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Cooler Bandits

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 1, 2013
pp. 113-116 | 10.1353/ner.2013.0044

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

They mourn together, drown
  with the rest of their brothers
in cuffs. Say they were lost: chaos
  with a bullet; say there was no rest
from being hard. & that they,

all four restless, ran into the night
  with guns, not prayers.
Say they thought they couldn’t
  afford rest, not in that Akron.
Who, cuffed to the hood rests? Say

they felt power: The burners
  made folks take them serious, burned
flashing steel into nightmares,
  ruined rest.
Troubled their belief in God. Shattered air.
  They didn’t kill though.
Just waved it in the air

& their voices thundered,
  & rooms became still.
The city didn’t rest when it started.
  Say violence was in the air—
& they were all so damn young.
  Call them heirs

of cell doors clanking closed; call
  them lost inside prison
with violence, again, in the air. 50 witnesses.
  The lady said, “I was praying.”
Poochie knows. The lady says,
   “I was praying

for the boys.” Their eulogies
  were there, in the air. They should’ve
said guilty in song, made a hymnal
  of it—a plea,
started praying in court. Say
  the gavel burned them,

pounding gavel more threat
  than any burner. They learn
time in prison, learn the calendar &
  confined air. They wake
young & bound by count time & chow call,

burning in a purgatory
  where there is no rest.
& their lives: music, that same
where prison is the imitation
  of life. No burner saves
a man from time. & locked

up is to be lost.
  Decades, love, the smell of Akron.
What isn’t lost?
  Frankie says he was far-gone.
Say that made the burner
  the natural choice? Say prison
teaches you to pray,

to fall down on knees & start
  whispering as if prayer
is the one thing missing. Maybe it is.
Say prayer is prison’s gift. A way
  to hunger. A way to burn

a shout on your brain. A way
  to live in the world
without being prey.
A fifty-year sentence buckles
  a man’s knees into prayer.

Charlie say, “only thing
  matter is where you at.”
This air, he means, will suffocate
  most, change those not preyed
upon, ruin those broken by

loving the world in prayer.
  If they couldn’t rest on the block,
they couldn’t rest
  in prison, not when every day
they scuffled to wrest

hope from concrete & carceral. Say
  there is only prayer,
as if speaking to the unseen is
  a way to not feel lost.
Imagine ten consecutive
  twelve-year bids, imagine

being lost in that. They walked
  rec yards with muscles
flaring, lost to what awaited—.
  Imagine, time is god & prayers
to her are answered by victims’ cries.

What lost would save them:
  not safety, not sanity, not time lost—
so what they were born
  where factories closed & the burners
they held made them
  legends. Say you can be lost
in what gives you a name.

Ask them, they know Akron
  is lost
inside all that prison has given
  & snatched. The air
of the city didn’t drift to rec yards,

there they breathed air
  at the crossroads where some
men have to go back, lost,
  looking for they self. Ask Charlie,
Donovon, Frankie, about rest,
  ask Poochie. Ask every man in
every prison. There is rest

in the grave. Pressed against
  tomorrow, prison is what the rest
of us have nightmares about.
  They want forgiveness.
They’re lost in the aftermath of what
  made them infamous. Maybe praying

is the only real option. Maybe
  only God can forgive what burns
a man’s history, forgive
  that smoke wafting in the air.

Reginald Dwayne Betts  

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. The author of the memoir A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009) and the collection of poetry titled Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), Betts has been awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist, and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures frequently about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

Copyright © 2013 Middlebury College Publications
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