Scoundrel Time

Poems By Reginald Dwayne Betts


At two a.m., without enough spirits
Spilling into my liver to know enough
To call my tongue to silence, Miles learned
Of the 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 and six and he leaping as if
Every lay-up erases something. That’s how
I’d saw it, my screaming-coaching-sweating
Presence recompense for the pen; my father
Has never seen me play ball is part of this.
My son has seen me drink whisky in the morning
Is the other part. Tell me we aren’t running
Towards failure is what I want to ask my kid,
But it is two in the a.m. and despite him seeming
More lucid than me, I know it’s the cartoons reflecting
Back from his eyes, not a sense of the world. 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 dream,
Breathing breath into this kid who crawls into
My arms, wanting, more than stories of my past,
The sleep that he has fought against while I
Held court at a bar with men who celebrated
The fact that when the drinking was done, I’d
Return to the home where my sons waited.


Mural for the Heart

Tonight is not for my woman, who would touch me
before we speak; not when the accumulation
of our yesterdays hang like the last dusk before us –
each memory another haunting thing. Not when buried
somewhere behind us is all that the past, that we,
will not let die, history our prophecy & albatross, the myth
we measure the marrow. Every story worth telling
has a thousand beginnings. Let me tell you this one:
There was this one night on a road trip. She, my wife, was not
there. Already rehearsing my absence, practicing the dance
of raising boys alone. Distance our disaster. & so, if I say
the trouble began when the car stalled, I would be lying. But
the car did stall, every light inside flashed as if
the emergency was something breaking inside of she & I,
& not just an empty tank. Everyone wants a chance
to be a hero, & so, when I climbed out the truck’s front seat,
already I had measured the distance from the truck to the station.
A thousand yards. I once lifted my woman & carried her
on my back from where we stood to the bed that I would turn
into what remains when lies become shrapnel. Have you seen
a man push his body against a thing as if love alone
would move it? That night there were three of us riding. My
woman was not there. Two of us climbed out, rolled up sleeves,
began pushing. Muscles strained against the darkness, the heft
of the truck lurching, at best. When the scrawny kid joined,
his body lost inside his coat, we thought ourselves blessed.
A tampon run, he said, explaining why he was there, on this
street so late at night, his girlfriend on the side of the road
& my woman five hundred miles away, as if to say
part of love is pretending to be a hero for strangers. The truck
barely moved, the way love barely moves, when weighed
down by memories. Before long there were four of us pushing,
the thousand yards still a thousand yards. & then
we stopped, which is to say we realized: the thing you want
can break you. We all knew that in time our legs would shake,
that our bodies would betray us & admit that the heart,
though not useless, lacks the thing needed for some miracles.
& yet, against this truth, I keep praying my woman,
who is no more mine than any woman can belong to a man,
but is her own constellation of music & desire, as is anyone,
will forgive history, knowing a thousand angels stand beside,
exhausted, too, though certain the heft of their wings will bring
a gale fierce enough to lift this hurt that we refuse to name.


For A Bail Denied
after Avi

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 the ruins
of what happened after.

The kid, & we should call him kid,
call him a fucking child, his face
smooth & lacking history of razor,

without promise of a mustache,
he walked into court a ghost &
let’s just call it a cauldron, admit

his nappy head made him blacker
than whatever pistol he held,
whatever casket 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)
if all the prosecutor said of black boys
was that they kill? The child beside

his mother & his mother beside me &
I am no one’s father, just a public
defender, fiddle-footed here, where

the state turns men, women, children
into numbers, searching for a phoenix’s
embers, for angels born in the shadows

of this breaking. This boy beside me’s
wings withering, fool on the brink of life
& broken & it’s all possible, because

one day or night or morning this woman
& a man the boy does not call daddy
fucked in what would be called passion

anywhere else; anywhere else called love.
& the judge spoke & the kid kept confessing:
I did it. I mean, I did it. I mean — Jesus.

& everyone in the room wanted a flask.
The boy’s mother said: This is not
justice. You will not throw my son into

that fucking ocean. She meant prison.
& we was too powerless to stop it.
& we was too tired to be beautiful.


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