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Poetry: Breaking the Habit, by Tara Betts
Review by Dante Di Stefano
Break the Habit
Trio House Press ($16.00)
Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Tara holds an MFA from New England College and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her writing has appeared in American Poetry Review, POETRY, Essence, NYLON, Octavia’s Brood, and The Break Beat Poets. Tara teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.
This Wild Whisper Runs Inside Me
Tara Betts’s second collection of poetry, Break the Habit, charts the dissolution of the poet’s marriage. Betts chronicles her relationship with her ex-husband from the initial sweetness of first love through the vicissitudes of married life to the heartbreak of divorce and beyond. The arc of this failed marriage serves as a metaphor for various forms of uncoupling from the bondage of routine; in poem after poem, Betts argues for a sloughing off of the quotidian, for a liberation of the imagination, for an unbridling of the heart and mind. As Betts notes in “The Paterson Falls & Hinchliffe”: “There’s history I cannot write when / decaying, forgotten places cling to the present.” In this poem, the ghosts of Satchel Paige and Minnie Minoso writhe through the derelict remains of the famous Negro League stadium against the backdrop of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. The failed epic of Williams’s Paterson serves as a counterpoint to the failed epic of Betts’s doomed romance. Here, as everywhere else in Break the Habit, Betts grounds her work in an aesthetic of radical departure.
Whether writing about the loss of a lover, the death of a loved one, or a spider spinning its web above her front doorstep, Betts constantly seeks to affirm the “symmetry in the body of the living.” Her poetry insists upon the renewal implied in decay, the rebirth hidden inside demise, the beginning whittled from an ending. As Betts writes in the final two stanzas of “Go”:
I cannot deny what rocked and kept me,
what once made me feel safe, gone now
—ashes dust, burned, singed, blown to
a language that wind and soil must know.
This wild whisper runs inside me, and I
must answer it or the rustling of skin shall
molt what is left. I will never, I will not
allow myself to live half a life, so I must go.
Throughout Break the Habit, Betts celebrates the people and things that have rocked and kept her: her mother and the rest of her family, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, her beloved Chicago and the streets of Kankakee, the music of Cassandra Wilson, Bonnie Raitt, Bon Iver, and Public Enemy, the prose of Borges, the company of friends. Betts sagely invokes the gentle collisions and the bittersweet partings that constitute a full and fragrant life. The poems in Break the Habit display a pleasingly complicated humanity: intelligent, feisty, romantic, fragile, nostalgic, defiant, broken, unflagging, committed to living in and through the word in the way one might live forever in one note unfolding greenly from John Coltrane’s horn.