Refuse to Disappear
Word Works, 2022
Reviewer: Erica Goss
In this propulsive, urgent collection, Tara Betts weighs perceptions of strength and weakness, microaggressions and politics, against the day-to-day experiences of life for Black women in America. As she creates a meticulous catalog, from Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhuru to Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, Betts recasts their narratives and accomplishments in the face of the relentless racism and sexism they are forced to confront.
In “When Racism Affecting Black Girls Is Ignored,” Betts refutes the stereotypical view of Black women’s ability to endure. The poem begins with a quote from Khadijah Costley White, writing in The Washington Post: “I was overwhelmed by the thought of having to be a black girl for the rest of my life.” Betts lists how power structures undermine and destroy, first with “eminent domain cutting, / chopping up a neighborhood / to build highways” and then by offering platitudes: “be strong and silent, / only to slap the deserving and reason / how she can handle anything.”
The false expectation of being able to handle anything, as well as the sting of microaggressions which can come at any time, from anyone, informs “Inventory.” Two women begin the process of occupying a new office; as they ride the elevator, even though they have the qualifications to prove that they belong, they “never let papers fool us.” The women bring “highlighters and a tea kettle … / pens gather with clips and prongs / from binders,” the standard office supplies, “trappings / to feel at home in a place that opened / but never welcomed us.” The pleasant ritual of setting up the speaker’s desk is interrupted when someone bursts in, “bumbles through keeping track of supplies,” clearly suspecting the women of having stolen the things they are unpacking. The speaker is forced to account for her belongings. She responds, “I bought these things. This is my office,” taking stock, as she puts it, of the many times she repeats this phrase. Her calm must prevail; any hint of irritation may bring suspicion on her, not the woman whose “eyes shift between our thick, tall, / brown bodies.”
The line “I pray for sleep until daylight,” from “The Long Lean,” opens a window into one of the physical tolls of constant vigilance: chronic insomnia. The speaker knows she must “dispel dark solitude,” that she “deserve(s) a cradle / into closed lids,” but she can’t relax, can’t get past the “sharp corners of dreams.” Her insomnia is a metaphor for loneliness: “I used to have people that I called after midnight,” but those people are now living in the daylight, leaving her to endure that deeply solitary time, “the long lean of the night.”
In “Minted,” Betts contrasts the idea of possessing an eternal, indomitable strength, that peculiar and unfair trait our culture demands from Black women, against the realities of police brutality. She dedicates the poem to Sandra Bland, whose 2015 death, three days after her arrest during a traffic stop, was ruled a suicide, although many questions remain. Betts describes the consequences of a traffic violation, or any minor misstep: “Any daily routine becomes rattled / by doubt and a swift officer’s hold // that ensures you will never come / home.” Yet the evidence remains, captured on the cellphone cameras of bystanders and the victims themselves. The last moments of so many people we’ve seen beaten and killed haunt us; as Betts writes, “minted in video footage … // your last living appearance, final / moment of insistent breath choked.”
Grief—unnamed, unaccounted for, yet ever-present—hovers at the margins of these poems, moving to the forefront when least expected, as in these lines from “Prayer Box”:
Plop of a fat tear hits the yoga mat.
You could swear everyone heard it
over the instructor’s soft dictates.
As the tears come, the speaker excuses herself and leaves the class, overwhelmed as “an arc / of grief speeds toward the billowing / silk of barely clinging calm.” The class has released something: “hurt seeps / out,” but we don’t learn what that something is until the end of the poem, when the speaker notices the yoga teacher’s prayer box, a tiny charm attached to her wrist:
You want a row of them to encircle
your arm, wishes dangling so you can
fasten one above your dead mother’s hand.
“Miraculous is a woman— // her dedication, her skill, // the body that she wills // to slice air high above // heads, land precisely.” These lines from “Two Simones” recall the countless times the world watched breathlessly as the world champion gymnast Simone Biles raced across the floor, flew into the air, and made a perfect landing. The second Simone, Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Simone Manuel, “snaps into taut // line as she barely // breaks the water’s surface.” The poem ends with the melancholy lines, “Nina, I wish I knew how it feels to be free,” recalling the words of musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone, who spent her life in the dual pursuits of performing and campaigning against racism, and recorded the song “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” in 1967. As Betts writes in “Nina Simone,” “Cast iron cracked as she sang.”
These women, whose accomplishments astound, whose perseverance humbles, are connected through the same line as Sandra Bland and the generations of Black women who came before. Daughters, sisters, and mothers, their presence stands firm in our history and our imagination. “Refuse to Disappear,” the collection’s final poem, describes the obstacles these women faced: “wall / turns into wall after wall / and we keep turning / when we should climb.” But the poem, like the book, is hopeful:
look over walls
it gets more difficult
to make them too high
or hide a point of exit
time may burn and i
refuse to disappear
With a passionate energy, Refuse to Disappear dedicates its poetry to an unflinching account of the crimes committed against Black women, as well as society’s disregard for the results of endemic racism and misogyny. Tara Betts’s voice is enraged and powerful, yet she maintains her compassion and optimism. Yes, these things are appalling, she tells us, but each one of us possesses the ability to affect change.