Shahid Reads His Own Palm by Reginald Dwayne Betts

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just read this book in one sitting. These are poems from the point of view of an incarcerated African American man, the monotony and despair of passing time, an elaboration of the culture of the “inside,” of survival, negotiation, regret, contrition. So there is a movement or arc of growth for the poetic speaker/persona of Shahid. The recurring ghazal form and its refrains are one indicator of this movement. This book confirms for me that indeed, it is possible for poetry to be masculine and even muscular, but not fall into the territory of machismo. The poems are honest and heavy without being heavy-handed and dramatic. The “I” of these poems I appreciate for his emotionally balanced tone, so as not to fetishize (glorify or denigrate) the incarcerated, or give us spectacle and sentimentality. The words which compose these lines are well-considered. The lines which compose these poems are clean, even lithe. They give space, or open themselves up to the reader without pandering or relying on cliche.

I realize that it becomes easy to enter any poem or body of poems about subject matter with which I am unfamiliar, when the poems open themselves, give us readers space to actually read them.

Above is my Goodreads review. I was just talking the other day about poetry collections that suffocate, as if I am trapped in a too-warm, unventilated room, and someone’s perfume is so strong it’s weighing down my lungs with its fragrance. But it’s too much, and if I were elsewhere, a ventilated or open air space, I could appreciate how lovely the fragrance is.

I bring this up now just to say that Dwayne’s collection is the opposite of this. Perhaps that’s ironic, given the potential suffocation of the jail cell which I think he conveys well throughout the collection. Still, there’s that infernally slow passage of time, which I think necessitates the precision of word choice, punctuation, and line break, and which I think are very well-handled.

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