The Great Poem Series: Reginald Dwayne Betts’s “At the End of Life, a Secret”

Reginald Dwayne Betts’ poem “At the End of Life, a Secret” was first published in 2012 in New England Review and was later published in the 2012 volume of The Best American Poetry. The mysterious poem discusses the effect of crack cocaine on humans: specifically the effect on the soul. It cleverly suggests that crack becomes one’s soul: the only thing that lives on after our bodies. The poem discusses a deceased person donating his organs and offers the interesting idea of the soul not being accounted for because it cannot be weighed. The connection between that and the cocaine is a little confusing, but after some investigation can be interpreted as a person’s soul being taken by the crack addiction.

One of my favorite elements of this poem is its initial complexity. The poem begins by painting a picture of the reader, naked, having his hair pulled out. What could this be about? The speaker of the poem says “moments before he was weighing your gallbladder” casually, as if it were normal for a person to have their gallbladder weighed. It’s not until later in the poem when the idea of death is introduced that any sense of this poem can be made. However, death isn’t introduced with any clarity. It is introduced by the speaker by saying, “as if something other than taxes outlasts death”. To me, this is confusing but perhaps gives some clarity to the initial subject of the organs being weighed. The speaker of the poem also says “the empty space where your lungs were”. This is another example of something that requires a clue to discover what the speaker is talking about. As the poem continues, clues like the reference to death are given which allow the reader to further make sense of it all. I like how I can make more and more sense of the poem as more clues to the meaning are given to the reader.

Another element of the poem that I enjoy is the format. The poem is one large prose stanza and resembles a paragraph more than it does a traditional poem. This was much more than just an eye-catcher for me during my reading of the poem. The format is significant to this poem’s success in delivering a meaning because it allows the reader’s mind to flow between ideas and connect the clues given by the speaker. If the poem was split into multiple stanzas, the reader would see it as different ideas split. What’s great about this poem is how it is all one idea and one train of thought that develops and becomes clear as the poem continues. The poem begins with “Everything measured” and then talks about weighing the gallbladder and at the end reads “21 grams”.  Although it would of course be possible to split this poem into stanzas, the single stanza is far more conducive to a good reading of this poem.

I know at this point it seems like the poem couldn’t get any better, but there are even more elements that make it even greater. For one, the poem’s topic strikes great interest in me. For the duration of my life teachers have shoved the ancient work of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman down my throat. It’s nice to read about something that I’m interested in, something that is a part of my life. Reading a poem about crack cocaine and organ donation is not a luxury that your traditional english class is afforded. When I first discovered this poem, all other elements aside, I liked it because I wanted to read about crack. I wanted to read about organ donation. These are things that I’ve never come across in all my forced readings of ancient poetry. When the speaker of the poem says “less than $4,000 worth of crack – 21 grams” I thought to myself, “Wow, this is stuff I talk about with my friends, now I get to read about it in poetry? This is awesome.” I love poetry, don’t get me wrong; but I am tired of reading about things that frankly I don’t care much about or think about on my own time. It’s always been the biggest wedge between poetry and me. I love that with this poem I can enjoy both great poetry and an interesting insight into something that I’m truly interested in at the same time.

The combination of great poetic elements and a fascinating topic make this a truly excellent poem and a well deserved recipient of a spot in The Best American Poetry. When coming across this poem, the reader will be exposed to an unusual topic in poetry. Reading about taboo subjects like organ donors, cocaine, and a unique insight into how they are tied together, as well as their general effect on life (or death really) is a treat to any interested reader. Also, the technical elements of the poem are a joy for anyone to be exposed to. So, not only is this a great poem, but it is rare. There are very few poems that combine such an interesting topic with such excellent elements. All things considered, to read this poem is a gift that I wish everyone could be as lucky as me to receive.

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