His third collection, “Felon,” is out now. It pushes Betts’s story forward, in verse that is nimble in its diction, tone and focus. The poems are about returning to everyday American life, but in an estranged and often painful way, as if blood were rushing into a long-pinned limb.
In “When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving,” Betts writes, having already warned his sons about toy pistols:
I am a father driving
his Black sons to school & the death
of a Black boy rides shotgun & this
could be a funeral procession.
He writes about how the digital world keeps one’s past in the ever-present, his crimes never allowed to recede from view, “the online / account of our background a song of tragedy & regret.”
There’s a shadow book in “Felon,” and it is about alcohol. In this collection’s first poem, “Ghazal,” Betts writes:
My lover don’t believe in my sadness. She says whisky,
not time, is what left me wrecked after prison.
Other poems chart the “whisky flowing like gospel in my veins” and “My liver, awash in all but dregs / of a charred oak cask, / soaked in barley’s amber.” Sometimes but not often on this topic, there is almost a smile: “His mother told him. Airport bars always pour something nice. Distance makes bartenders understand suffering.”
In these poems, Betts carries his atrophied affection for America into forms of renewal. One poem is titled “On Voting for Barack Obama in a Nat Turner T-Shirt.”
In prison, Betts wrote in his memoir, letters were known as “kites,” because they flew up and out. The poems in “Felon” are kites of a different sort — bruised, sensitive, wounded missives, sent into hard wind, from a man in transition.