Split This Rock Poem of the Week: Reginald Dwayne Betts

Bastards of the Reagan Era witnesses and contemplates the lives of those targeted in the “war on poverty” and the “war on drugs.” With the dawn of mass incarceration, a panic-response to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, came the constant policing of black men — any black men, all black people. In the same administration, we ignored the decimation wreaked by AIDS on the LGBTQ community, declared ketchup a vegetable, sold arms illegally to Iran to support the anti-communist and anti-democratic Contras in Honduras (one of the countries from which terrified children now risk their lives to escape), began the neo-liberal economic schemes that have blighted the inner city and broken the middle class, and closed most of the treatment facilities for the mentally ill. — All policies we are just now seeing must be rolled back in order to save our country.

These poems, however, focus on the depth of the damage wrought on US communities of color, and let us begin to realize how much work, and love, we have to do going forward. — PoMoRed

                                                               * * *
Reginald Dwayne Betts‘s powerful poem, “For the City that Nearly Broke Me,” is Poem of the Week. This is the first in a countdown of poems by poets to feature at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2016. Keep an eye out for other poems by festival featured poets as we approach April 14-17!


For the City that Nearly Broke Me
A woman tattoos Malik’s name above
her breast & talks about the conspiracy
to destroy blacks. This is all a fancy way
to say that someone kirked out, emptied
five or six or seven shots into a still warm body.
No indictment follows Malik’s death,
follows smoke running from a fired pistol.
An old quarrel: crimson against concrete
& the officer’s gun still smoking.
Someone says the people need to stand up,
that the system’s a glass house falling on only
a few heads. This & the stop snitching ads
are the conundrum and damn all that blood.
All those closed eyes imagining Malik’s
killer forever coffled to a series of cells,
& you almost believe them, you do, except
the cognac in your hand is an old habit,
a toast to friends buried before the daybreak
of their old age. You know the truth
of the talking, of the quarrels & how
history lets the blamed go blameless for
the blood that flows black in the street;
you imagine there is a riot going on,
& someone is tossing a trash can through
Sal’s window calling that revolution,
while behind us cell doors keep clanking closed,
& Malik’s casket door clanks closed,
& the bodies that roll off the block
& into the prisons and into the ground,
keep rolling, & no one will admit
that this is the way America strangles itself.
* * * 
From Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015). Used with permission. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.
* * *
Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of the memoir, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison (Avery/Penguin, 2009), for which he was awarded the 2010 NAACP Image Award for non-fiction. His books of poetry are Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James, 2010) and Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015). Betts is a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow, 2011 Radcliffe Fellow, and 2012 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow. In 2012, he was appointed to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by President Obama. He is a student at Yale Law School.

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Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks!
To read more poems of provocation and witness, please visit The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database at SplitThisRock.org.

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