Following his powerful debut, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, Betts releases his premiere poetry collection. In this Beatrice Hawley Award-winning book, he shares the unabashed story of life in prison: "A mandatory minimum that leaves/ years swollen into the thirty seconds/ it took to kill & reasons are worthless once/ cuffs close wrists." The young protagonist's poverty-stricken, violent upbringing seems to have destined him for incarceration but does not prepare him for the fear, loneliness, and shame that accompany jail: "This knife-slim/ boy beneath me, bought with my last/ pack of blows; my pencil thin ice/ pick hinting silver in my clenched fist." Betts's poetry is both beautiful and painful. VERDICT Combining the gritty realism of Donald Goines's books with the simple yet lyrical eloquence of Nikki Giovanni's poetry, this collection defies convention by appealing to lovers of urban fiction and contemporary poetry.--Ashanti White, Fairbanks, AK[Page 87]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Betts's debut begins and ends with a ghazal. The strictness of this traditional Arabic form (a favorite of the late poet Agha Shahid Ali, to whom the title pays homage) is fitting--both to Betts's restrained though fierce talent, and to his autobiographical subject matter, introduced in the opening lines as "the blues of life in prison." Confinement and restlessness, understanding and disbelief cycle through these clear, smart, brave, and often painful poems. The recurring motif of a hand on a gun surfaces throughout like a hallucination or a premonition, an image at once terribly real and frighteningly unreal. Sometimes it does the work of blunt narrative: "one night// a trigger tucked under/ my index like a/ spliff." Elsewhere it veers into the surreal: "everyday the small muscles in my finger threaten to pull/ a trigger, slight and curved like my woman's eyelashes." The unlikely word "mistletoe," which appears more than once, exemplifies Betts's talent for surprising and emotionally resonant juxtapositions; he describes "small/ ruined cells where ten thousand// years of sentences/ beckon over heads & hearts,/ silent, a promise, like mistletoe." Finally, it is not the omnipotence of silence--whether of hope or fear--but the power of writing that is this book's true subject: "Some men never pray at night in prison.// Blame me. Write another poem, a sad psalm./ Shahid, sing for the Gods, right in prison." (May)[Page 45]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.