Book Review

This summer marked the centennial anniversary of the NAACP’s Silent Protest Parade, one of the first mass African American demonstrations against racial violence and white supremacy in the United States. In July 1917, around ten thousand African Americans marched silently (to muffled drumbeat) down New York City’s Fifth Avenue, the women and children clad in white, the men dressed in black. The parade, which clearly anticipated many later civil rights marches, including Black Lives Matter demonstrations, hoped to call attention to racist violence against people of color. Sadly, as the ugly events in Charlottesville and the near constant news headlines of police brutality make clear, such violence is still with us. It is in this context that Marcus Wicker’s probing and profound new book of poems, Silencer, arrives.

The title immediately suggests brute force—the silencing of other human beings, robbing them of their voice—specifically through the violence of gunfire. The opening poem, for example, “Silencer to the Heart While Jogging through a Park,” serves as a lament for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a kid “ordinary in every American leisure // except one” who was “silenced” by racism, gun violence, and white privilege.

Throughout this volume, Wicker considers many such senseless deaths: Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland—“too many black cherry thickets streaked with blood.” He seems afraid that the world has become inured to the sickeningly steady stream of murders: “You see human / interest piece, sunny & rounding out the evening news / where I see eclipsed casket.” In the face of such violence, remaining silent is not an option.

Wicker is also concerned with subtler and more insidious forms of “silencing”: the prison industrial complex, sadly also “semi-automatic” and perennially “clanging // open” for people of color; the chilling effect of prejudice and presumption (“no defense / attorney gets to call me Gang Related”); the staggering ignorance of a “well-meaning Waspy woman” who says, “Gosh you’re just / so well spoken!”

Wicker can be very funny, but even so there is an undercurrent of anguish in the face of microaggressions. In “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television,” Wicker calls attention to another silencing effect: the struggle for self-definition in a world of prejudicial signifiers. “I practice self-target practice. There is no sight of me // in my wears. I bedecked in No-Wrinkle Dockers. Sensible / navy blazer. Barack Obama tie, Double-Consciousness / knotted.” Even the president could not untie this knot, nor African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in another Silencer poem, and how could he “when a man is a concept / made of ash and scholarship”? Wicker underscores the silencing here with those “sh” sounds.

Many of these poems imitate the language of prayer. In “Ars Poetica” he explains, “I did leave the church. I kept / praise, its utterances.” At times, Wicker adopts the syntactical and spiritual formality of Hopkins and Donne even as he considers the most pressing issues of the day, including racism and physical brutality. In “Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church,” for example, the inverted syntax sounds archaic, perhaps to suggest the endless procession of violence against African Americans:

If in his image made am I, then make my vessel a pearl Coupe de Ville.
Make mine the body of a 28-year-old black woman
in a blue patterned maxi dress cruising through Hell on Earth, TX
again alive. If in his image made are we, then why
the endless string of effigies?
Why so many mortal blasphemes?

The final section of Silencer is called “Cul de Sac Pastoral.” These poems reveal an anxiety of growing complacent, co-opted: “The danger in consuming the Grey Poupon is believing / that you, too, can be a first-generation member of the elite, / turning your nose up at soul music, simple joy, fried foods.” Poems here mock the preternatural quiet of the suburbs, a silence which he seems to implicitly argue could only have been earned at the expense of others.

This is Wicker’s second book of poems. The first was a National Poetry Series selection called Maybe the Saddest Thing. That volume was more playful, with references to dance, music and even love letters, to Flava Flav, RuPaul, and Justin Timberlake. Silencer is sadder than the Saddest Thing. While there are still poems deeply imbued with a love of hip-hop idols, particularly rappers such as Kendrick Lamar, the Geto Boys, and Tupac Shakur, who are politically engaged and outspoken, the tone here is often elegiac. In “My 31st Year,” a poem addressed to Tupac, for example, Wicker offers this sonic explosion: “the red Rorschach splotches / of cop-shot bodies you must stomach.” Here and elsewhere, Wicker offers ample evidence of his own verbal firepower, the linguistic bang and muzzle flash of his potent intellect and imagination. His is a voice that refuses to be silenced.

About the Reviewer

John S. O’Connor is a public school teacher and an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He is the author of two books on writing, Wordplaygrounds and This Time It’s Personal, as well as a chapbook of poetry, Rooting. His poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East, RHINO, and The Cortland Review. His essays have appeared in Harvard Review , Under the Sun , and Schools, and have been named Notable in Best American Essays and Best American Sportswriting. O’Connor is also the creator and host of Schooled: the Podcast.