Poem: Smokey

There is always a challenge in small poems, but when they work, you can carry them around in your head and watch them change meaning with each moment you remember them. This one here makes me grab my record player and play Smokey Robinson, and think of how the best love cuts into you, making you see something of yourself most would run from. Selectedby Reginald Dwayne Betts

Smokey

By Amaud Jamaul Johnson

the most dangerous men
in my neighborhood
only listened to love songs

to reach those notes
a musicologist told me
a man essentially cuts

his own throat. some nights
even now, i’ll hear a falsetto
and think i should run


Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet and lawyer. He created the Million Book Project, an initiative to curate microlibraries and install them in prisons across the country. His latest collection of poetry, ‘‘Felon,’’ explores the post-incarceration experience. In 2019, he won a National Magazine Award in essays and criticism for his article in The Times Magazine about his journey from teenage carjacker to aspiring lawyer. Amaud Jamaul Johnson is a winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and a former Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. Born and raised in Compton, Calif., he is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he directs the M.F.A. program in creative writing. His latest collection, ‘‘Imperial Liquor,’’ was published by University of Pittsburgh Press in 2020 and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry.

Illustration by R.O. Blechman

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