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a Triptych
Poems by Reginald Dwayne Betts | Illustrations by Chelsea Charles
Audio read by the author
Telling a story about innocence, won’t conjure
acquittal. & after interrogation & handcuffs
& the promises of cops blessed with an arrest
before the first church service ended, I’d become
my father. The tape recorder sparrowed
my song back to me, but guilt lacks a melody.
Listen, who hasn’t waited for something
to happen? I know people died waiting. I know
hurt is a wandering song. I was lost in my fear.
Strange how violence does that, makes the gun
vulnerable. I could not wait, & had no idea
what I was becoming. Later, in a letter, my
victim tells me: I was robbed there; the food was great
& drinks delicious, but I was robbed there. I would
consider going back. He said it as if I didn’t know.
Why would he return to a memory like that?
As if there is a kind of bliss that rides shotgun
with the awfulness of a handgun & a dark night.
There is a Tupac song that begins with a life
sentence; imagine, I scribbled my name
on the confession as if autographing a book.
Tell your mother that. Say the gun was a kiss
against the sleeping man’s forehead,
say that you might have been his lover & that,
on a different night, he might have moaned.
Hardware Store
O prison, after you owned my memories,
few secrets held; the clerk, he believes I
confess by walking into this hardware store.
No pistol palmed. Still, if a man had read
my fingerprints they would sing of guilt.
For me, some say, that my inheritance
is dust. A tattered shirt, the jeans with holes
I wear too often. A man throwing balled
up scraps in a dumpster has more hope.
In this life, everything is small enough
to vanish. Even lies that leave my throat:
a felon, convict, inmate —me? Of course,
I’m not. But nothing can be denied, forever.
Especially the pistol, pressed against
a temple. Boxes checked became a north
star, fillip, catalyst to ruin, death:
The gift of Clinton’s thirst, that time when his
ambition felled parole and augured this:
a kid that stalks, ashamed. What name for this
thing we’ve become? For stigma, close as kin?
In the night, —night asleep, her eyes, woman,
my woman, I name her as if she is mine,
as if these hours that pass for the night belong to us;

my nights belong to the memories I can’t shake; my night
& this woman, my woman she tells me how it wasn’t
supposed to be like this. This insight another hail mary,

another haymaker. We live somewhere between almost there
& not enough. Almost there. Her dreams & all that she lost
for me is a kind of accounting. My woman, not my woman,

not this night, not these nights: the mine is less mine more
hurt. More hover than anything else. Shadowcloud.
Or as she says it, you stalked me until I submitted. Love

shapes itself to my hands wrapped round her throat. Have you
loved like that? I’ll call your PO is the thing she says,
on this night with the men I robbed still lingering, a threat

to the freedom I imagined she gave me when we became
cliche: naked, tangled. This is always about me. My truth & failure,
downfall or something. I’ve scrambled to get here, to admit

how violence called to me like my woman moans when she
thought all this was the promise of more than a funeral.
When I grabbed her like that the first time, her legs held me

tight. My woman thinking the cells in my past can make
her control this: all the ways I starve. She threatens
to call my history back as a constraint on madness.

She stared at me, Z —, once, & said she saw her brothers
doing life in my eyes. In this night, when we talk to each other,
it is in shouts. The quilt of solitary cells I’ve known confess

that my woman has never been my woman. How ownership
& want made me split that bastard’s head into a scream
is what I’ll never admit to her. What she

tells me: prison killed you my love, killed you so dead
that you’re not here now, you’re never here, you’re always.
Her eyes closed at night and I awaken and swear she

stares at me, she is saying that brown liquor owns me, saying
that the cells own me & that there is no room for her, unless
she calls the police, the state, calls upon her pistol, & sets me free.
Tap here to listen to the poet read these poems.
Mother 1:28
Hardware Store 1:18
Night 2:25