Elephants in the Fall
for Micah and Miles
I. Micah Michael Zamir Betts
November's flame in that year of hard sunsets,
winter's plangency & days when
my insomnia courted cognac.
All our thoughts were beginnings,
& you became the roundness
that grew to a moon
above your mother's hips.
We waited without a name
for your wonder
& three days after your birth
twice named you after the uncle
you'll never meet. The names
questions: Micah, who resembles God.
Michael, who reminds us of who has gone too soon.
& we pronounced Micah as we wanted: Mekhi,
because like the kid from Clockers,
we scrape fists and cuffs for the dreams of you.
& now, when on most days your body
is all blur & bustle —
Our song is how right we got it,
when the light from that moon spilled
out of your mother's belly, I tell
you, you were smiling then,
as if you knew you were the first song
that found me worthy.
II. Miles Thelonious Betts
Named after the trumpet,
after the sound that comes from all
the hurt & want that leads a man
to turn his back to the world. We named
you after Monk, too,
because sometimes you have to
stack legends in a single body
already big enough for the sound of them
& we imagined that you gave us
a different tune,
a way to bang keys into each
other until our lives
filled with unexpected music.
I hear you call me daddy
in this land where my father's
name is sometimes another word
for grave, & I almost pause. It's the song
that wants to unravel me.
More crow than
swan, I've always been so much cage
& caged in. & all that changes when we square
the M. This old riff on a shotgun
marriage calls us back:
your mother's hand in mine & the shotgun is
what we aim at the world that threatens,
& I scoop you in my arms,
& you are calling us. Again.
Elegy With a City in It
Many gone to grave: men awed
by blood, lost in the black
of all that is awful:
think crack and aluminum. Odd
what time steals,
or steals time: black robes, awful
nights when men offed in streets awed
us. Dead bodies sold news. What's real?
Murder cap & all that. The Post a
jackleg reel of it all: black death, awe.
Chocolate city awash in red:
500 bodies lost to morgues. Red
the gift of Glocks, red
sometimes a dark and awful
omen the best couldn't read.
Death reinvented when red
was the curse of men born black
and lost in a drama Reagan read
as war: crack vials and cash and red
in our eyes and we not still
with a pocket full of stones. Steel
in hands, and a god-awful
law aimed at stilling the red.
But ambition burns, makes men red
with a greed so damn real,
fattened by all that others read
in the Post about how real
it was in them streets. This reel
another Scarface, a flick that
has awed fools looking for something real
in the suicide of wakes, as if the real
is only what drowns: think Black,
Mario, Charles, they all blackened
the inside of a coffin, all real
flesh in that final moment, still
& nothing more, still
as men plotting on stealing
time from death, reeled
in from the street like dead fish. Steel
assured mutual destruction; steel
should have kept us safe. I read
the obits, those maps of death, still
as caskets holding men, still
as the bullet. Who is awed
by trouble? This awful
gristle & flesh torn by steel
turned into thunder. Ask Black,
dead in night's ruins. Bring out the black
ties the papers say. The black
hole is now the block. Steel
swallows men, spits them out black
eyed, spits them out blackballed.
Reagan's curse might be real,
might be what has niggas blackmailing
themselves, dancing in blackface.
Chocolate city red
under the scrutiny. Asphalt red.
When we heard about Black,
silence stole our voices, awful
silence, like death seemed odd,
& still when I sing this awful
tale, there is more than a dead black
man in the center, there is a city still
as all the bodies that make '86 real,
a city still, & awful, still & bloodied.
A Toothless Crackhead Was the Mascot
[An Outline for a Film]
A woman leans against a man who leans
against a brick wall watching cars stop like dead men
on this one-way street. Some dude glares
like O-Dog from Menace, his face towards some street
we'll never remember where a man some man
we'll never remember smokes white rocks from
an aluminum can that smells of death.
This begins the concept of tragedy:
infinity the image of smoke running
from a soda can split & crumpled into a makeshift pipe.
There will be music because there is always music
& in this film it will be modern: a man rapping 'bout bricks
& all his homies in the pen & pouring out a little liquor....
Call it the story of a man pulled under by
a dollar's gravity.
Flash to the film within a film: reality TV, the young mother
of our star starring in another sad reality show calls
the Underground Railroad real, as in a train
that black people hopped on with one-way tickets.
At some point a photo of Malcolm &
his peering eyes staring out that window will flash in
the background as the young boys use a Gemstar razor to cut
up product. You be a fool to think
this ain't revolution.
We need a name: but we can't call this Menace
to the Hood or Boys in Society or no shit like that,
names already taken & used to make black men
rich peddling the prophecy of the doomed Negro
& broken Negress: Timberlands & Glocks & don't shoot
my baby cause that football contract ...
& yes, there must be guns here, cause ain't nothing more
Shakespearean than death in the summer.
You see, a black boy says sorbet
justifies one thing — a black boy says get
the fuck out the car justifies another.
At the End of Life, A Secret
Everything measured. A man twists
a tuft of your hair out for no reason
other than you are naked, before him,
& he is bored with nakedness. Moments
ago, he was weighing your gallbladder
& then he was staring at the empty space
where your lungs were. Even dead, we still
insist you are an organ donor, as if something
other than taxes outlasts death. Your feet
are regular feet. Two of them, & there is no
mark to suggest you were an expert mathematician,
nothing that suggests that a woman loved
you when you died. From the time your body
was carted before him to the time your
dead body is being sent to the coffin,
every pound is accounted for, except 22 grams.
The man is a praying man & has figured what
it means. He says this is the soul, finally, after
the breath has gone. The soul: less than
$4,000 worth of crack — 22
grams — all that moves you
through this world.
I. Countdown to Armageddon
The Farm, this collection of dying men,
Is home for just another night. And now,
October's rust. Snow piles upon the dead.
Snow flattens the scarlet leaves of maple trees.
And crickets rule the black of night with song,
Or if you're like me you call it the noise
That wakes you from what troubles sleep. The guard
And his flashlight against steel bars. His voice
As low and tired as mine; authority
A gavel drop gave him makes me listen,
And I strip before this man who knows me by
A number, and I'm lost in shouts, and when
The chain-link belt and buckle wrap my waist
These nails begin to scrape the skin off my palms.
My eyes still sleep, the cuffs the bastard I
Pretend don't exist put on my flesh bite
And Peanut, from three cages down, he stare
Transfixed like some mad bullfrog into this
Sally port's opaque. I almost say:
"Shook one's afraid of sleep," but think his bid
Enough to let the dogs of his anger
Loose on the world, after these nights in a cell
Become nothing but more nights in a cell.
Outside the hawk reminds my bones of blocks
That straightjacket me in these cuffs, how want
For things had me on corners running wild
With bammas named Ray-ray, and Qwan, Dave: all
Of us like dogs in them streets, we were afraid
Is what I'm saying, all cliché and desire,
All ignorant of what madness did birth
The Swann Rds., Lancasters, and Oxford Knolls,
That damn near ruined me.
I stand and stare,
Body trapped in this backcountry that bleeds
Men like leeches, body a stone that's kicked
From cell to godforsaken cell, each van
Ahead a sign, somewhere a light will flash,
And wake a man before he understands
His world has gone mad, every bus a ride
Another mile away from whatever
Circle of streets he claimed he owned. I have
Braved, for want of wild beasts, steel cages. Carved
my name on bunks and rafters. I fought Grown
men near double my age for a rep and now This
guard, he yanks against the chain so hard
I buck, then buckle, a man against a leash.
May God have mercy on all sleeping things!
This dark that fails to hide my trembling hands,
And all the cracked crowns with closed eyes in what
Passes for dreaming here. I'm boxed in,
Been here so long I sweat the funk of cells.
My mother wouldn't understand, not these
Half steps I take toward my bus escort
To hell. I graduated high school numb,
Already caged with a dead man rattling 'bout
My head, and get how these back roads will take
This body and, yes, bury it where I'm
Nobody, another man under barbed
Wire, count times, shakedowns, fistfights, shotguns, knives.
And when we walk into the cold air, I'm on
The corner, with darkness compassing my days.
All the currency I ever had was time,
Redundant gesture that it is. A waste,
That want for more. A waste, we half dozen,
Half shuffling, scuffed and nicked, on another
Schooner bound for some Sing Sing, for some
Angola, Folsom, Attica. They say Armageddon
been in effect. But let
Me tell you how this business began.
II. Bring the Noise
There is a limit to what facts can do.
A lefty with handles, a mean J, and white Stones
weighing down his pockets with hurt, Jackson,
at twelve, was a caution. Troubled, man. Born on
the wrong side of a twenty sac
His gift for the orange globe enough to keep
Those blooming tufts of yak smoke from his lungs
But not from clinging to skin, to clothes, to hair,
In places of business we called the block,
If we did any naming at all, because
Back then it was just outside, just around
The way, just where your kinfolks slept: just home.
I ran with him because of things
He knew: that recipe of death called crack,
The reasons why it would keep blooming black,
Which is all a way to say we were half-mad
With history, with thoughts of things we'd do,
Always half lost in a world where pistols caved
In dreams and embalming fluid ruined
A nigga's promise quicker than a bid.
You ask me why we figured the block would save
Us? We were in a cloud of rhetoric
And ganja smoke. The eighties a black cauldron
That christened Gator, Pookie, and how many
Others crackhead, fiend, crack baby, more?
Too black, too strong. We was lost in sounds:
The agitprop of Public Enemy,
The gunshots, sound of cocaine cooking, chrome
Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments ripped off Cars
and repurposed as pendants for chains.
We heard it all, and reveled in the worst.
In short: it takes a nation of millions and
All that. We thought revolutionary,
Sold crack and argued smoking the pipe was blues
For Reagan's babies. Scared of tomorrow,
We sculpted our identities from today.
III. Don't Believe the Hype
This voyage leaves our hero dead said Black.
He wasn't talking 'bout Jackson but could
Have been, Jackson in the dirt back where the dirt
Seem like a hustler's first reprieve. And Black,
So named by wit of youth who mocked his skin,
A Wonder Bread vanilla-toasted hue
That begged for moniker, for slang to say
He wore the veil, like us, despite his eyes
Near blue, he kept saying I didn't know why
I killed the dude, kept saying I felt threatened,
But we ain't know Monte, ain't know about The
threats of crazy niggas. Black ran out With rain
like fists pounding everyone and fear Had him.
They say he was a fucking fool,
The pistol smoking, Monte's blood and rain
Water washing over his sneaks. That's what Black
says, when someone asks him who will die, Asks
who the hero is. And for a sec
I think, imagine, Black bodied my boy,
And not some nameless young fool out for a rep.
But we all dead all dead all dead all dead
Already, lost and this a voyage from
Death to death, from godforsaken cell
To godforsaken cell and I can't stop
Thinking about before I owned these cuffs.
You remember Raising Hell? This
my way To admit fear to the men with me, to say
I'm drowning, too. And rope is memories, but
This van bends corners, slams on brakes and keeps
Me worrying today; and, six of ten
Of us are bastards of the eighties who
Have never heard Run rhyme. We are, again,
Close mouthed and staring dawn down. My eyes shut,
And damned if sleep doesn't leave me, again,
Explaining cuffs to closed eyelids.
IV. Night of the Living Baseheads
Most nights our energy was youth: hours
Out there after more hours out there. This was
The year of Do the Right Thing.
Spike had us On edge, near ready to toss a
trashcan through This city. Len Bias was dead. And we
Was lamping, stone cold lampin'. Pockets fat
Because we were entrepreneurs. And so
We figured: Every brother man's life is
Like swinging the dice. Why live so close to caskets?
After that Rockefeller wealth, a few
Got crushed by Rockefeller drug laws; locked
Slam up before the money flowed like piss
In a tenement hallway. Back then it was
Always winter, always cold in the street.
My mind rabid with want for equity,
For dukey gold chains, Jordans, more.
The hustle courted us. And we were down.
It'll take you to ruin moms would say,
As if disaster wasn't that damned place:
Those afternoons and all their sirens blare.
Maybe she knew that soon five sweet and love
Sized packs of crack would mean a flat
Nickel in a kaleidoscope of cells,
A mandatory minimum of years
Where home becomes God's nightmare. Our curse.
Back then the educated Negroes blamed
The Contras. They had seen reports, knew names:
Edén Pastora, Carlos Cabezas,
They had the Contras consorting with drug
Lords, plus Scarface ain't from Compton.
These Negroes who would have been Black Panthers,
Read Huey P and Cleaver, said the CIA
Funded a war with crack. Conspiracy,
The spook who sat beside the door, Hoover;
You couldn't blame them then, except Cleaver,
A fucking madman, actually wrote
He raped black women for practice, undercard
To raping white women, his bootleg play
For get-back born from bullshit ideas 'bout
An insurrectional against the man.
May God have mercy on fools and their victims!
I been a fool, too, but never did get
How niggas ran with him. Plus Hoover won,
And some say all we got was free breakfast.
Still if you listened back when someone said
To let a hundred flowers bloom, and you
Were watching when the martyrs, the Malcolms,
And Kings and Fred Hamptons fell, you might think of
How democracy, like communism, ends
In a body bag for the freedom fighters. Or
You might not care, you might have been like us,
Alive in the aftermath. You saw Rayful
Get locked and knew who the suckers would be,
(All we who fought for scraps we couldn't hold)
And still you posted on corners lost in this.
V. To the Edge of Panic
Some people say prison is the country
Where life is cheaper than anywhere else;
You wouldn't doubt that watching us take leave,
From dark to dark to Greensville where the last
Death waits for some. Virginia still a place
That will end you. The wrong fool's errand:
At your feet, some body. Black and you almost
Be straight, a decade, maybe two — a dead
White woman will have you slumped, biding time
Until your number called. And then you gone.
Our caravan three deep and black against
The wine-dark asphalt, and two of three
Are nothing but escorts: four uniformed
Shotguns (off safety) leading and flanking
Our coffle, all intent to keep us here,
And not wherever shackles and cuffs run
In this dead of morning, less than eighty miles
From where Nat Turner dug a hole and lay
For weeks. Virginia, something noose-like then
And some say still, except for all the shit
We did to land in this here hull and cul-De-sac.
The guard, he say "die, but don't run"
When one of us begin to cough his lung
Up in sleep. And this is ruin. Damn these chains!
This awkward dance I do with this van! Two-step,
My body swaying back and forth, my head
A pendulum that's rocked by the wild riffs
Of the dudes I'm riding with: them white folks know
You ain't god body, what you commune wine
And bread? Where you from son? Red lines?
To what Onion? My eyes two caskets though,
So the voices are sheets of sound. Our van as dark
Inside as out, and all the bodies black
And voices black too and I tell my God
If you have ears for this one, know I want
No part of it, no icepicks and no fears.
I don't say shit. I sing my dirge.
The cracked and scratching vinyl seats, the loud
Loud talk of murder this and blanket fear
Around the rest, is where I'm most at home,
But it's beyond where prayers reach, a point
Something like purgatory. I lean back
And drift in sleep as someone says, his voice
All hoarse and jacked, all broken songbird-like
All revolutions end with an L-note.
VI. Caught, Can We Get a Witness
A grave: a place where men go trouble death,
This corner, prison, purgatory holds
My breath and body, fucks with my mind until,
Until the time becomes my coffin; we Inherited
a world wretched with crack,
A world beginning with a trek like this:
A van, the wine-dark asphalt, cuffs, the night
Of early morning and all that I can't
Imagine changing. Men around me chained,
Like me, and we all too damn comfortable
In cuffs, our journey long enough to think
About each nickel, dime and dub we sold.
Our caravan takes us from where men go
To die to where insane men go to ruin.
We got to Marion and shuffled, cuffed
And shackled; told to piss in a white box
Contraption I'd never seen. No running
Water, hands still wet with piss, then they
Handed us the sandwiches. Fuck them.
Inside, the van alive with talk about
The Onion, this wild place where we would be
Dumped like cargo from this schooner's bowels.
Three hundred years on that van, men tied to crimes
They committed when old age was so so far
Away. Conspiracy — they say explains
Our bodies borne into another thrall;
But here, we all recall the pistol's weight,
And how the gun in hand, the dope and crack
Turned some men into monsters, turned some men
To ghosts. The youngest here... man shit it's all
The same, same fucking thing, a narrative
That ends with cuffs around all wrists, again.
Excerpted from Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts. Copyright © 2015 Reginald Dwayne Betts. Excerpted by permission of Four Way Books.