Shahid Reads His Own Palm

by Reginald Dwayne Betts,
2009 Beatrice Hawley Award,
2010, Alice James Books,
80 pages, paper, $15.95,
ISBN: 978-1-882295-81-4
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In Reginald Dwayne Betts’ first collection, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, the body of the speaker is haunted by the man he once was and the shadows of the men who came before him:

the six fingers

I need to number

my felonies,

the bright orange

of my country


my shackled feet, the

chain – link belt

around my waist

& yesterdays yoked

into my cuffed hands.

Placing his “shackled” body within the modern prison block, Betts offers a connection to slavery’s scar over the American identity.  This unavoidable history is bound to the self like a yoke, like cuffs around wrists.  Betts cleverly negotiates multi – cultural connections that inform the speaker’s voice within the context of daily life in prison.

Betts seamlessly combines his own history and larger cultural histories with his poetic lineage, creating a speaker who is aware of the way legacy informs identity.  These poems conjure a world of


ruined cells where ten thousand

years of sentences

beckon over heads & hearts,

silent, a promise, like mistletoe.

In this prison realm, Betts documents the judge – imposed sentences of men in cells while giving honor to the enduring legacy of poetry and poets who craft art from diction, repetition, other kinds of sentences.

We don’t know exactly what put the speaker behind bars, but we see the “heads bowed in abeyance”; we know “tongues touching pain / so rich it crawled inside bruises / and began to beat.”  This past is inescapable as the speaker’s life moves forward.  It is a life marked by questions: “Have you ever had sex with a man? / Were you raped?”

The energy of this collection is ultimately about the creation of one sustained, informed narrative voice across the book.  Betts does this by identifying those earlier writers who claim some ground on which today’s poets stand, calling upon Agha Shahid Ali, a master of Middle – Eastern forms and gifter of ghazals.  With careful control the reader is reminded that even behind closed and locked doors, the speaker exists in “a room full / of fathers” and that “the history / of heat & street / corners we claimed / we owned” are owned by Betts and by those poets like Ali who came before.

Ali’s legacy, both in form and theme, finds an evocative place in Betts’ work.  Both poets try to reconcile the discordant harmony of past and present, and both use structures like the ghazal as a means toward free expression:

He held the night’s air in his fist and screamed,

then sent word by scribbled ink in prison. . . .

But, for real, why does any of it matter?

Some men never pray at night in prison.

Blame me.  Write another poem, a sad psalm.

Shahid, sing for the gods, right in prison.

Most of these poems have a clear structure and rhyme, but it would be a mistake to read these metered lines and inexorable rhyme schemes as a misguided metaphor for the chains and cellblocks of today’s prison system.  That would be too easy, and Betts is too smart for that.  Rather, these poems create an identity within the legacy of poetic tradition.  This meticulously crafted collection rises to the challenges of form and fractured contemporary influences.

Here are a few things that rise: orioles, steam, white smoke from a glass pipe, kites as pieces of paper tied to a string “as if a word can make wings.”  Just as these astonishing poems take flight like the paper tied to a string, the men in these poems place words on their bodies (“the miracle / of the prison tattoo gun, / ink stolen from smoke”) as if those bodies too might be as weightless as paper, might rise.

Mark Rice