“It is certainly quite wrong to read a poem in a hurry, as if it were a telegram,” the late Italian designer Bruno Munari writes, adding that “one does sometimes get telegrams that might almost be poems . . .” But what happens when poems tell us they aren’t poems, when they go to the masked ball of our brains in the habiliments of another form? Think of William Matthews’s “A Telegram from the Muse” that ends “DO / NOTHING TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME STOP” or Marcus Wicker’s debut collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, that’s full of love letters, public service announcements, and dramatic monologues.
“Mostly what I do is exercise my lungs / in praise of everything,” the CEO of Happiness, one of Wicker’s personas, says, but this could easily be the poet talking. The collection largely functions as a book of praise, one in which RuPaul’s “colossal / set of hands . . . cast a spell” on the speaker, as does “Bonita Applebum” who receives these laurels:
Because your mouth
is the nectar & squish of a peach.
Because your lips are the color
of a flowering quince.
You ghost-rode your banana-seat
bike through my yard. Miss Bonita,
I caught your bug & couldn’t kick it.
This praise often manifests itself in the form of love letters—to Justin Timberlake, comedian Dave Chappelle, Foxy Brown’s Pam Grier, and others. But how does the form of the love letter interact or interpret the form of the poem? Returning to Matthews, “A Telegram from the Muse” only uses the telegram form as a means to modulate the reading of the poem. With love letters, however, we might ask ourselves: Is the love letter a poetic form or is the poem a form of the love letter?
Of course, we know it’s a book of poems, not a book of love letters. “Love Letter to Pam Grier,” however, affects the salutation “Dearest Pam” whereas “Love Letter to Flavor Flav” jumps right in to the confession “I think I love you.” But most of all, the letters don’t feel as if they contain any sort of message that the “receiver” needs to hear; rather, the “receiver,” in part, simply becomes a kind of ekphrastic object, something that is meditated upon rather than spoken to.
They say, if you repeat something enough
you can become it. I’d like to know:
Does Flavor Flaaav! Sound ugly to you?
I think it’s slightly beautiful.
I bet you love mirrors.
Tell the truth,
when you find plastic Viking horns
or clown shades staring back,
is it beauty you see?
Flavor Flav becomes the vehicle for Wicker’s meditation on beauty and image and utterance. Justin Timberlake becomes the means by which Wicker talks about performance and spectacle:
Do you remember the Super Bowl?
How you tore Janet Jackson’s breast
from her top?
I love you that way.
Her earth-brown bounty of flesh—
large, black nipple
pierced, wind chapped, hardened.
And you saying, Go ahead. Look.
In these love letters and elsewhere, Wicker makes the vacuous urgent, the low high. He insists that we take a good look at pop culture in order to take a better look at ourselves. And why?
“[O]ur states,” he insists are
pronounced. The way we’re always
passing through this & that
in the supermarket or Laundromat &
without batting an eyelash.
Wicker notices that many people live their lives without really examining the mundane, the everyday, the things that control our wants, that play to our impulses and our curiosity, that make us American. “I feel acutely American,” he writes, but warns us against the generalizations that come with being apart of a culture. He tells us: “I distrust statisticians.”
The poems of Maybe the Saddest Thing insist on their originality, not only in what they talk about but in how. But the originality comes not so much from pioneering new ground as simply reusing what’s already there. Consider “Ars Poetica in the Mode of J-Live”:
It’s like this, Anna.
It’s like that.
It’s like that
and like this.
Wicker steals language from J-Live’s 2002 “Like This Anna” and yet, as readers of poetry, we’re asked to expand our notions of what poetry is and what it can be. We have jazz poems (and there’s a few of those here, too) and we have rock ‘n’ roll poems; so, what about hip-hop?
One can almost hear a reader complaining that they don’t “relate” with the collection because of the specificity of subject matter and its deep dives into the vernacular. In a previous 32 Poems Prose Feature, however, Chad Davidson reminds us: “whether or not someone . . . relates to someone else’s poem is of very little consequence to me or to the poem. It’s the reader’s job to go in there and get some of that relation. A failure to relate, in my book, is a failure of the reader, not the poem.” I challenge any reader who shies away from Wicker’s collection for this reason to reassess your motives in reading poetry. Ask yourself: Should poetry simply be a reaffirmation of what you already believe and know, or should it provide us with a means to connect to others?
But then we have to ask ourselves, how does a poem like “Ars Poetica in the Mode of J-Live” connect us to others? Is it not simply a remix of the song lineated and deemed a poem? Let’s not forget about the context that Wicker provides us: ars poetica. “It’s like this”/ “It’s like that” then becomes metalanguage with which to talk about writing a poem about writing a poem, an ars de ars poetica, if you will. In that way an astute reader connects to the poet thinking about his craft and the metaphors (and similes) that illustrate it. For Wicker, poems seem to be about connections, how they confuse, complicate, and enrich the self and the other.
Elsewhere, points of view collage together. Look here in “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong”:
For ten years, I’ve kept
Shad’s voice tucked
just beneath my tongue. & today
I think he was saying
the important art feels real
talks the talk, and probably
that’s enough. Or
are those my words in his mouth?
Likewise, we might also remember that every poem we read becomes words in our mouth. We hear the poem internally in our voices. We may not be able to walk in someone else’s shoes, but we are able to walk in someone else’s feet. (Prosodic pun intended.) We are forced to participate in the argument in “To a White Friend Who Wonders Why I Don’t Spend More Time Pontificating the N Word” and the conversations in the “Self-Dialogue” sequence. Like a telegram, Wicker’s poems seem immediate, urgent. If we read them in a hurry, it’s because we want to know what they say, what they offer us. If we read them again, it’s because we’re caught up in Wicker’s cerebral syllabic beat boxing and, like a good hook, they get stuck in our heads.
Emilia Phillips is the author of Signaletics (University of Akron Press, 2013) and the prose editor of 32 Poems. Her reviews also appear in Blackbird, The Collagist, diode, The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the 2013–2014 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.