Book Review: Break the Habit by Tara Betts
Tara Betts is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Break the Habit (Trio House Press, 2016) and Arc & Hue (Aquarius Press/Willow Books, 2010). She is also the author of chapbooks 7 x 7: kwansabas (Backbone Press, 2015) and the libretto THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali (Argus House/Winged City Press, 2013). She teaches at Chicago State University.
A Review of Tara Betts's Break the Habit by Miguel Soto
Tara Betts’s collection of poems Break the Habit investigates the permeating theme of loss. This loss is represented through various scenarios, involving situations with marital partners, familial ties with parents, and strangers who the speaker shares an empathetic tie to. Tara Betts reminds readers that loss is integral to existing, showing loss as an inheritance that each speaker throughout Betts’s poems experiences either through expected or unexpected scenes. Although the speaker(s) experience much of their grief alone, the language pervades those who come in contact with the words, communicating an attachment to the sense of loss, while working toward a wholesome reflection for both the individual and the collective surrounding the individual.
In Betts’s “Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton,” Betts reminds Chicagoans of Hadiya Pendleton's unexpected death. Betts’s speaker retells the abrupt sequence of events:
The bullet went through the air
Between two stanzas, the poem offers two punctual pauses. The first foreshadows the effect of the "bullet" and the "bullet’s" intended consequence. The second pause comes after six lines of describing the consequence of the bullet, utilizing the effect of a period to signal the child’s end. Enjambment adds to the scene’s tenseness, especially in retelling a scene that doesn’t capture the tension in a phrase like "simply another cordoned crime scene"—a phrase illustrating the way news of a child’s death is trivialized by society’s heavy exposure, especially via new's media, to the constant murder of young Black lives. The speaker’s retelling captures the complexity in wanting to both illustrate the absurdity in losing a child to gun violence, while also showing the involuntary process in reducing the gravity of death by "simply" repeating the affair of the event. The epidemic of gun violence has desensitized us to gun murders, especially when discussing Black lives, and so, the speaker’s voice falls reflects this dismissive attitude when recounting Hadiya Pendleton’s loss.
Moreover, “Another Clearing of the Land: Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton” approaches the loss of Hadiya Pendleton from a communal perspective, taking into consideration the effect a child’s death has on the community: “Black South Side teens / with nothing in common but a pained echo / for a future.” "Echo" parallels the process of loss. Sound is resonant, whereas an "echo" is fading; and similarly, life is a representation of fullness, where loss is the last lingering moments of fullness. The speaker captures an outsider’s perspective on loss, but the truth divulges from the individual’s own feeling:
What I hate, what I
Betts’s speaker demonstrates how individuals share grief, but only through revealing a person’s individual feelings can a reader understand the reality of loss beyond the retelling of an event. The last stanza focuses on Hadiya’s mother’s emotions, referring to the memories between mother and daughter as an “eclipsed song,” serving as a reminder to the reader that loss appears in different intensities. Loss’s strength relies on the proximity of the individual and what is lost. Regardless, Hadiya’s life is cut short, and her mother and community feel the deprivation of having lost their child, and so, the speaker relates the suffering.
In the eponymous “Break the Habit,” Betts demonstrates the manner in which a person can experience loss and suffering in varying intensities. For instance, the speaker displays a disassociation from, possibly, their own pain. "Break the Habit" utilizes a second person point of view, observing an individual’s grief from an outsider’s perspective, without letting the reader know the speaker’s own sentiments. The poem begins with separation: “before the divorce goes through,” marking the disconnection between the speaker and the individual being observed. In the first stanza, the speaker remains objective in the retelling of the situation: “your father is propped near / death again […] / the doctor wants to take his leg / before bacteria can claim its bounty of limbs.” An interruption in communication occurs between the speaker and scene, particularly in the speaker’s ability to exhibit feeling. The first stanza begins with separation, and even with the grave event, the poem does not relate sympathy or empathy for their subject. . The speaker's detachment interrupts the connection between speaker and subject, emphasizing the emotional strain in experiencing grief alone.
In the second stanza of “Break the Habit,” the speaker narrows in on the actions of the subject:
Your brother calls to carefully unwrap hurts
The second point of view reveals more knowledge than what is applicable for an outsider to know, giving away hints of the speaker’s own projection in saying, "voice like yours, voice / you’ve stuffed into anger’s armor to protect yourself." The objective interpretation questions sympathy, asking how much can an individual genuinely know of, and feel for, another individual.
In the third stanza of “Break the Habit,” loss is symbolized through sound, sharing a likeness to the symbol of the "echo" from “Another Clearing of the Land: An Epitaph for Hadiyah Pendleton,” relating the feeling of fullness fading into loss:
In the soft quiet, behind a locked door, across the street
Sound symbolizes the feelings of loss, beginning as a soft quiet as grief crescendos in the setting of the "methadone clinic" and rings into "adamant notes," yet the reader and speaker alike know that the ringing thins out, and with the thinning of noise, loss sets in permanently. The second point of view is an acute observation of sorrow from a distance, recognizing enough to deliberate an individual’s ability to genuinely dissect emotional affliction from an objective stance. Betts’s poems experience a thematic arch, guiding the reader between various situations, experiences, and emotional awareness, to survey the intensity of loss’s consequences for an individual and those affected.
Betts’s fourth section of Break the Habit offers a coping mechanism for the feeling of loss, retaining the desire to hold moments in an in-between state from their prior existence before loss is concretized. In “Spiders are Storytellers,” the setting alludes back to the symbols of sound and voice: “the leaning tree shudders with thousands / of green utterances.” The setting is vivid, calling attention to the word "utterances," as to spark the revival of the object, being, or story once gone. The scene between mother and daughter speculates the relationship between the innocence of a child, versus the experience of a mother. The first stanza ends with the child’s liveliness: “her voice is a small, bright / handful of sequins that match a bird’s chirp.” The fullness of sound and life is present in the "bird’s chirp," which not only juxtaposes the major theme of Betts's collection of poems, capturing an entire range of emotion, while demonstrating that grief isn’t permanent, and that language works to evoke a revival of joy.
Furthermore, the daughter of “Spiders are Storytellers” lures the attention of the reader toward the mythology of the spiders:
The daughter keeps saying there’s a spider
Stories work to defy the permanence of loss, bringing to life what the child has not yet experienced losing. Supposing the hesitance in "it is too much to tell the daughter" comes from the idea of purposing stories for the revival of what has been reduced, then the child’s innocence is only reassured. The purpose in Betts’s language is to fully examine previous experiences, bringing resonance back, and, in a sense, defying the agony of grief. The spiders’ mythology motivates the sharing and passing of narratives from one spider to the next, keeping memories alive, letting the "echoes" and "adamant notes" linger and ring, never fading. Additionally, insight aspires from the lore of spiders: “Anyone who sweeps corners and ceilings knows. / Spiders know precarious, overlooked places.” Spiders become the perfect medium for keeping language, and everything language can encapsulate, alive.
Tara Betts's Break the Habit inspects loss and grief through their varying complexities, providing different perspectives, and extending a realistic representation of an individual’s own reaction to the retelling of each experience. Tara Betts’s Break the Habit weaves together experience, emotion, and language to tear and repair its reader. Audiences tune into the glimpse of another’s perspective, and yet each poem offers a meditative resolution for its reader, opening up personal barriers, welcoming acceptance.
Miguel is the Asst. Managing Editor and Book Reviews Editor for Jet Fuel Review. As an editor, one of his main concerns is giving a space to marginalized voices, centralizing on narratives often ignored. He loves reading radical, unapologetic writers, who explore the emotional and intellectual stresses within political identities and systemic realities. His own writings can be found in OUT / CAST: A Journal of Queer Midwestern Writing and Art, The Rising Phoenix Review, and Rogue Agent. He writes for the Jet Fuel Review blog in Not Your Binary: A QTPOC Reading Column.