If there’s one thing this pandemic has given me (besides diminished social skills and a lot of loaves of failed sourdough), it’s an increased appreciation and appetite for poetry. Just before everything shut down, I picked up Joyce Sutphen’s Carrying Water to the Field and was enchanted; that enchantment has led me to discover Tracy K. Smith, Marie Howe, Li-Yung Lee, Thom Gunn, A. E. Stallings, Tyehimba Jess, Paisley Rekdal, and more.
Felon, Reginald Dwayne Betts’s third collection of poetry, has been on my list for a while, and when my local indie bookstore opened back up recently, I finally got my hands on it. Over the year or so it was on my list, it had plenty of time to gain near-mythical status in my mind, especially with how many accolades it picked up and how much I’ve been enjoying Betts’s selections in the New York Times Magazine‘s poetry feature. And you know what? Felon did not disappoint.
Throughout the 34 poems in the collection, Betts explores the hurt of going to prison and of leaving prison; of the people whom he left behind when he was sentenced to life behind bars (and becoming the titular felon) and those he left behind upon his release. “If I told her how often I thought/Of prison she would walk out/Of the door that’s led just as much/To madness as any home we/Desired,” he writes in one poem. In another, referring to the portrait that became part of the cover art, he says, “Titus Kaphar painted my portrait, then dipped it in black tar./He knows redaction is a dialect after prison.” Betts’ focus is fairly narrow, with all poems tied fairly clearly to that central idea of imprisonment and cyclical effect it can have.
Necessarily tied in with these ideas are the realities of being a Black man (or boy) in America. As he writes in one poem, “in the backseat my sons laugh & tussle/far from Tamir’s age, adorned with his/complexion & cadence & already warned/about toy pistols … I think of Tamir, twice-blink/& confront my weeping’s inadequacy, how/some loss invents the geometry that baffles.” In another, he addresses the oft-spoken allegation of someone (often a Black man) stopped or detained for “matching the description of a suspect,” writing, “There is so much to be said of a Black man with unkempt hair:/He meets the description of the suspect; suspect is running./I ran away from things far less frightening than the police./A confession began when I robed myself in black. A confession/Began when I walked out of that parking lot wearing a black/Hoodie. Things get exponentially worse when a hoodie is pulled/Over my unkempt air. A confession began when I walked out/Of that parking lot Black. … A confession begins, my confession/Began with a woman stitching stars & stripes into a flag.” His measured and seemingly soft-spoken lines deliver punch after punch in that way, provoking a lot of thought along the way.
In addition to being a poet, Betts is also a lawyer, and the rumination on the letter and spirit—and typical presentation—of the law is particularly fascinating in our current moment of civil rights discussion, even though this collection was originally published in 2019. Taking up the most pages of the book are four separate blackout poems taken from redacted legal documents filed by the Civil Rights Corps in attempts to free people who were being held behind bars because they could not afford the cash bail that would otherwise allow them to go free until they had been tried and convicted for the crimes they were accused of. In my social media circles, blackout poetry is frequently disregarded as not being “serious” poetry, but I found these poems to be particularly powerful–and surprisingly emotional appeals to the movement against cash bail due to its disproportionate impact on lower-income people.
Betts handles his subject matter with deftness and heart, though from a purely literary perspective I was perhaps most impressed by the sheer number of styles and approaches he uses in his poetics. The poems are often free verse, but vary in terms of form and adherence thereof. Reading Felon is like watching a master dance through their work, making the impossibly complex look easy. The last poem of the collection shows off this mastery best. Throughout the eight related parts that make up the poem, Betts mixes form and meter, and reuses the last line from each smaller work to start off the next, usually taking the resulting enjambment in a completely different direction. Reading it once won’t cut it—it takes repeated reading and a quick eye to glean the meaning, the tricks, the subtle rhyme that absorb into each other when glanced at as a whole.
Which is true of the entire collection, as well. Felon is a work that rewards the careful reader, and rewards them well.