by Kati Waldrop
BASTARDS OF THE REAGAN ERA
Reginald Dwayne Betts
Four Way Books, 2015
I have never been a father. I have never been a black man struggling under the curse of the drug war. I have never gone anywhere near a jail, never tasted the desperation and pain of the ghetto, never seen a man die. I wasn’t even alive during the Reagan era.
My world doesn’t include those things.
The world, however—the one past my borders—does. And Reginald Dwayne Betts’ ‘Bastards of the Reagan Era’ is a lens staring into the very heart of the world I don’t know, throwing a light so sharp that the edges of its shadows cut for blood. Yet it’s not only visual light: Betts’ writing is musical, enjambment and line breaks skittering together, rhythm running under lines and diving out of hearing to let particular words soar high over it. In many ways, this is bard work: history, story, song, railing against, all in one. I almost feel as though I’m eavesdropping on a song, a ragged and ragtime elegy not meant for me.
I should make a clarification: it’s good that it isn’t meant for me, in my eyes. This volume asks me to make the effort, to reach out. It’s bonebreaker honesty, and that may not suit everyone. This is much, much too visceral for casual reading; this is something to be read if you want to be punched in the gut. There is a foreignness to the language and a weight to the words. In some places, grief confuses meanings–it tangles the words like smoke
Bastards of the Reagan Era opens with one prologue poem, Elephants in the Fall, before it gets down to business. I think this is the most important poem in the book–yes, even more than the eponymous poem–not for what it says about Betts’ sons, but for what it doesn’t say: for the fear threaded invisibley throughout this piece, for what Betts knows of growing up a black boy in America. Even at its most confident moments, this anxiety pervades the words:
“I hear you call me daddy
in this land where my father’s
name is sometimes another word
for grave, & I almost pause. It’s the song
that wants to unravel me.
More crow than swan, I’ve always been so much cage
& caged in. & all that changes when we square
the M. This old riff on a shotgun
marriage calls us back:
your mother’s hand in mine & the shotgun is
what we aim at the world that threatens…”
It is more than his distinct sense of musicality that leads me to call Betts bardic. It’s also the sense of history borne by the words, from Representative Rangel’s guilt in the problem—“scourge, scourge, scourge”, as Bett says, naming an engineer of the problem oft let off and left off the guilt—and the country’s racial vendetta and scars left over from what Vietnam did to the nation. Betts has a gift for making the personal mythic. Turn from Ray-Ray and Black and Malik and skinny jeans and nickels and Hennessey to the very myth of America, the Jim Crow struggle that is its heart:
“A public defender once explained it perfect.
He told me what we all know,
Said this is the business of human tragedy.”
The link between slavery, human cargo in the belly of a ship, and the continuing theft-repossession of black bodies laces every word. For me, it’s heavy: the weight of a sin in my blood that hasn’t yet, perhaps cannot, be expiated. Maybe for some it will feel like an accusation of a crime they think they have no part in. Betts, however, isn’t attacking anyone. Like I said, this book isn’t about white people. As so many of his titles allude to, ‘Bastards of the Reagan Era’ is a volume of elegies, caught “in a fight with God and the Devil”.
I would recommend this book to anyone who lives in America’s present moment. I would say that every white American should read this book and do the work it asks of us, to consider the world it reveals and break the cultural stereotypes that keep us from looking through that lens. I would say: “this book does what poetry must”.