Essays

Reading Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Felon on the Plane (not a review)

David (my de facto uncle) read a review of Felon (95 pages, W.W. Norton, 2019), bought me the hardcover, read it, wrote me a comment about how reading expands us and gives us ideas, and put the book and card in a gift bag with tissue paper. When I flipped through the book upon receiving it, I gushed about how much I love erasures, and I do. I tucked the book in my “personal item” so it would be accessible during the flight back to Seattle.

Also in my “personal items,” the latest Poets & Writers (Nov/Dec 2019). Before leaving for the family visit, my writing-accountability buddy had given it to me.


It is a long flight, more than five hours. I eat a beet salad, drink a glass of red, sigh in relief when the flight attendant tells the cretin in front of me earbuds are required and hands him the plastic package, and I read Poets & Writers. I come upon the Mahogany L. Browne conversation with Betts, “Name a Song.” My aging brain knows I have recently seen this name and I fish Felon from the bag at my feet and exclaim to my row-mate of the coincidence. I read Felon.

Through his collection of poems, Betts describes a life of hurt and pain and love and searching. After his prison years he earned a college degree and a Yale Law School degree; and finds and gives great love to a wife and family. His poems contain all of this, as in Parking Lot: “… My boots echoed against the black of asphalt./ Hours before I flashed the burner on that family, I kissed/ My kid goodnight. I told a woman that I loved her./But when has love ever been enough” and in & Even When There Is Something to Complain About: “… & yes, this is the fantasy, wanting/ to be wanted. She called me hers/ as if the state didn’t already have claim/ to most of me.”

The stories elucidated by Betts’ erasures make me want to direct my attention to the Civil Rights Corps soon after I get back to my home desk.
The words “cell” and “cells” create a spine, as the prison cells that were his life for the last of his teen years and some of his 20s, and as biological cells that make us human. There is sad truth. There is the appalling state of our bail laws and prisons. The gross racial imbalances in the levying of punishment. The Dickensian treatment of the poor.

Betts uses nameable forms and invented forms. His four long erasures must be seen on the page to convey the selections and rejections chosen by the poet.

Although an independent work, the cover art syncs. An excerpt from The Jerome Project (My Loss) by New Haven artist, Titus Kaphar, it also portrays erasure.

If you have the opportunity to read this book in a single sitting, that is what I recommend. I went from reading to writing this, also on the plane, and drawing a man whose skin is covered in birds, “…as if to test the theory of man & flight/ & tattooed wings that I obsess over.”