August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Reginald Dwayne Betts is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Betts’s poetry collection Felon (2019).

* * *

Essay on Reentry
for Nicholas Dawidoff

Of prison, no one tells you the time
will steal your memories—until there’s
nothing left but strip searches & the hole

& fights & hidden shanks & the spades games.

You come home & become a parade
of confessions that leave you drowning,
lost recounting the disappeared years.

You say fuck this world where background checks,
like your fingerprints, announce the crime.

Where so much of who you are betrays
guilt older than you: your pops, uncles,
a brother, two cousins, & enough
childhood friends for a game of throwback—

all learned absurdity from shackles.
But we wear the mask that grins and lies.
Why pretend these words don’t seize our breath?
Prisoner, inmate, felon, convict.

Nothing can be denied. Not the gun
that delivered you to that place where
you witnessed the images that won’t
let you go: Catfish learning to subtract,
his eyes a heroin-slurred mess;
Blue-Black doing backflips in state boots;
the D.C. kid that killed his cellmate.

Jesus. Barely older than you, he
had on one of the white undershirts
made by other men in prison, boxers, socks
that slouched, shackles gripping his shins.
Damn near naked. Life waiting.

Outside your cell, you could see them wheel
the dead man down the way. The pistol

you pressed against a stranger’s temple
gave you that early morning. & now,
boxes checked have become your North Star,
fillip, catalyst to despair. Death
by prison stretch. Tell me. What name for
this thing that haunts, this thing we become.


If I told her how often I thought
Of prison she would walk out
Of the door that’s led just as much
To madness as any home we
Desired, she would walk out & never
Return; my employers would call
Me a liar & fire me. My dreams are
Not all nightmares, but this history
Has turned my mind’s landscape into
A gadroon. I do not sing. Have lied
For so many months now that truth
Harbingers lost. Sleeping beside her
When a memory is holding me tight
As she did before the lies turned
Everything into a battle, I once
Gasped & lurched & tried to
Strangle the pillow she’d placed
Beneath my head. Imagining me
Explaining that to her, while still
Shivering like a panicked & broken
Man. I stopped believing in G-d
Long before then, but that night,
When outside there was no light
But darkness, I swore something
Of what inevitable is touched me.
My children slept with their light on.
I walked to their still-lit room. My
Son was asleep & his brother draped
Over his body as if he were the
Pillow. The way he loved his brother
Was everything my time in a cell denied
Me. If I told my woman that, she
Would want to know if I thought
I deserved all that lost. Her mother
Wonders why I won’t let it go & hold
On to the happiness in this life we
Have. But how do I explain that outside
On nights like this, is where I first
Learned just how violent I might be?
That, I think of prison because in all
These years I still can’t pronounce
The name of my victim.

* * *

by Reginald Dwayne Betts
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019
Where to buy: RJ Julia | Bookshop | Barnes & Noble

More Stories