"The years that we've lost"

Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Blood History

The things that abandon you get remembered different.
As precise as the English language can be, with words
like penultimate & perseverate, there is not a combination
of sounds that describe only that leaving. Once,
drinking & smoking with buddies, a friend asked if
I’d longed for a father. Had he said wanted, I would have
dismissed him in the way that youngins dismiss it all:
a shrug, sarcasm, a jab to his stomach, laughter.
But he said longing. & in a different place, I might
have wept. Said, once, my father lived with us & then he
didn’t & it fucked me up so much I never thought about
his leaving until I held my own son in my arms & only
now speak on it. A man who drank Boone’s Farm & Mad
Dog like water once told me & some friends that there is no
word for father where he comes from, not like we know it.
There, the word father is the same as the word for listen.
The blunts we passed around let us forget our
tongues. Not that much though. But what if the old
head knew something? & if you have no father, you can’t
hear straight. Years later, another friend wondered why
I named my son after my father. You know, that’s a thing
turn your life to a prayer that no dead man gonna answer.


For a Bail Denied
          for A.S.

I won’t tell you how it ended, &
his mother won’t, either, but beside
me she stood & some things neither

of us could know, & now, all is lost;
lost is all in what came after—the kid,
& we should call him kid, call him a

child, his face smooth & without history
of a razor, he shuffled—ghostly—into
court, & let’s just call it a cauldron, &

admit his nappy head made him blacker
than whatever pistol he’d held,
whatever solitary awaited; the prosecutor’s

bald head was black or brown (but
when has brown not been akin to Black
here? to abyss?) & does it matter,

Black lives, when all he said of Black
boys was that they kill?—the child beside
his mother & his mother beside me &

I am not his father, just a public
defender, near starving, here, where the
state turns men, women, children into

numbers, seeking something more useful
than a guilty plea & this boy beside
me’s withering, on the brink of life &

broken, & it’s all possible, because the
judge spoke & the kid says
I did it I mean I did it I mean Jesus

someone wailed & the boy’s mother yells:
This ain’t justice. You can’t throw my son
into that fucking ocean. She meant jail.

& we was powerless to stop it.
& too damn tired to be beautiful.


Essay on Reentry

At two a.m., without enough spirits
spilling into my liver to know
to keep my mouth shut, my youngest
learned of years I spent inside a box: a spell,
a kind of incantation I was under; not whisky,
but History: I robbed a man. This, months
before he would drop bucket after bucket
on opposing players, the entire bedraggled
bunch five & six & he leaping as if
every lay-up erases something. That’s how
I saw it, my screaming-coaching-sweating
presence recompense for the pen. My father
has never seen me play ball is part of this.
My oldest knew, told of my crimes by
a stranger. Tell me we aren’t running
towards failure is what I want to ask my sons,
but it is two in the a.m. The oldest has gone off
to dream in the comfort of his room, the youngest
despite him seeming more lucid than me,
just reflects cartoons back from his eyes.
So when he tells me, Daddy it’s okay, I know
what’s happening is some straggling angel,
lost from his pack finding a way to fulfill his
duty, lending words to this kid who crawls
into my arms, wanting, more than stories
of my prison, the sleep that he fought while
I held court at a bar with men who knew
that when the drinking was done,
the drinking wouldn’t make the stories
we brought home any easier to tell.


  • Sam Kilbourn
    Sam Kilbourn, 2:24pm November 04 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This beautiful man must be heard. May his words find their way into middle schools and high schools and up. This world can do better and must. The story he tells, a mere sampling of the horror of each day, each moment of trauma, the compilation of traumas, that underlie it - his life; the trauma he inflicted, that inflicted upon him, the trauma particularly facing minorities, whether of the poor or otherwise, must lead us away from the divide of wealth and opportunity that defines us and our world.

  • Bob Rosenberg
    Bob Rosenberg, 4:26pm November 05 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    A beautiful article, worthy of the subject. Thank you for publishing it.

  • John Wright
    John Wright , 9:40pm November 06 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This piece is thoroughly confusing-en face and incontrovertibly, and attested to by the subject he committed very serious felonies/crimes with a loaded gun when he was mentally and chronologically competent to stand trial as an adult.then the rest of the piece is an apologia why he shouldn’t have gone to jail- why pray tell not? Even Donald trump would do serious time he wasn’t intoxicated he didn’t need the money he did the crime obviously because society had conveyed the message there be no serious consequences fortunately for u and me it did not . The streets were manifestly more safe with him behind bars. I think it’s great he got his act together and grew up but the plea for mercy simply because he writes poetry for the underclass is exactly what unfortunate republican landslide is going to remind us all of.

    RICHARD, 3:31am November 09 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    It is said that one for the scariest thing in this world is ignoring the painful of others?

  • Eric J Oxfeld
    Eric J Oxfeld, 2:49pm November 12 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Kudos to the Editors for posting this article and making it the cover story. Most of us, unless you or a loved one or friend have served time, have no idea that our state prison systems are an absolute dystopia. Execrable food, extremes of heat and cold, daily degradation and humiliation, gangs and drugs and violence committed by corrections staff and other incarcerated people, meager if any preparation to facilitate return to society on release - these conditions are unconscionable. We would arrest anyone who treated an animal that way. Small wonder recidivism is so high. Death rates are excessive, and suicides are common. I am no bleeding heart; we DO need prisons to lock up people who are a threat to society. But once we make them wards of the state, it is incumbent on all of us on the outside to insist that they are treated humanely. I have a young friend who is currently in prison here in Florida, and it opened by eyes. Once you see, you cannot look away. Get involved in your state to support responsible prison reform.

  • rachel rosen
    rachel rosen, 8:24pm November 16 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    The prior comments on Mr. Betts' article demonstrate an inability to breathe in deeply the profound impact of imprisonment that he tried to impress upon readers. At every turn, those in power had the leeway and the ability to choose a longer view of the weight of their decisions, to make more commensurate judgements and to recognize when they were choosing to "make statements" instead of providing more equitable and humane responses. We have yet to solve or even come close to giving a fair reckoning of how to handle juvenile offenders in this country - most especially those of color - and to weigh their offenses on a very different scale from that imposed on adults. The few who rise above their circumstances are to be given more than our respect and admiration; they are asking that those of us with the power to do more and to offer more, make a difference in changing lives.

The comment period has expired.