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Tara Betts, ‘Arc & Hue’ (Willow Books, 2009)
[Hi all, I have invited the super prolific poet and reviewer Craig Santos Perez to guest post here. Below is his review of Tara Betts’s just released first collection of poems, Arc & Hue.]
Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009)
by Tara Betts
90 pp. $15, paper. ISBN: 978-0-9819208-7-0.
review by Craig Santos Perez
The title poem of Tara Betts’s debut collection, Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009), describes the speaker, her brother, and their nephew sketching on the sidewalk with the dust from colored chalk. The speaker wonders “if joy comes in small plastic / buckets” as each palm of their hands glows with “deliberate lines rubbed / away with moist and breeze.” Amidst this wonderment about the fragile presence of joy, the poem ends with the speaker noting that her nephew “will not notice how quickly arc and hue / crafted, turns to dust” (24).
Throughout this debut collection, Betts sketches poignant narrative moments that highlight themes of family, home, ethnicity, violence, love, and joy. In “The Birth, Then Roses,” the speaker imagines her father standing in a hospital doorway with a bouquet of red roses during her birth. The speaker muses:
How each red silky slip of slower body must have
brushed against my mother’s face. Heavy sugar
to claim the carriage and birth,
not enough to coat pricks to come.
How the fists and philandering were unexpected.
How much sweeter it felt to hear the name
of her first child, a daughter, pulling away,
out of her, pushing a path into chaos that begins
My mother needed more than petals. (19)
Betts’ evocative sense of narrativity drives most of her poems. Additionally, the theme of domestic abuse and other violences against women (especially women of color) shape and haunt many of the poems, from the Venus Hottentot to a young girl found in a drainage ditch. These are not distant empathies; instead, the speaker of these poems realizes: “Brown skin / turned ash and bone. / She could have been me” (47).
Besides gender and gender violence, race and racial tension are important subjects in Arc & Hue. Betts composes poems about the “Jena 6” students in Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, and Emmett Till. There’s also a striking sestina whose endwords are dark, air, lynching, habit, explain, and sin. Alongside these poems, Betts explores the racial tension within her own body and body of experience as a “Mixed Girl.” In “What It’s Like to Be a Mixed Girl (For Those of You Who Aren’t),” we read: “it’s brothers blurting / damn i thought you was white / then asking for your phone number / it’s being painted with zebra stripes / with brushes that assume you’re confused.” The poem, however, expresses a confident spirit: “well, i’ve got to say, it’s people claiming / you’re torn between tragic paths / when you know exactly where you walk” (33). Another poem, “Why I Collect The Hair,” zeroes in on a moment when the speaker is gathering her hair while a lover tells her to “leave them there nesting.” The poem explains:
Years ago, a college boyfriend left my bed
to go home. His mother honed in
on the brassy streaks
and pulled them off
with what white girl are you seeing?
So, I’m still plucking, gathering up
small tumbleweeds in my palm,
clues that deny brown
coiled inside me. (27)
There are several poems about hair, and others about the body (the female body of color in particular). One my favorite poems, “the darkest part,” reads in its entirety:
purple brown shaded into lips
brown unlike pink nipples some
suspect me of having.
darker woman’s hidden signature
in flaps of skin concealed in hair
darker than paper bag.
enveloping brown kissed
thighs parted, toasted from
mouth to mouth. (21)
Betts’s sense of musicality and rhythm is fore-grounded in this. Although I would love to have read more of these short lyrics in the collection, Betts’s taut and surprising lyricism always seems to flow through even the most narrative poems. Betts often references music and musicians: from Billy Holiday to Tina Turner, NAS to Gladys Knight and the Pips, Blondie to George Clinton. There’s even a provocative, bluesy villanelle titled “Microphone and Cotton Gin.”
Another element that shades Arc & Hue is the poet’s humor. Imagine a poem in the voice of a “crazy aunt” who dreams of giving her nieces vibrators. Imagine a poem in which Pablo Neruda writes an email to Slam Poets. Can you guess Neruda’s email address? The funniest poem is an interactive piece titled “A Survey on Enjoying Verse.” One of the survey questions asks where the reader last heard poetry read aloud (“please mark YES or NO” with a “No. 2 Pencil only”):
4. Alone in a smoky bar while wishing your sorry ass lover would take you back.
5. At a poetry slam since that’s how you get to go on tour and hawk the CDs you just burned and the chapbook with your picture on the front.
6. At a respected literary organization or conference so academes, publishers, and editors know you’re a REAL poet. (77)
I’ve never seen Betts alone in the smoky bar that I usually hang out in wishing my sorry ass lover would take me back; Betts’s picture nests modestly on the back cover of the book beneath blurbs by Martín Espada, Annie Finch, and Wanda Coleman; does anyone really consider AWP a “respected literary organization or conference”? For real, all one has to do is read Arc & Hue to know that Betts is a REAL poet. Not only does she write about a diverse range of expansive themes, but she also grounds these themes in her past and present experiences. The poems illuminate the smallest domestic moments (whether filled with violence or love) alongside larger cultural issues. While Betts writes mostly in free verse, this collection contains many well-crafted sonnets, a villanelle riff, a sestina, and a vibrant canzone. Overall, Betts’ poems remain attentive to the strength of narrative arcs and the resonances and rhythms of emotional hues. Within these arcs and hues, Betts helps us notice how the dust of memory, crafted, turns to poetry.