Reginald Dwayne Betts

Five Poems from Shahid Reads His Own Palm

by Reginald Dwayne Betts

First Books (Part II), Summer 2011


Trigger and Wise wrap
hands hidden in socks
over a steel bar
and tug their weight.

Their upper bodies bear
painted flags: the miracle
of a prison tattoo gun,
ink stolen from smoke.

Cold air pushes hard
out their mouths.
They count off reps.
When they pull, the splash

of colors against their skin
splices the air. Each rep
could be a year in prison,
and after two hours,

Wise would still be
counting, the sound
of numbers snuffing
out everything else.





A bloodied white shirt, the body of a life
Sentence half hidden by the icebox. Everything
Darkens. A dozen or so wild eyes over
It. Steam from the shower over it. Rehabilitation
A lit Newport. This is what we talk about.
The body below the tier, the small gasps
Without a story, with no words for this story.
It is a man. He is someone’s son. A heartsore.
When he screams, our eyes open. Again.
A bid’s honesty: time staring at time.
Whatever smell is there lies low, won’t step
Up. A sock kicks out & the sigh that follows
Follows a stray cat’s yowl. It is always raining.
From the outside, everything in here inspires
Screams. If you stand on the top tier, the drop
Is from hell to hell. It is many falls. Someone
Pretends to know something worth knowing.
The body is fifteen feet past knowledge. People
Say he bodied himself. Stretched himself out.
If he rises, who will he turn to? Or turn into?




This old man, with his hair tied
by the cracked walls of cell B8, swore
some jail cells house a one-sided war,
and some men lean shoulders on past highs.

The cracked walls of cell B8 swore
broken men peeled back tattoos to cry
and some lean shoulders on past highs
after, clank! then yoke followed closed door.

Broken men peeled back tattoos to cry,
touched dirt as some wild man’s whore
after, clank! then yoke followed closed door.
Nobody whispered to guards that Black Tye

touched dirt as some wild man’s whore.
Name who is hurt by what they deny.
Nobody whispered to guards that Black Tye
now shivers for no reason, his body a sore.

Name who is hurt by what they deny
in court. Someone not warned before
now shivers for no reason, his body a sore.
Who knows escape is reason enough to lie

in court. Someone not warned becfore,
that some jails house a one-sided war.
Who knows escape is reason enough to lie:
this old man, with his hair tied.



A warehouse of iron
bunks: straight lines
& right angles

flush against the gutted
side of a mountain.
Inside, white paint

cracks into a thousand
pockmarks and listens
to the sound of a padlock

splitting a man’s scalp &
voices of guards in shot-
guns or the hand that tilts

a slender metal rod,
then scrapes it against
concrete & stretches night

longer than a sinner’s
prayer in Red Onion’s small
ruined cells where ten thousand

years of sentences
beckon over heads & hearts,
silent, a promise, like mistletoe.




for bodies
………….visiting from
outside, walking

into centers
………….of correction,
to get strip

searched, reminded
of how a word—

C/O, kite, ice
………….pick, death

into a room
………….of men
changes everything.

On the other
………….side, there
is a man &

a balled
…………. fist, quiet
while guards’

boots, a white

shirt, boxers—
………….as if there
exists something

anyone would
………….bring from
a prison cell

………….to his younger
brother; while
on the other

side, a bra strap
a metal detector

of a knife, or
a guard

of flesh: some-
………….thing soft
walking, eyes

open, ready
………….to still
even life-

………….men who
squat and cough

contempt, lift
………….bared feet, wait
for a table,

pray for
………….visitors, hands
always cold

& reaching,
………….empty, so
empty. Aware.


Alice James Books is a nonprofit cooperative press founded in 1973, and since 1994 affiliated with the University of Maine at Farmington. Reprinted by permission.

Reginald Dwayne Betts is the author of two books of poems, Bastards of the Reagan Era (Four Way Books, 2015), and Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010) and a memoir A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin, 2009). He is the winner of a Radcliffe Fellowship, an NAACP Image Award, a Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, a Cave Canem Fellowship, and a Ruth Lilley and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship. In 2012, Betts was appointed by President Barak Obama to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention. He is currently enrolled in the PhD program at Yale Law School. To read more by this author: Reginald Dwayne Betts: Wartime Issue