“Who knows the blues of life in prison?”

Review of Shahid Reads His Own Palm

Book by Reginald Dwayne Betts

Review by Rose Booker

Who knows how to make wine out of government mandated juice while behind prison walls? Who knows the ancestors that didn’t go to Heaven?

“Who knows the blues of life in prison?”

Reginald Dwayne Betts does. Within his collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Betts guides us through the jail cells of America, exposing the harsh realities of what the American prison system does to its people locked behind bars and what that, in turn means, for America as a whole.

The first thing that struck me when I encountered Betts’s poetry was the raw emotion and honesty that he embeds into each poem. He can take an idea, such as solitude in “The Spanish Word for Solitude” and make it so tangible that even in a crowded café I felt as if I was alone.

Betts use of traditional form, moreover, complements the tone of his poems. This is especially true of his ghazals, where the form lends itself easily to the themes of lost, redemption, and revelation.

Finally, the music within this work is reminiscent of a psalm one moment and blues lyrics the next. For instance, “Song,” when read aloud, sounds as if it should be accompanied by a guitar or a saxophone.

Though the topic is heart wrenching, Betts presents it to us in a startlingly beautiful way.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in African American poetry, the American prison system, and poetry about redemption.

This review will appear on Writer Advice’s Hooked on Books.

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