A Chapbook by Tara Betts
Reviewed by C. J. Laity
Click Here for Tara's reply to this review.
I always think it's a shame when a talented poet moves away from Chicago. Thax Douglas' ambiguous plan to run away to New York was probably the highest profile poetic relocation in the history of the Chicago Poetry Scene, even though at the time of this writing he's still in the city and planning to perform for Around the Coyote. Luis Rodriguez, Tim Brown, Lisa Hemminger, Frank Varela, Larry Winfield: the list of Chicago poets no longer living in Chicago goes on and on. Most of them will always be "Chicago poets" no matter where they live. This is true for current Bronx resident Tara Betts, author of the 2002 self-published chapbook, Switch.
It's a delight to see Tara Betts mingle urban free style with some traditional forms in her book. A good example of this is the poem "Shedding Seasons," which is a haibun, a mixture of prose and haiku (or, to some, a journey of a human living in an urban setting). Betts strays from the haibun form only slightly to express some of her own ideas about her observations. Also, in the pantoum in this book, Betts uses the line "Wit your sexy ass, the penultimate phrase." This mixture of homegirl attitude and higher education is at times fun to read. However, Betts' poetry is not always intended to be amusing, as Betts' rhyming ode about the rope used in a lynching illustrates. Most of the work in this book is hard-hitting, Chicago-style poetry, that dares to be honest and is unafraid to raise eyebrows.
Nevertheless, Betts enjoys playing with the sound of her language, making her work multi-layered. On one hand you have the meaning of her words; on the other, the meaning of the sounds. At times she does this by taking advantage of hard or soft syllables. Take, for example, how she uses the letter S repeatedly in the following stanza in order to mimic the sound of a harmonica:
Sonorous back roads sketched out
sighs of Southern sweat
stretched as long as each step
trying to catch up with his taste of
notes found in the savoring of
(from "Sugar Blue, Harmonica Man")
In another poem, the repetition comes in the form of harder syllables, which mimic the sound of a thrashing:
crushed zirconium gloss & glory
glides across her lips . . .
half-tapes her barely breathing body with bruises
(both from the title poem "Switch")
Besides the beauty of the language, Switch is also rich with narrative devices, such as strong characters. Many of these characters, but not all of them, are members of Betts' family. In Switch, Tara Betts gets very personal, sharing with her reader some history behind her family. In one poem she tells of the mystery behind "the myth" of her grandfather's first wife. In another she shares some poetic details about what I gathered to be the death of her grandfather from a stroke ("His elbows hardened into 30-odd / Years of gray/black barnacles"), as well as the death of her father from possibly a heroin overdose. In yet another poem she tells the story of a young girl's tragic death by a drunk driver. From the baby brother wearing a knit cap "with the curvy, capital W in yellow on his forehead", to the screeching troubled student who gets into a screaming match with her teacher, the characters in this book are fleshed out and alive, heightening the imagery in the overall storytelling. The imagery is taken up another notch when Betts adds unexpected comparisons to the descriptions of her characters:
Big Brother & Baby Brother
Become black silk and amber velvet
Under weight of woman smile
(from "Two Brothers on 35th Street")
. . . Bobby "Blue" Bland hacking choruses
that blocked his throat then flew
rhythmic phlegm onto blacktop and concrete.
(from "Granpa and Bobby "Blue" Bland)
Betts' enchanting devices of imagery transform her words into a strong sense of place, when her talent for keen observation generates intimate details:
Big metal spoon with rust spot
in the middle thuds against beige plastic
(from "Making Kool-Aid")
The next morning
a thin trail of cinnamon
lined the cold bathwater.
(from "Blessed Water")
And then there are moments in Betts' writing, when an abbreviated line creates such a startling image that it cannot be explained except by the momentum of her voice, such as in the one line "Crouched over legal pads" (from the poem "Yellow") which, because it follows a repetition of yellow-colored images, comes to life in the mind's eye with an image of the person who is crouching, even though no reference is given to who this person might be. This is a good example of the miracles good editing can pull off. At these moments the sense of place envelopes the reader's imagination.
There are also plenty of references to Chicago in this work:
Both of them stand in Comiskey Park's shadow
Big Brother bounces to keep warm
And a young girl could smell
Weekends of hard kisses
(from "Two Brothers on 35th Street")
Many of these Chicago references surface during poems about Tara Betts' work teaching or running workshops in the Cook County Jail or in various detention centers.
So far I've discussed Tara Bett's wonderful literary tricks and her keen knack for storytelling. But there is another level to this book, and that is the theme of race relations. It is a conscious choice Betts has made in her life to speak of the African American experience, though sometimes I feel like I only get half the story from her. Betts is at her best when she sings with positivity and hope:
My pulse slows down to death inside
because I want them to follow me
out these doors, these gates
past the ducks
so they can sleep in beds with sheets they chose,
(from "Women Writer's Workshop")
However, Betts is at her worst when she throws around the word "white" the same way a racist would casually speak a racial slur:
Where, where, where
did some white boy get
the name for them blues?
(from "Rock'n'Roll be a Black Woman")
Since racial issues are brought up in this book, and since I think Betts' work is otherwise very universal, I believe it is appropriate to discuss this during this review. My personal philosophy regarding poetry that deals with race is: when referring to a race of people, if, by replacing that race with a second race (such as replacing "white boy" with "black boy"), the reference becomes offensive to the second race, then the original reference is offensive as well. Personally, I don't think any of my Irish / Slavic heritage makes me a relative to Elvis, nor do I hold Elvis in any high esteem, nor do I feel responsible for the sins of every yankee and cracker from this country's history. Tara Betts' poetry is more inspirational when she is celebrating her own heritage, rather than generalizing the heritage of many different light skinned peoples from complex and diverse ethnic groups into that one big word "white". An example of a more inspirational celebration of heritage comes from the same poem:
Rock'n'Roll be a Black Woman
eminent as comet tail juice announcing
an ebony-tinged star's exit.
True, there are some white people who ignorantly believe that a black man's sperm somehow magically taints the womb of a white woman, causing her future children to be tainted as well, just as there are some black people who believe that a black man's sperm inside of a white woman somehow magically can create a pure black child, instead of one mixed with the genes of both parents. Luckily, we have something called biology to dispute telegony, and most people are intelligent enough to know that just because someone recognizes a mixture of heritages, that doesn't mean they are calling anyone "yellow". These are issues clearly brought up in this book, during some of the more controversial and disturbing poems.
But there is nothing wrong with poetry that is disturbing. At least it makes one think. And the poetry in Switch certainly does that.
Tara Betts is one of the most talented writers Chicago has helped produce. I enjoyed reading Switch. Reading it brought back memories of the golden age of the poetry scene, when nobody was afraid to be honest, and the poetry was hardcore and unabashed.
For more information about the author, check out TaraBetts.net.
Copies of Switch can be obtained from the author by contacting her through the above website. I also have heard through the grapevine that Tara Betts will be making an appearance on Thursday, Sept 7, at The Poetry Center's Lip Series at The Spot, 4437 N. Broadway, 8 PM, $5.
Go back to the other Nine Lives
Tara Betts Replies To The Review
thank you for taking the time to write about my second chapbook SWITCH, the positive comments on the book and mentioning my recent reading at the LIP series.
I am also writing because there were some errors in the article, and I thought that I should point them out. Currently I live in Brooklyn in the Bed-Stuy community. I published the chapbook SWITCH in 2003. The poem "Stories Told" refers to my grandmother suffering from a stroke. The poem clearly states that my grandfather stood at the bar for more than 20 years, which led to dark calluses forming around his elbows. These are the barnacles that you mentioned. My grandfather is still alive, and my grandmother passed away a little more than a year ago. I have taught at Cook County Jail and Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, but only in those places. I have been a staunch supporter of young people trapped in the prison industrial complex, but I have not done work in many other detention centers. I usually work with young people after they have left in various settings.
Other than this, I felt like I should explain some of these terms for people who may read my views on race relations with a different critical understanding. I used "white boy" as a term in one line of "Rock'n'Roll be a Black Woman." Although I agree with you that Elvis Presley and many others have had their share of co-opting the work of African American musicians, I specifically said "white boy" because "Rock'n'Roll" was a sexual term given to this particular genre derived from the blues by non-black people (very much like the word "jazz") and sexuality, much like American popular culture, has often been another way that black people in America have been exploited for capital gain. For these reasons and after much deliberation over the years, I have decided to keep that phrasing in the poem. People (often people of color) can and still do say light-skinned people are "yellow," "high yellow," "red" or "redbone." This is why the poem "Yellow" is relevant. Also, "Telegony" is a term that I culled from a documentary on white supremacists called "Blood in the Face." I wrote a poem defining this term because this term, just like the term "miscegenation," has claimed that there is no place for a person like me, or my white mother, for that matter. I felt that these points deserved clarification because there has clearly been confusion on the part of others (not me) as to how I see myself. I am a Black-identified woman of interracial descent. I grew up with my Black relatives and my white mother in a Black neighborhood. I went to Catholic school with white students until my parents' divorce. Then I attended predominantly Black public schools until college where I organized, shared living space and advocated for and with other black students. I think these points need to be addressed so that people outside of Chicago and within know exactly where I stand.
Again thanks for comments, time and space devoted to my work.
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Note: Here is a review of Tara Betts' chapbook, Switch.