“Dear Augusta” by Reginald Dwayne Betts speaks for itself as a whole art piece, horrifying and beautiful and eye-widening, and I’m finding it pretty difficult to write about it at all but it is definitely the last poem I’ve loved so here goes nothing.
Augusta Correctional Center is a prison in Virginia. Betts spent much of his youth in custody after being tried and convicted as an adult for a multiple-felony carjacking at the age of 16. “Dear Augusta” is a kind of letter from Betts, filled with commands, stories, testimony meant for the jail’s walls and rooms, and ending with a question posed to the institution: “Dear Augusta, what do / names mean?”
The language is harsh and mystical. The inmates are described like mythical figures, their crimes and actions rendered as supernatural acts, ghost deeds.
One afternoon Rashad
broke the collar of midnight,
streaks of a Norfolk street
The mythology is rich with fear but also beauty, with years of time done rendered as tattoos on a man’s arms, as decades until the end of time when “the parking lot will fill with trees.” The cold walls of a cell are also “a breastbone / he laid his head upon.”
Betts names the figures with their real names and not prison-system numbers. He lists the names themselves. “Dear Augusta, what do / names mean?” All of them imprisoned as youths, “all juveniles” and “young men,” all ripped out of everyday life by the specter of violence, crime, myth and death in the long Virginia night.