Tara Betts: “What Bucks or Breaks”




Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue, available for order here, and the forthcoming Refuse to Disappear. She’s a co-editor of The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century and editor of the critical edition of Philippa Duke Schuyler’s memoir, Adventures in Black and White. In addition to her work as a teaching artist and mentor for young poets, she has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Illinois-Chicago, Chicago State University’s MFA Program, and for three years at Stateville Prison via the Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project. Tara is also Poetry Editor at The Langston Hughes Review and the Lit Editor at Newcity. Author photo by Glitter Guts.


Read an interview with Tara Betts here.



Poet’s Note

As I was originally writing this poem it was one chunk of text, but the enjambment was something I considered once I typed it up. I typically think about the function of strong verbs and nouns at the end of a line, but I wondered about breaking it up mid-line. I wanted to see if I could double that durability of language. On another note, I kept thinking about how much I wanted this to be a poem about defying servitude. There is so much about being a woman that feels like being tethered. I think that’s why I have always loved “A Julia De Burgos” (To Julia De Burgos) by Puerto Rican poet Julia De Burgos (as translated by Jack Agüeros in Song of the Simple Truth). When she describes herself as a “runaway Rocinante,” I thought about Hurston describing Black women as the mules of the world, and I wanted to look toward women in the 21st century where a woman can be motherly and family-oriented yet not feel that she has to forfeit her freedom to realize her full, nuanced self. I think women are far from getting past some of those confines—and sometimes, you pay for freedom with solitude—but being able to do what you want is a sweet, hard-fought victory for anyone.


Commentary by Amanda Moore

In the best poems, the relationship between form and content is symbiotic, a close interplay that allows the work to plumb greater depths of sound, meaning, and language. Whether the form is a prescribed or received, or the shape made by the poem on the page, it is exciting when a poem’s narrative or themes are furthered, expanded upon, or subverted by form. Today’s featured poem, “What Bucks or Breaks” by Tara Betts, is a wonderful example of how a poem’s structure can enhance its meaning.

A striking element, and perhaps the one first noticed, is the shape this poem takes on the page: two columns of text. It’s a variation on a form sometimes called a “contrapuntal” or “cleave” poem, discussed previously in this column here(Crystal Williams’ “Double Helix”) and here (Barbara Jane Reyes’ “To Love as Aswang”). Such poems enable and even encourage multiple ways of being read and are extremely difficult to do well. In its classic presentation, a contrapuntal or cleave poem can be read at least three ways: left column as its own poem, right column as its own poem, and then the poem as a whole, read across both columns. In the best examples, each method yields its own satisfying experience, and ideally, all the readings work together to support the narrative or meaning of the poem.

A variation unique to today’s poem is the way its lines are staggered rather than horizontally aligned; that is, the first line of the second column begins on the space below the first line of the first column and so on. This makes it harder to read smoothly across both columns, a difficulty that enacts the meaning of the title: the lines are continually breaking and “bucking” the reader’s eye down to the next line. Because of this visual “buck,” one of the first things a reader understands is that the poem itself is subject to bucking and breaking. In this way, the poem’s form supports its meaning, and readers are drawn into a poetic space that announces its own vulnerability even before its language is encountered.

More than merely a visual element, this breaking and bucking form also offers several ways to encounter each line and to read the poem as a whole, creating a narrative likewise subject to interruptions and detours. The sparse punctuation—just a few commas, em dashes, and periods—along with a lack of capital letters further opens spacing and lineation to create alternative syntactical pathways through the poem. I find it most rewarding to read left to right across the bucks and breaks, stitching both sides of the poem into a single narrative, but it is also possible to read the left and right columns entirely independently. In her Poet’s Note, Betts communicates her interest in trying to “double [the] durability of language,” often relying on “strong verbs and nouns” to create resonances in each reading.

In addition to the formal structure of the poem, I’m interested in the many moments where Betts’s language transcends my expectations. Early in the poem, for example, she breaks open a word’s function by offering “bitter” as a noun instead of an adjective; she also chooses a surprising adjective, “tense,” to describe sugar. Later in the poem, the words “bucks / or breaks” can be read either as verbs (“protects / or bucks… / or breaks”) or nouns (“half-baked lies— / or bucks / or breaks”), depending on the contrapuntal path traversed. In another example, the “refuse” in “shimmering refuse” can be read either as a noun (trash, or the ruins of the relationship) or instead as a verb of abstention or renunciation. These alternatives give the poem added interest and depth and are also pleasing to behold. It’s wonderful to see a poet play so expertly with craft.

The multiplicity of possible readings imparts a sense of disintegration but one not pinned to the specific, personal narrative of the speaker’s relationship breaking down (“celebrating living as one, not two / because who needs a trap”). In fact, much of the sense of deterioration is located elsewhere in details external to the speaker and to that relationship. As noted above, it is expressed in the very form of the poem with all those interruptive offset lines. The disintegration is located, too, in details such as “this bristling moment / that softens to mature bitter” and “shimmering refuse,” and in this way functions something like T. S. Eliot’s ‘objective correlative.’ One effect of locating the sense of disintegration in the speaker’s landscape rather than just in her emotions or personal history is to make the poem’s message feel more universal. As I am instructed to “watch” and “puzzle out an escape,” I discover that this “trap / woven from promise” is not just the speaker’s dilemma—it is mine as well.

Betts’s note offers some great insight on the poem, especially where it expresses her thinking on how freedom and conventional gender roles can coexist in a woman able to “be motherly and family-oriented” yet able to retain the “freedom to realize her full, nuanced self.” In the poem, the “maroon ropes” and “bloody cat’s cradle” of a “planned life” hint at the restrictions women experience in romantic and maternal realms. The speaker ultimately reaches a decisive end to all the bucking and breaking by rejecting the “iron hammered to my feet.” In the poem’s closing lines, she becomes able to “ignore solicitous open palms,” an image that seems to represent the importuning needs of others.

Instead, the speaker undertakes a series of joyful, vivid solo actions: “I paint these lips” and “brighten my face” and “dress in my wishes.” Ultimately, she welcomes her own breath. In essence, this represents an end to an existence limited by the demands of others and the beginning of a new more personal, individual, and vital existence. The speaker is transformed by what has bucked and broken, and we, too, are offered an empowering path to that transformation.



Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.



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