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Shahid Reads His Own Palm

Shahid Reads His Own Palm

by Reginald Dwayne Betts

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Gripping and terrifying, eloquent and heartwrenching, this debut collection delves into hellish territory: prison life. Soulful poems somberly capture time-bending experiences and the survivalist mentality needed to live a contradiction, confronting both daily torment and one's illogical fear of freedom.


Gripping and terrifying, eloquent and heartwrenching, this debut collection delves into hellish territory: prison life. Soulful poems somberly capture time-bending experiences and the survivalist mentality needed to live a contradiction, confronting both daily torment and one's illogical fear of freedom.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Betts's debut begins and ends with a ghazal. The strictness of this traditional Arabic form (a favorite of the late poet Agha Shahid Ali, to whom the title pays homage) is fitting—both to Betts's restrained though fierce talent, and to his autobiographical subject matter, introduced in the opening lines as “the blues of life in prison.” Confinement and restlessness, understanding and disbelief cycle through these clear, smart, brave, and often painful poems. The recurring motif of a hand on a gun surfaces throughout like a hallucination or a premonition, an image at once terribly real and frighteningly unreal. Sometimes it does the work of blunt narrative: “one night// a trigger tucked under/ my index like a/ spliff.” Elsewhere it veers into the surreal: “everyday the small muscles in my finger threaten to pull/ a trigger, slight and curved like my woman's eyelashes.” The unlikely word “mistletoe,” which appears more than once, exemplifies Betts's talent for surprising and emotionally resonant juxtapositions; he describes “small/ ruined cells where ten thousand// years of sentences/ beckon over heads & hearts,/ silent, a promise, like mistletoe.” Finally, it is not the omnipotence of silence—whether of hope or fear—but the power of writing that is this book's true subject: “Some men never pray at night in prison.// Blame me. Write another poem, a sad psalm./ Shahid, sing for the Gods, right in prison.” (May)
From the Publisher
"Inside silence there is a sliver of light that is the seed of the music of these poems, the origin of a melodic range we seldom see in a poet's first collection. These melodies move in a harmonic range affirming human struggle with an extraordinary elegance. This collection of song is definite evidence of the gift."—Afaa Michael Weaver

"Betts doesn't just have a powerful story to tell. He is a true poet who can write a ghazal that sings, howls, rhymes, and resonates in memory years after it was first read."—Jericho Brown, On the Seawall

"...these poems in turn sear and moan, are impossibly restless and at times starkly silent."— American Poet

"There's an authority in Betts's voice that carries us, and his voice is governed by boldness and consonance."— Devil's Lake

“...restrained though fierce talent…surprising and emotionally resonant…”— Publishers Weekly

“American prisons are the new slave ships for Betts. The image of a black man in chains and cuffs is an image that for many is much to contemplate. Here in this disturbing book of poetry Shahid Reads His Own Palm , Reginal Dwayne Betts takes us back into the whole Afro-American Diaspora. A latter day Paul D, in 'yesterdays yoked'—the lid is rusted solid on the tragedy that is the Black man and women's experience in the new world." —Stride Magazine

“This book is disturbing. Technically it is solid and very American in shape. Its themes are clear, to the point, and very accurate. Alienation and deconstruction of self fill almost every line.”— New Pages

“...Betts allows his readers to become engulfed in the minds and experiences of different men that have been imprisoned and their perceptions of judgments imposed upon them from the outside world. The poems, in often graphic detail, explain the chilling truths of prison lives weighed by lost dreams and regret.”— AFRO

"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."—Barbara Jane Reyes

“Dwayne Betts’ poems from the first moment I encountered them read like revelation. This poet has entered the fire and walked out with actual light inside him. These poems clear, muscular, musical are what the light says. I’ve waited for this book for years!”—Marie Howe

“These fierce and skillful poems are for our time and place the cry of Blake’s London and of his Auguries of Innocence: A dog starv’d at his master’s gate/ Predicts the ruin of the state. Here is a brother at his brother’s gate. Shahid. A witness. Here, as C.D. Wright has said, is our One Big Self.”—Jean Valentine

Library Journal
Following his powerful debut, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, Betts releases his premiere poetry collection. In this Beatrice Hawley Award-winning book, he shares the unabashed story of life in prison: "A mandatory minimum that leaves/ years swollen into the thirty seconds/ it took to kill & reasons are worthless once/ cuffs close wrists." The young protagonist's poverty-stricken, violent upbringing seems to have destined him for incarceration but does not prepare him for the fear, loneliness, and shame that accompany jail: "This knife-slim/ boy beneath me, bought with my last/ pack of blows; my pencil thin ice/ pick hinting silver in my clenched fist." Betts's poetry is both beautiful and painful. VERDICT Combining the gritty realism of Donald Goines's books with the simple yet lyrical eloquence of Nikki Giovanni's poetry, this collection defies convention by appealing to lovers of urban fiction and contemporary poetry.—Ashanti White, Fairbanks, AK

Product Details

Alice James Books
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

From "Tell this to the people you love":

or think about—the young boy,
whose name you won't say,
his name written in dirt by
the fence closest the weight
pit, 'cause
prison cells drive men to practice
history, writing names—their own,
someone else's—into
myth—on walls, benches, even
dirt . . .

Meet the Author

Reginald Dwayne Betts received the Holden Fellowship from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. A Cave Canem fellow, Breadloaf Writer's Conference scholarship recipient, and graduate of Prince George's Community College and the University of Maryland, his poetry has appeared in such journals as Ploughshares and Poet Lore . His memoir A Question of Freedom has just been published by Avery Books/Penguin.

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