Bastards of the Reagan Era
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a finalist for the 2016 PEN Open Book Award for Bastards of the Reagan Era. This book of poetry turns a critical eye to the harsh realities of American society and its treatment of black men. Addressing police brutality, the war on drugs, and the painful experience of being a prisoner, these poems lure readers to confront the bitter circumstances of our present age. The following are nine poems from the collection.
1. Countdown to Armageddon
The Farm, this collection of dying men,
Is home for just another night. And now,
October’s rust. Snow piles upon the dead.
Snow flattens the scarlet leaves of maple trees.
And crickets rule the black of night with song,
Or if you’re like me you call it the noise
That wakes you from what troubles sleep. The guard
And his flashlight against steel bars. His voice
As low and tired as mine; authority
A gavel drop gave him makes me listen,
And I strip before this man who knows me by
A number, and I’m lost in shouts, and when
The chain-link belt and buckle wrap my waist
These nails begin to scrape the skin off my palms.
My eyes still sleep, the cuffs the bastard I
Pretend don’t exist put on my flesh bite
And Peanut, from three cages down, he stare
Transfixed like some mad bullfrog into this
Sally port’s opaque. I almost say:
“Shook one’s afraid of sleep,” but think his bid
Enough to let the dogs of his anger
Loose on the world, after these nights in a cell
Become nothing but more nights in a cell.
Outside the hawk reminds my bones of blocks
That straightjacket me in these cuffs, how want
For things had me on corners running wild
With bammas named Ray-ray, and Qwan, Dave: all
Of us like dogs in them streets, we were afraid
Is what I’m saying, all cliché and desire,
All ignorant of what madness did birth
The Swann Rds., Lancasters, and Oxford Knolls,
That damn near ruined me.
I stand and stare,
Body trapped in this backcountry that bleeds
Men like leeches, body a stone that’s kicked
From cell to godforsaken cell, each van
Ahead a sign, somewhere a light will flash,
And wake a man before he understands
His world has gone mad; every bus a ride
Another mile away from whatever
Circle of streets he claimed he owned. I have
Braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages.
Carved my name on bunks and rafters. I fought
Grown men near double my age for a rep and now
This guard, he yanks against the chain so hard
I buck, then buckle, a man against a leash.
May God have mercy on all sleeping things!
This dark that fails to hide my trembling hands,
And all the cracked crowns with closed eyes in what
Passes for dreaming here. I’m boxed in,
Been here so long I sweat the funk of cells.
My mother wouldn’t understand, not these
Half steps I take toward my bus escort
To hell. I graduated high school numb,
Already caged with a dead man rattling ‘bout
My head, and get how these back roads will take
This body and, yes, bury it where I’m
Nobody, another man under barbed
Wire, count times, shakedowns, fistfights, shotguns, knives.
And when we walk into the cold air, I’m on
The corner, with darkness compassing my days.
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.
2. Bring the Noise
There is a limit to what facts can do.
A lefty with handles, a mean J, and white
Stones weighing down his pockets with hurt,
Jackson, at twelve, was a caution. Troubled, man.
Born on the wrong side of a twenty sac
His gift for the orange globe enough to keep
Those blooming tufts of yak smoke from his lungs
But not from clinging to skin, to clothes, to hair,
In places of business we called the block,
If we did any naming at all, because
Back then it was just outside, just around
The way, just where your kinfolks slept: just home.
I ran with him because of things
He knew: that recipe of death called crack,
The reasons why it would keep blooming black,
Which is all a way to say we were half-mad
With history, with thoughts of things we’d do,
Always half lost in a world where pistols caved
In dreams and embalming fluid ruined
A nigga’s promise quicker than a bid.
You ask me why we figured the block would save
Us? We were in a cloud of rhetoric
And ganja smoke. The eighties a black cauldron
That christened Gator, Pookie, and how many
Others crackhead, fiend, crack baby, more?
Too black, too strong. We was lost in sounds:
The agitprop of Public Enemy,
The gunshots, sound of cocaine cooking, chrome
Mercedes Benz hood ornaments ripped off
Cars and repurposed as pendants for chains.
We heard it all, and reveled in the worst.
In short: it takes a nation of millions and
All that. We thought revolutionary,
Sold crack and argued smoking the pipe was blues
For Reagan’s babies. Scared of tomorrow,
We sculpted our identities from today.
3. Don’t Believe the Hype
This voyage leaves our hero dead said Black.
He wasn’t talking ‘bout Jackson but could
Have been, Jackson in the dirt back where the dirt
Seem like a hustler’s first reprieve. And Black,
So named by wit of youth who mocked his skin,
A Wonder Bread vanilla-toasted hue
That begged for moniker, for slang to say
He wore the veil, like us, despite his eyes
Near blue, he kept saying I didn’t know why
I killed the dude, kept saying I felt threatened,
But we ain’t know Monte, ain’t know about
The threats of crazy niggas. Black ran out
With rain like fists pounding everyone and fear
Had him. They say he was a fucking fool,
The pistol smoking, Monte’s blood and rain
Water washing over his sneaks. That’s what
Black says, when someone asks him who will die,
Asks who the hero is. And for a sec
I think, imagine, Black bodied my boy,
And not some nameless young fool out for a rep.
But we all dead all dead all dead all dead
Already, lost and this a voyage from
Death to death, from godforsaken cell
To godforsaken cell and I can’t stop
Thinking about before I owned these cuffs.
You remember Raising Hell? This my way
Admitting fear to the men with me, to say
I’m drowning, too. And rope is memories, but
This van bends corners, slams on brakes and keeps
Me worrying today; and, six of ten
Of us are bastards of the eighties who
Have never heard Run rhyme. We are, again,
Close mouthed and staring dawn down. My eyes shut,
And damned if sleep doesn’t leave me, again,
Explaining cuffs to closed eyelids.
4. Night of the Living Baseheads
Most nights our energy was youth: hours
Out there after more hours out there. This was
The year of Do the Right Thing. Spike had us
On edge, near ready to toss a trashcan through
This city. Len Bias was dead. And we
Was lamping, stone cold lampin’. Pockets fat
Because we were entrepreneurs. And so
We figured: Every brother man’s life is
Like swinging the dice. Why live so close to caskets?
After that Rockefeller wealth, a few
Got crushed by Rockefeller drug laws; locked
Slam up before the money flowed like piss
In a tenement hallway. Back then it was
Always winter, always cold in the street.
My mind rabid with want for equity,
For dukey gold chains, Jordans, more.
The hustle courted us. And we were down.
It’ll take you to ruin moms would say,
As if disaster wasn’t that damned place:
Those afternoons and all their sirens blare.
Maybe she knew that soon five sweet and love
Sized packs of crack would mean a flat
Nickel in a kaleidoscope of cells,
A mandatory minimum of years
Where home becomes God’s nightmare. Our curse.
Back then the educated Negroes blamed
The Contras. They had seen reports, knew names:
Edén Pastora, Carlos Cabezas,
They had the Contras consorting with drug
Lords, plus Scarface ain’t from Compton.
These Negroes who would have been Black Panthers,
Read Huey P and Cleaver, said the CIA
Funded a war with crack. Conspiracy,
The spook who sat beside the door, Hoover;
You couldn’t blame them then, except Cleaver,
A fucking madman, actually wrote
He raped black women for practice, undercard
To raping white women, his bootleg play
For get-back born from bullshit ideas ‘bout
An insurrectional against the man.
May God have mercy on fools and their victims!
I been a fool, too, but never did get
How niggas ran with him. Plus Hoover won,
And some say all we got was free breakfast.
Still if you listened back when someone said
To let a hundred flowers bloom, and you
Were watching when the martyrs, the Malcolms,
And Kings and Fred Hamptons fell, you might think of
How democracy, like communism, ends
In a body bag for the freedom fighters. Or
You might not care, you might have been like us,
Alive in the aftermath. You saw Rayful
Get locked and knew who the suckers would be,
(All we who fought for scraps we couldn’t hold)
And still you posted on corners lost in this.
5. To the Edge of Panic
Some people say prison is the country
Where life is cheaper than anywhere else;
You wouldn’t doubt that watching us take leave,
From dark to dark to Greensville where the last
Death waits for some. Virginia still a place
That will end you. The wrong fool’s errand;
At your feet, some body. Black and you almost
Be straight, a decade, maybe two—a dead
White woman will have you slumped, biding time
Until your number called. And then you gone.
Our caravan three deep and black against
The wine-dark asphalt, and two of three
Are nothing but escorts: four uniformed
Shotguns (off safety) leading and flanking
Our coffle, all intent to keep us here,
And not wherever shackles and cuffs run
In this dead of morning, less than eighty miles
From where Nat Turner dug a hole and lay
For weeks. Virginia, something noose-like then
And some say still, except for all the shit
We did to land in this here hull and cul-
De-sac. The guard, he say “die, but don’t run”
When one of us begin to cough his lung
Up in sleep. And this is ruin. Damn these chains!
This awkward dance I do with this van! Two-step,
My body swaying back and forth, my head
A pendulum that’s rocked by the wild riffs
Of the dudes I’m riding with: them white folks know
You ain’t god body, what you commune wine
And bread? Where you from son? Red lines?
To what Onion? My eyes two caskets though,
So the voices are sheets of sound. Our van as dark
Inside as out, and all the bodies black
And voices black too and I tell my God
If you have ears for this one, know I want
No part of it, no icepicks and no fears.
I don’t say shit. I sing my dirge.
The cracked and scratching vinyl seats, the loud
Loud talk of murder this and blanket fear
Around the rest, is where I’m most at home,
But it’s beyond where prayers reach, a point
Something like purgatory. I lean back
And drift in sleep as someone says, his voice
All hoarse and jacked, all broken songbird-like
All revolutions end with an L-note.
6. Caught, Can We Get a Witness
A grave: a place where men go trouble death,
This corner, prison, purgatory holds
My breath and body, fucks with my mind until,
Until the time becomes my coffin; we
Inherited a world wretched with crack,
A world beginning with a trek like this:
A van, the wine-dark asphalt, cuffs, the night
Of early morning and all that I can’t
Imagine changing. Men around me chained,
Like me, and we all too damn comfortable
In cuffs, our journey long enough to think
About each nickel, dime and dub we sold.
Our caravan takes us from where men go
To die to where insane men go to ruin.
We got to Marion and shuffled, cuffed
And shackled; told to piss in a white box
Contraption I’d never seen. No running
Water, hands still wet with piss, then they
Handed us the sandwiches. Fuck them.
Inside, the van alive with talk about
The Onion, this wild place where we would be
Dumped like cargo from this schooner’s bowels.
Three hundred years on that van, men tied to crimes
They committed when old age was so so far
Away. Conspiracy – they say explains
Our bodies borne into another thrall;
But here, we all recall the pistol’s weight,
And how the gun in hand, the dope and crack
Turned some men into monsters, turned some men
To ghosts. The youngest here…man shit it’s all
The same, same fucking thing, a narrative
That ends with cuffs around all wrists, again.
7. Louder Than a Bomb
I wrote my cousin twice. First time to say
The world was never fair, then later cause
My father said he saw his pops come off
The Seventy, a bus that runs straight through
The city, past the Mecca, Howard U
And straight down Georgia Ave. A single head
Nod and they had talked more than your pops
To you or mine to me. Bastards, they call
Us, buried in our father’s shadowed lives.
A toothless crackhead was the mascot. Block
A funeral. These series of cells the hell,
The purgatory from which I see the past.
The cats around me are on that dope talk,
Too young for prison, but they here. D boy
This, D boy that. Say Ricky Ross got it.
Say Rayful Edmonds a kingpin. Around
Us? Skeletons: all that drug money gave.
These cuffs are like a goddamned noose around
My neck. I peddled crack to pregnant women
And this cell is my reminder of the wages.
Rockefeller and Reagan, the NAACP
All wanted us away from corners, dead
Or jail but gone. I could tell you I changed
But history will haunt us all. My past
Almost a way to prep for this descent
To Red Onion, a prison carved inside
A mountain where black men go to die slow.
Narcotics left niggas null and void. Some
Will know this thing here true: when Huey’s deal
Went up in smoke, the revolution dead,
Or dying when some cat in Oakland said
To Huey smoke inside a dime bag would
Make it all go away, what chance did we,
The rest of us with fathers brilliant, doomed
Like Huey have? I sold enough cocaine
To buy a legacy, but here, on this
My caravan to hell I am a man
With regrets, who just wants his body whole.
8. Security of the First World
Can’t sleep for dreaming and in every dream
I’m cornered, damned again because the face
Before me bleeds; the boy I damn near killed
A crimson dawn returning me to my cuffs
As this, my caravan escort to where
The bones are buried pulls into the grave
Called the Onion, and all we see is gray:
The bricks, the doors, the buildings, overcast sky.
Then, why the kid beside me says I hope
This is the last stop? Naive so he thinks
Hell only has one layer, but we off
Of our voyage now and this here stop is to
Leave bodies, all of us doomed by what’s worse.
If you imagine welcome was there when
We arrived you’d be wrong. When we stepped
Off the van we blended into the gray
Of everything else and guards barked orders
At us. The young among us still wanted
To be tough. To talk shit to guards.
I hear the where my food at CO and fuck
You punks as if it was nothing more than
The breeze washing against my skin in this
Thin mountain air that bites at skin and pride.
A stick, a twig beneath my foot near cut
Into the thin white soles of my state shoes.
I walk shackled into my latest home.
I may as well be a settler here, this cell
My homestead. You ask why they strip
Searched again. I will keep some secrets.
Old heads here say these chains and cells and walls,
State numbers, years and years and years upon
Years and years ain’t nothing but Jim Crow.
They say it’s slavery. The younguns damn
Near think it’s normal though, a fucked up normal.
They have known cells like rivers and brown and
Black men returning to prison as if it’s
The heaven God ejected them from. Me?
I’m praying for another Attica.
Even the guards driving us are black men,
All sharper than Al Sharpton on Sunday.
But if they’d spent another hour on the block,
If they’d never finished high school, if
They’d never left for basic training,
Maybe they end up here – shackled, cuffed
With us and the funk of a seventeen hour
Van ride across Virginia’s jagged highways.
Green eyes, his voice another knife in this tomb,
Calls the van another cage. He talks
About a jail up North, so foul some days
The sewage seeped into the cells. Who cares?
Yes, this is hell to hell. Dostoevsky.
What did he say? You judge a nation by
Its prisons. Had he said you judge us with
Our crimes this van runs off the rail and back
Into the Atlantic from whence we came.
But see he didn’t say that, and so what
Does all this say about America?
So many folks with control over our
Bodies. A public defender once explained
It perfect. He told me what we all know,
Said this is the business of human tragedy.
9. Prophets of Rage
This dance we do, it borders on insane.
We all have names we let bravado mask:
Think Cassius Clay becoming Ali. Blame
This debt we pay to human guile on shame.
That’s why Ramon became Ray-Ray, why Charles
Became Big Slim, then Chucky, Porkchop, Black;
Not Charles, nah never Charles, always in search:
Of room, escape, a way to run and claim
The blocks that buried us, launched us on this,
A flight from freedom. But I digress.
We were all running down demons with our
Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was
Like them, unwilling to admit one thing:
On some days I just needed my father.
“Bastards of the Reagan Era” from Bastards of the Reagan Era (c) 2015 by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
Read more from the finalists of the 2016 PEN Open Book Award
- Chord by Rick Barot
- Forest Primeval: Poems by Vievee Francis
- Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey by Marie Mutsuki Mockett
- Trace by Lauret Savoy
Read other excerpts from the 2016 PEN Literary Award winners and finalists here.