, whether wholly or partly of a material and finite kind.” Both books by these representative poets address instability and decay—social, ethical, physical, natural—and both provide at least for a temporary repair. Or maybe not repair. Maybe the act and fact of utterance, of shapely articulation while giving expression to our continuing shared circumstances—and our shared peril—is the purpose and the gift of the poet.