With the groundbreaking Felon [W. W. Norton & Company; October 15, 2019; $26.95 hardcover], celebrated poet Reginald Dwayne Betts tells the story of a man confronting post-incarceration life, struggling to reenter a society that doesn’t offer open arms. The reader follows Betts’s speaker through the pains of reentry, homelessness, underemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood, and finally redemptive love. As Betts makes clear, the trappings of life on the outside don’t make prison simply go away: “You come home & become a parade / of confessions that leave you drowning, / lost recounting the disappeared years” (51).
These stories are extraordinarily personal to Betts. As he wrote about last fall in a National Magazine Award-winning New York Times Magazine essay, “Could an Ex-Convict Become an Attorney? I Intended to Find Out,” Betts himself served nine years in adult prison, and came out the other end; he went back to school, started a family, and ultimately was accepted to and graduated from Yale Law School.
In this powerful collection, Betts swings between traditional and newfound forms, from the crown of sonnets that serves as the volume’s conclusion to revolutionary erasure poems. Redacting legal documents that challenged the continued incarceration of individuals simply because they did not have the money to make bail, Betts illustrates the injustice of a legal system that exploits and erases the poor and imprisoned from public consciousness. Traditionally, redaction expunges what is top secret; in FELON, Betts redacts what is superfluous, bringing into focus the profound failures of the criminal justice system and the inadequacy of the labels it generates. From “In Alabama:”
With astonishing skill, formal inventiveness, and rare insight, Betts brings us a book that is not only a must read for poetry lovers but a necessary contribution to the effort to understand what it means to be a “felon.”