As I looked through the 2013 edition of Best American Poetry in search of a poem to write about, Jericho Brown’s “Hustle” caught my eye because there was so much of it that I did not understand upon my first reading, and I wanted to figure it out. It is a brutally honest commentary on life as a black man in America. Brown’s identity as a gay African-American is central to much of his work, and New Testament, the book in which “Hustle” appears, unflinchingly examines race and sexuality.
The first time I read this poem, not a single one of the allusions made sense to me. Despite that, I was drawn in from the very first couplet. My first thought upon reading the second line, “Dwayne Betts deserves more than this dry ink for his teenage years in prison,” was Who’s Dwayne Betts? I guessed that he was African-American, but other than that, I had no clue. However, the emotional impact of the line was heightened by my lack of contextual knowledge. I hadn’t heard of Betts, just like I haven’t heard of so many of the others to whom our prison system has done injustice– people whose suffering “dry ink” can not begin to make up for, people who most likely will not even get “dry ink.”
Dwayne Betts is a poet who spent eight years in an adult prison after being caught carjacking at 16. The other allusions are similar: Brownfield is the main character in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, a poor black sharecropper in rural Georgia; the “film we keep watching” is “Love Jones”– a 90s film intended to challenge the stereotypical association of black America with violence. Given their obscurity– “Love Jones” is not a popular film, and Dwayne Betts is a contemporary American poet (a genre for which there are not many connoisseurs among the general public)– it’s unlikely that the average reader will recognize these references. The obscurity of his allusions makes it feel like Brown is telling us, “You don’t understand.” Because we are not black, we do not understand the ways in which black communities are torn apart by the prison system– just like we do not understand his references.
The second couplet is the allusion to “Love Jones”: Brown points out that, try as he might, it is impossible for him to ignore racism in the justice system. The characters may appear happy, but because they have had no experience with prison, Brown sees them as unrealistic. In the third couplet, Brown calls out those who label any story that centers around the lives of black characters as about race– implying that white characters are the “default.” The fourth couplet is the only one whose meaning eludes me entirely. Considering its specificity and the number of allusions in the poem, it feels like another reference, but both internet research and asking my history teacher failed to reveal anything. The room might be a hotel room or a hospital room– because his family is surrounding it, it is unlikely to be in prison– and the death is most likely either suicide or a result of a medical condition. His mention of “the man he wanted” could be a reference to Brown’s sexuality– something explored throughout New Testament. The first line of the fifth couplet brings up the issue of police racism and brutality, and the second line could either be pointing out the isolation from one’s family that a prison term results in or referring to the tendency of children whose parents were imprisoned to grow up to themselves serve prison terms. The sixth couplet emphasizes the injustice of Dwayne Betts’ imprisonment that was discussed in the first one– in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Brownfield receives only seven years in prison for murder, while Betts received eight years for carjacking.
In the seventh couplet, Brown’s intended audience becomes clear. As is shown by the line “let’s use your clean one instead” Brown is speaking directly to Americans of other races. In my first reading, I paused at this line, because it was the point where I realized that Brown was addressing me. I am one of the “bright citizens” of which he speaks. Brown is calling me out on my privilege, but he is not disparaging– he instead just wants to make sure that the reader is aware of it.
“Hustle” is a ghazal: a series of couplets that each end in the same phrase, “in prison.” Though the couplets may begin about an entirely different topic– such as dancing or laundry– they always end in prison. This form emphasizes his message: he wants the reader to feel what it is like to constantly face the threat of your or a loved one’s imprisonment.
As we’ve seen, once you do some work with it, the poem starts to make more sense. Brown is not only pointing out that we don’t understand. He is also telling us that maybe, if we try, we can learn to understand.