Pushcart 2015: Reginald Dwayne Betts, “Elegy with a City in it” (Poetry) from Kenyon Review, #35.2

There are men awed
by blood, lost in the black
of all that is awful:
think crack and aluminum. Odd
what time steals,
or steals time: black robes, awful
nights when men offed in streets awed
us. Dead bodies sold news; real
hustlers bled. The Post a reel
for Rayful: black death, awe,
chocolate city read
as accumulation: the red
of all those bodies. Red
sometimes a dark and awful
omen the best couldn’t read.

Sometimes a poem stops me short. Sometimes it’s too much. How can I talk about the wordplay: homonyms “red” and “read”, “reel” and “real”, “awe” and “awful”, the symbolic and literal meanings of “black”, the repetition, the rhythms of the lines, the interplay of violence and news, with the poem on the news, in pictures, in words, embodied as I read. It’s about a different city and a different aspect of injustice, but the words, the music of rage and despair and powerlessness and injustice are the same, have been the same for four hundred years.

I considered posting an excerpt, with a link (it’s available online temporarily at Poetry Daily), with a comment about letting the poem stand on its own. But that didn’t feel right. It felt like refusing to face reality. It felt like shirking responsibility, avoiding consequences. And there’s been entirely too much of that. I’m proud of the young woman who’s decided to take account for one life. I’m not so naïve as to think this is change; power finds ways to reassert itself, and the pushback will be immense. But it’s hope.

           …. Chocolate city red
under the scrutiny. Asphalt red.
When we heard about Black,
there was this silence, awful
silence, like death was odd,
and still when I sing this awful
tale, there is more than a dead black
man in the center; there is a city still
as all the bodies that make ’86 real—
a city still, and awful, still and stark red.

I just don’t have the wisdom to add much. So yes, I’ll let the poem stand on its own wisdom, on Betts’ wisdom, on Betts’ hope. Read his poem. Read his story. Black lives matter, every one.

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