Because poetry’s medium is a single human voice, it’s an ideal vehicle for human mastery, a source of awe at the almost athletic ingenuity of saying something rhythmically and well. Or: Because poetry’s medium is a single human voice, it’s an ideal image of our human frailty—its serrated right margin pointing out that the page is still mostly blank, that a larger silence surrounds our speech. And: Sometimes a poet manages both, suggesting that even the most unmanageable truths are amenable to our activity, making even absence shapely, present, shareable, right.
Marcus Wicker’s debut collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, falls into that final category. It's hip-deep in pop culture’s energy, but it’s also, and often at the same time, a reminder of the loneliness all our culture, pop and not, has in trust. You can hear that combination in the conclusion of his poem “Love Letter to RuPaul,” one of several love letters to pop icons, all of them emphasizing race and masculinity, most of them flat-out amazing. Here, Wicker is describing “one of my earliest memories,” a burger ad starring RuPaul. Notice how bare the last two incomplete sentences seem:
ravished me. How hard, to be sandwiched
between what and who you are, tickled
by every cruel wind, critic-voyeur
playing rough beneath your skirt. How
raw you must be. To sit before a camera,
"Raw" is right. In both sound and sense, Wicker nails the terrible courage of standing out and dignifies it with an abrupt austerity.
That's not to say that Maybe the Saddest Thing is perfect. The book—which D.A. Powell chose for the National Poetry Series, an annual contest in which five prominent poets choose books for five presses—includes some poems that seem to exhibit too much faith that writing a poem is inherently worthwhile and others that too readily take up an opposite position: Interrupting himself with skepticism about what he’s up to, Wicker sets up an artistic cul-de-sac that’s frustratingly prevalent in contemporary verse.
But those are small sins, and common ones as well. It’s Maybe the Saddest Thing's strengths that are uncommon, and they define the majority of this book. Wicker captures pop culture’s abundance—in particular the hurry and wit of hip-hop and slam—without pop’s blind timeliness. He also fuses hip-hop’s restless dexterity, its as-if-improvised fusion of amazement and momentum and force, with an ability to reward the less purely propulsive experience of reading on the page.
That double value shows up in another of Wicker's love letters, this one to Dave Chappelle:
This isn't a poem
about some cowboy cracking up
over a blackface skit. How his cackle
sounded like a bigot's brain
lodged inside a beating heart, thinking
You can hear the same rhythmic extravagance that shows up in some hip-hop, the eagerness to almost overwhelm an audience with ingenuity. Imagine drawing lines between all the words that seem to be echoing each other through, for instance, alliteration (cowboy, cracking, blackface, skit, cackle, like, thinking; blackface, bigot, brain, beating; etc.), and imagine trying to account for all the overlaps and variations in those. Listen to the places where the stressed syllables pile up, loosen, then pile up again. Notice the way he establishes a pattern of "a," followed by a descriptor beginning with b, and then a noun (and the way that "bigot's brain" throws in an extra b).
Listening to something this agile, you're meant to feel your mind racing to keep up. You're meant to marvel, humbled and amazed. And yet Wicker's own humility leaves plenty of room for intimacy and contemplation, too—including, in this poem, contemplation of the ways that black culture gets used in the larger, whiter world (a subject Wicker will later take up in regards to his own standing as a poet). And if the almost-too-much of the excerpt's rhythm foreshadows Chappelle's eventual breakdown, the poem's thinking also foregrounds a compassion that takes that person more seriously than the cultural chaos that overwhelms him.
Wicker's style and success serve as a reminder that we don't need to reject world and world's delights to think about both critically. Here, for example, is another ending, this one from “Everything I Know About Jazz I Learned from Kenny G.” The prose poem opens with Wicker’s father discovering his eighth-grade son listening to the poem’s titular lightweight, then dragging him downstairs to the father’s collection of real jazz. Wicker concludes the scene many hours later:
It sounds like a welted voice wincing at the basement’s night. A voice my father hears too.
He does not cave the basement door. He walks a dirge down those steps. Gently strokes my neck. Asks, Why are you crying, son? Dad, I ache. Because I’ve been down here forever.
Clearly, Wicker’s putting on a show—“a welted voice wincing at the basement’s night” almost winks with pleasure, even as it describes a wounded state—but it’s a damned good show, and one that, in numerous poems, pushes us to stay aware of the ways our shows are manufactured and what they ask us to believe. Wicker does this without ever suggesting superiority to showmen, though. His writing is full of love for the songs and artists he invokes.
And that’s another thing that makes Maybe the Saddest Thing so worthwhile: In spite of its title, it seeks (and finds) real delight, giddy with the joy of making language mean and sing, sound and sense and allusion all but falling over each other as they run. Take "The Break Beat Break," which riffs on the joys of being deluded (and delighted) by music:
It happens on a deserted island
of a song, when a funky-ass fault line rips through
your bass-induced Buddhist empty state and you
start thinking, Damn. What breed of human am I?
What type of man walks around with rhythm rattling
the trunk of his dome? And wherever you are you run
to the closest piece of light-reflecting glass, say Oh,
that’s right, I do.
… think Yeah, that’s me.
My walk alone could make tight pants fit.
But delight, all by itself, rarely seems wide enough for the persistent emptiness of a page. Wicker writes poems whose timely pleasures keep verging on timeless sorrows, and where the social issues of our time persistently evoke enduring human need. In the process, he captures the odd ways that our larger-than-life moment lives inside our pending irrelevance—and the compassion such knowledge allows. "I'm wondering if a face on fire/ looks the same in any city. In any hue," he writes, watching the inferno after a meth lab explodes. And, earlier in that same poem,
of ash like nail polish scorched with salt blasts
me to my knees. Everything disintegrates
from this angle….
From this point of view
soot cloaks stars."
Maybe the Saddest Thing by Marcus Wicker. Harper Perennial.