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Review: Reginald Dwayne Betts, Letter to Yusef Komunyakaa
The story I tell most often about poetry begins with the hole. A contraband copy of Dudley Randall’s Black Poets slipped under my cell door in solitary introducing me to Sonia Sanchez, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, and more. I tell less often what happened weeks later. Shipped off to a super-maximum-security prison in the gutted side of a mountain, I met a young brother with dreadlocks and a shank buried on the yard who would later let me borrow Michael Harper’s Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep.
Happenstance is one of those words not used often enough is what I think. But it’s all happenstance that led me to naming my own song after Thelonious. First hearing the name in your “Elegy for Thelonious,” I carried it around in my head for years before saving up some change and buying me a Thelonious Monk cassette. “Untitled Blues,” “How I See Things,” “Facing It,” I know you’ve heard this before. Young poet gets hip to your work and decides he wants, too, to turn lines into a legacy. That’s not all of what I mean though. In the same anthology, Rita Dove writes (in “Canary”), “if you can’t be free, be a mystery.” And I imagined that poetry allowed a person to be both mystery and seen as they want to be seen. How was a kid in prison, like me, expected to know you, the Yusef Komunyakaa from Bogalusa, Louisiana, beyond verse? I don’t even think I knew more about you than a few words: Yusef, Komunyakaa, Louisiana, and Vietnam. The first in meaning was as foreign to me as the last three. The men around me named Yusef had taken on the name as they became Muslims or Five Percenters or members of the Nation of Islam, and all had an ambition to be wiser than whatever led them to prison. Your poems were already keener than the bullshit we did that landed us behind bars. And I knew nothing of Vietnam or Louisiana. What I mean is that I couldn’t place how I a black man came to know all the things found in your poems.
This letter started out as a would-be review of your new book Everyday Mojo Songs of Earth. But, lately I’ve been reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. One way for me to explain how utterly not the one I am to be writing a review of your work is to go back to Milton. Something about this last reading of Paradise has me thinking that Milton’s problem is that he wanted to workshop Creation. And he wanted to pull Adam & Eve into it. They resisted sounding up after the fall, but Lucifer still had some punctuation he was at odds with. It ain’t end too well for him. And me believing that some poets is at least like a prophet, if not a lesser god, I figured I knew better than Lucifer and the pair, not to gotinkering with the work of the gods. I wonder if you dig Rakim. Generally, I know how you feel about hip hop. But Rakim, nicknamed the God MC, always had me recognizing what it meant to want to be more on a page. That’s what your work has done, in a way. And so the review wasn’t in me. Picking up Mojo Songs was more a walk back down memory lane.
Don’t nobody sound like themself like you. And don’t nobody else make the reader fall into that voice until they’re becoming more cognizant of themselves. “I want each question to fit me / Like a shiny hook, a lure / In the gullet,” you write in “When Dusk Weighs Daybreak.” And I’m thinking maybe there’s the rub. These lines reveal how to make a man understand himself, and then admit the cost: “I need a Son House blues / To wear out my tongue.” A different way of saying all of this is that in those first-person poems, in the space of those narratives, I became somebody else. A wiser, hipper, cat with more than just the stories that carried me to prison. And sometimes, in doing all that, I become afraid of what I know. Take the end of one of your new joints, where you write, “To stand naked before a mirror / & count the parts is to question the whole / season of sowing & reaping thorns.” Who is brave enough to walk into the world with that knowledge?
I be telling myself how I met you in prison and take solace in that. Cause, like many a young writer, I want to know the man behind the poems. But prison teaches you to give a man his privacy. And so, when I met you years ago at Cave Canem, I was awed. But just wanted to be chill. And maybe I feel bad about that. Deeply believing that part of all this meant that I needed to learn to know that Yusef Komunyakaa, in a chair alone sipping his drink, had earned whatever rest or weary he wanted to have, in solitude. But sometimes I wish I’d have been the one to try to spin you a yarn that would have built a relationship that would have kept us in touch these years. They say sit at the feet of your elders and the other thing about me is that I’m from the generation of black boys who found their elders in prison cells and mostly forgot them if we were lucky enough to get free.
Once, you told me and a group of young poets, while critiquing one young poet’s sprawling poem, something to the effect that, see, the poem ends ten lines up from the period. I could see that sometimes in life you gotta run past where you want to be to land where you need to be. But you also gotta be able to check and see if you’ve run too far.
Maybe the thing that you have, that I’ve always been chasing, is the ability to sound like myself, in a way that’s recognizing all the ways I don’t when I run a bit past the target. I know though, like a lot of my peers, we’re all still just practicing out your notes. The other day, I realized that I never use the word “and” in my poems. People have asked me about and I’ve given all kinds of answers, none that I remember. I never said I got it from you though. Funny how that works. Spend years trying on somebody’s sound and you don’t even realize when you copy a bit of the style. If you read my poems you’ll find some of your notes there. More your posture than your lines, trying on how you think. Hoping that the few times I get it right, I’m not afraid of whatever unravels between the lines.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of a memoir and three books of poetry, most recently Felon. He is also the founder and director of Freedom Reads, an organization supporting the efforts of people in prison to transform their lives through access to books, writers and performing artists
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