Reviews: May/June 2016

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Bastards of the Reagan Era
Reginald Dwayne Betts ’16JD
Four Way, $15.95
Reviewed by Anna Reisman ’86

Anna Reisman ’86, an associate professor of medicine at Yale, directs the Program for Humanities in Medicine.

Prison, bullets, blood, and death steam from the poems in Reginald Dwayne Betts’s new collection, Bastards of the Reagan Era. Convicted at age 16 for carjacking, Betts spent 8 years in prison; since then, he’s published a memoir and another book of poems, and he’s currently a Yale law student. His strong language, allusions, and visual presentation create images that burst free of the orderly lines in this book. Even the table of contents is mightier than a simple list. Eleven poems share the same piercing title—“For the City that Nearly Broke Me”—rendering the table of contents itself a poem: lyrical, raw, and relentless.

Images from history and literature pervade the tight, powerful language, linking these anguished pieces about young black men to a world that has ignored them. In the first section of the long titular poem, Betts writes:

All the currency I ever had was time,
Redundant gesture that it is. A waste,
That want for more. A waste, we half dozen,
Half shuffling, scuffed and nicked, on another
Schooner bound for some Sing Sing, for some
Angola, Folsom, Attica. They say
Armageddon been in effect. But let
Me tell you how this business began.

In these few lines, you sense the autobiographical rhythm of Wordsworth’s Prelude and hear echoes of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. Earlier in the section there’s a hat tip to Joyce (“Snow piles upon the dead”), in the fifth section a glance at Homer (“wine-dark asphalt”), and in the eighth a nod to Langston Hughes (“They have known cells like rivers”). As for the headings of the nine sections of the poem—which include “Countdown to Armageddon,” “Prophets of Rage,” and “To the Edge of Panic”—they are song titles from Public Enemy.

 Throughout, Betts hammers on the comparisons between prison and slavery, each “a narrative / That ends with cuffs around all wrists, again.” He poignantly captures what’s become “a fucked up normal,” with “brown and / Black men returning to prison as if it’s / The heaven God ejected them from.” Or, as he puts it in one of the poems called “For the City that Nearly Broke Me”: “prison / is nothing more / than a long way home.”

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