Book Review

My Race Sees Me: Three African-American Poets

I once attended a debate between two distinguished poets, both women, who were to discuss whether one wrote as a woman poet, or as a poet who happened to be a woman. I don’t recall who won, but perhaps that’s less important than the fact of the debate itself: it indicates how, if one is not from a dominant group, the question of identity can’t be taken for granted; even if one wants to shunt it aside and write of other things, one often feels compelled to make a case for doing so. If this is true for women, even several generations into feminism’s transformation of the world, it is emphatically so for African-American writers —especially in a time when police violence against black people in America has become more widely visible than ever. 2017 may have been an especially difficult year for people of color in America, but, as recent books by Evie Shockley, Marcus Wicker, and Cameron Barnett make plain, it has also been an outstanding year for African-American poetry.

Evie Shockley’s third book of poetry, semiautomatic,[1] certainly addresses issues of African-American identity and the racially charged political urgencies of our time, even as her poems refuse to be limited to such issues. The book is notable not only for the way it navigates questions of identity and politics, but for the variety and virtuosity of its use of form. Form, for Shockley, begins with music. How couldn’t it? The daughter of a jazz musician, she grew up in Nashville in a part of town where one could come to believe that “any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime.” “My relation to poetry was shaped,” she says, “by the jump-rope and hand-game songs the girls in my neighborhood sang.” These sounds, along with Mother Goose and Ogden Nash, worked their way into the deep recesses of her mind and find their way into her poetry, even as she explores a wide range of formal possibilities. In semiautomatic, we find poems that show considerable agility with traditional forms like the Spenserian stanza, as well as innovations with rhymes and refrains, such as in “a-lyrical ballad (or, how america reminds us of the value of family),” which tells the story of race-based murder in America from the days of midcentury lynchings through the deaths of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and other victims of contemporary police violence. It opens with three stanzas on Emmett Till, the form of which (rhymes of xAA//xx//BB) repeats throughout the poem, along with the insistent italicized refrain that ends each section:

he was a boy from chicago, in mississippi heat,
being as bad as a good boy could be,
whistling his eyeful of an off-limits she,

and her menfolk dragged him out of bed, beat him to death, tied
a cotton gin to his body, and sank him in the tallahatchie river.

it was three days before the remains were retrieved.
and the family grieved ~ o ~ the black family grieved

Such grieving, Shockley implies, is the harsh and lamentable method by which our country has taught, and continues to teach, African-Ameri­cans the value of family.

Evie Shockley never met a formal constraint she didn’t like, especially if it’s based, one way or another, on sound. In “a dark scrawl,” for example, she gives us a univocalic poem, limited to a single vowel. “war can’t amass a brass tack. war’s / all bad acts and lack, scandal // and graft . . .” it begins, creating a music harsh enough to match its topic. Reading “a dark scrawl,” one feels as if Christian Bök, that great­est of living lipogrammatic poets, had suddenly discovered that an emphasis on language games need not exclude a commitment to politics.

Another poem, “supply and demand,” uses the simplest possible technique—the substitution of one term for another in familiar adages—to tremendous effect. “the more black boys you have, the more you want,” it begins, “you act like we’re swimming in black boys. / you can’t keep black boys in your pocket.” What at first seems merely surreal soon reveals its edge, and not only when we realize the term for which “black boys” has been substituted is “money” or “dollars” (a sharp comment on the treatment of African-Americans as commodities in, and beyond, the slave economy):

if you had a million black boys, what would you do with them?
do you think we’re made of black boys?
your black boys are all tied up in property.
black boys won’t solve all your problems.
you don’t just find black boys lying in the street.
it takes black boys to make black boys.
most people don’t know how to save black boys.
black boys don’t grow on trees.

The end is devastating: just as we sadly shake our heads, realizing that we number among those who do not know how to save black boys, we are confronted with an image that makes us think of “Strange Fruit” and the lynching of young black men. Those lynched bodies certainly didn’t grow in those trees: men—white men—put them there.

Sometimes Shockley will use sound echoes to guide the movement of her writing from phrase to phrase—a form, like rhyme or anaphora, liberates the poet from saying the predictable thing. In some of her prose poems the effect is similar to what we see in similar works by Harryette Mullen. Watch how Shockley moves from thought to thought in this passage from “that’s a rap (sheet music for alphabet street),” and you’ll get a sense of the effect:

if I sang the blues would that be new? or knew? would boos follow blues? Would blood follow, bud, flower, flow, sang-froid, cold-blooded, hot-blooded, male :: if i sang frigid would that be cool?

There is, or can be, a magic to this sort of prose poem in performance, an incantatory quality and a wit that we still feel, if we want to, when the words lie silent on the page.

Some of Shockley’s most powerful work is hard to excerpt, taking, as it does, the form of large-scale collage, in which two texts are placed in intriguing juxtaposition. One such piece in semiautomatic juxtaposes passages from Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with an account of present-day sex trafficking in America. Another, “from Topsy in Wonderland,” inserts the slave girl from Uncle Tom’s Cabin into incidents from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, showing how the presence of a black body modifies the fantastic incidents Lewis describes.

As persistent as semiautomatic’s emphasis on racial justice is, the book also emphasizes that no life is, or should be, exhausted by any single concern, no matter how urgent. In “mirror and canvas,” for example, we see Shockley sketching quick portraits of herself in multiple aspects:

self-portrait with cats, with purple, with stacks
of half-read books adorning my desk, with coffee,

with mug, with yesterday’s mug. self-portrait
with guilt, with fear, with thick-banded silver ring,

painted toes, and no make-up on my face. self-
portrait with twins, with giggles, with sister at

last, with epistrophy, with crepuscle with nellie,
with my favorite things. self-portrait with hard

head, with soft light, with raised eyebrow. self-portrait

surprise. self-portrait with patience, with political
protest, with poetry, with papers to grade.

Ordinary and a little overwhelmed, containing modest multitudes, Shockley is always with her poetry and her protest, but not only with them. To insist on this is to insist on the full humanity America too often denies whole categories of its citizens.
Like Evie Shockley, Marcus Wicker has been writing with the recent victims of American racial violence in mind. His second book of poems, Silencer,[2] even addresses many of the same figures as does Shockley’s semiautomatic: both books reference Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and the mass shooting of African-American churchgoers by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Often, Wicker returns to a haunting sense of how impossible it is for an African-American man to escape the threat of violence: it is clear to him that this is a problem from which education and middle-class prosperity will not deliver him. In “Watch Us Elocute,” for example, he recounts an all-too-familiar scene, in which a well-meaning white woman tells a black man how well spoken he is. Wicker’s autobiographically-based speaker tells us he generates this sort of reaction from white people with some frequency and speculates on the cause, saying, “I must seem ‘safe.’” But the poem, which is dated June 18, 2015—the day of Dylann Roof’s murderous crime—goes on to recount the sad story of the killing of an assembly of eminently respectable people, all of them:

black believers in an AME church in Charleston.
Among them a pastor-senator, an elderly tenor,

beloved librarian, a barber with a business degree
who adored his mom & wrote poems, about

the same age as me.

“No, friends” concludes the poem, with a devastating play on words, “None of us is safe.”

This sense of vulnerability haunts many of the poems of Silencer. We see it, for example, in “Taking Aim at a Macy’s Changing Room Mirror, I Blame Television.” Here, after listing stereotypes about black men “in boot cuffs wide enough to cloak court-appointed tethers. / Or slumped over, hoodie-shrouded—sheepishly scary”—he looks at himself in the mirror. What he sees is the same “safe” figure described in “Watch Us Elocute”:

I bedecked in No-Wrinkle Dockers. Sensible
navy blazer. Barack Obama Tie, Double Consciousness-
knotted. Stock dandelion pinned to the skin of an American
lapel . . .

And yet he cannot imagine safety for himself—the image dissolves into one of violent death, the preppy figure vanishing “with his head blown off.”

Other poems in Silencer address less extreme forms of racial violence, the kind of micro-aggressions that, cumulatively, burrow into the unconscious, rendering one perpetually ill-at-ease. Sometimes this is simply a matter of strategic silence on the part of white people when certain topics arise: the phenomenon from which the book, like a number of its poems (“Silencer on the Arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. After Sassing an Officer Who Assumed He’d Unlawfully Entered His Own Home,” for example), draws its title. Sometimes Wicker shows micro-aggression in academic contexts, with a friend calling him “his / boy” in a dean’s house, over the olives and brie, as Wicker floats above the scene in alienation. We see it more frequently in the poems devoted to life in suburbia, a place always depicted with a slight sense of menace, with “its chemical lawns, tender- / skinned children, its Uzi sprinkler heads.” At one point we read that “The tender / kin who invented that adage about good fences must have been black // & living in a cul-de-sac.” Reading Wicker’s poems about awkward encounters over the broad lawns and barbecue grills, one cedes the point, Robert Frost’s actual whiteness notwithstanding.

Silencer is a less formally audacious book than semiautomatic: one doesn’t emerge from reading it with the sense of endless versatility and universal virtuosity one gets from Shockley’s book. What one does get, though, is a powerful sense of a voice—a speaking voice—calling out from a place of deep loneliness. The poems seem written to be performed, sometimes even including asides such as “is this thing on?” that indicate the presence of a microphone and an audience. This shouldn’t surprise us given Wicker’s background. His first meaningful exposure to poetry, he has said, came in the tenth grade when a teacher took him to the National Youth Poetry Slam, inspiring him to revisit the material in his notebooks, casting them in slam style. He’s also indebted to the verbal culture of hip-hop performance, alluding to rap lyrics and combining classical literary and hip-hop terms.

The lonely quality of the voice Wicker cultivates in Silencer is, in large part, the product of his frequent use of absent or dead addressees, often African-American celebrities like Will Smith and Tupac Shakur. This technique is a carryover from his previous collection, Maybe the Saddest Thing, in which poems were addressed to figures from pop culture and literature such as RuPaul, Pam Grier, and Etheridge Knight. More often, though, the poems of Silencer take the form of prayers addressed to an elusive or unresponsive God. Sometimes, as in “The Way We Were Made,” this God is a source of guilt regarding one’s desires:

You made every
necklace clasp.
But you made them
caress the nape
like an errant wind
after a shower.
But you made every
eyelash erotic . . .
. . . .
Made every glorious
singing thigh.
. . . .
In every wrong way.

At other times, though—as in “On Being Told Prayer Is a Crutch”—Wicker’s God is a source of enormous comfort in an alienating place and an age of dislocation. The value of addressing God, Wicker writes, lies in

the immediacy

of a just-thought
thought, thundering
into a device

of my own decided making,
prayer. You know it as Siri.
I call it instant intimacy.

What, ultimately, does Wicker yearn for, from his place of loneliness, danger, and injustice? For things both simple and profound. He wishes to be made whole—“O Lord,” he writes in “Prayer on Aladdin’s Lamp,” “make me me.” And he wishes to be free. We see this final wish most clearly in “Conjecture on the Dream”:

The danger in consuming the Grey Poupon is believing
that you, too, can be a first-generation member of the elite,
turning up your nose at soul music, simple joy, fried foods,
casual Fridays—essentially everything I’m made of. But because
it feels mischievous I sometimes indulge the Dream.
. . . .
Being true only to the concerns of my own choosing could prove
to be a welcome luxury.

But Wicker knows the exact degree to which such freedoms are an illusion: he will always be seen a certain way, be treated a certain way, suffer from the lack of a certain safety many of us take for granted. Concerns of his own choosing would indeed be a welcome luxury, and it is an indictment of our time and place that they remain, for him, more aspiration than actuality.
Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, Amadou Diallo, Philando Castile, and Trayvon Martin are just a few of the victims of race-based violence named in The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water,[3] Cameron Barnett’s debut collection of poems. Images of water pervade the book. They are often threatening, evoking an element in which we must either preserve ourselves by constant effort or drown: in Barnett’s hands, water becomes a metaphor for many things, most notably for America as experienced by people of color.

The book is a well-constructed, cohesive collection in which form recedes into the background, refusing to draw attention to itself. Although many of the poems are meditation- or anecdote-based free verse affairs, some are presented as lists of facts, series of questions, or, in one case, a mock-quiz composed of problems impossible to solve. Some of the most powerful poems—like those in Marcus Wicker’s Silencer—are composed as addresses to absent interlocutors. One of these, “To the Octopus,” shows Barnett chafing at the pressures placed on African-Americans to fit into a certain identity box—pressure sometimes generated from within the African-American community itself:

I got coldcocked in the mouth once
by a kid blacker than me for Talking
white to him outside the cafeteria,
lost four teeth to the tiled hallway,

painted a stripe of red down my shirt.
I’d speak to you of pain, but I’m telling you
a story you already know. I have seen you
cling to coral so tight you become every color

all at once. Camouflage is essential.

“I’m trying,” Barnett writes to the octopus later in the poem, “to be more like you.” Camouflage and escape are appealing, but Barnet often finds himself stuck within a world that confronts him with the persistent question of race. In “Fresh Prince,” for example, he reminisces about growing up with the 1990s Will Smith sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and how, “raised in Pittsburgh, / and mostly surrounded by white kids,” he found himself treated as if his ethos was, naturally, that of the show’s protagonist. His peers simply had no other experience of what it meant to be black, and he felt the pressure of their expectations. The situation is certainly less violent than the punch to the face in “To the Octopus,” but the problem is, in essence, the same: to be African-American is to exist with an identity that comes with an enormous amount of preconceptions about who you are imposed upon you from all directions. “I am already a symbol,” Barnett writes in “Nonbinding Legislation, or A Resolution.” He may not like it, but he cannot avoid the situation. As he writes later in the poem, “the race card is now everyone’s card / in a deck I did not cut. I hate card games.” The final stanza of the poem shows Barnett struggling with the reduction of his identity to the color of his skin:

Therefore be it resolved: I do not care
for my skin because it’s always been
about my skin—but I have never been
about my skin. Not completely. Who is
this dying to wear my skin now?

That “not completely” speaks volumes: for Barnett, there is no escape from racial identity.

Even in poems that concern themselves with other questions entirely, race creeps in at the margins. “Stack,” for example, is a soft-spoken, well-made anecdotal lyric about fathers and sons. Here, the speaker and his father stack firewood in the backyard. We see the terse exchange familiar to many filial relationships: “We talk with our eyes / to the ground, turning each log bark-side down.” We see the changing relationship of the two men when the speaker needs to descend a slope and finds the ensuing tableau symbolic:

When the rack is full, an old tarp
blown down the hill calls for a rope around a tree and me rappelling

through a thicket of dead leaves. I tie my waist and he holds
the neck of the line. I almost say something about childhood . . .

We see, too, the father’s desire to pass on wisdom, carefully laying up the wood and commenting “You can tell a lot about a family // by how it stacks its woodpile.” But even in this scene, depicting the kind of relationship we find in any group, perhaps in any century, Barnett cannot escape consciousness of race. “The bark and I / share the same hue, I almost say.” One wonders about that “almost” and the significance of the holding back. Perhaps, like the withheld comment on how the rope incident reflects childhood dependence, it is simply an apt image for the reticence of so many men when speaking to their fathers. Or perhaps it is something more, reflecting the speaker’s desire to experience something that feels universal rather than specific to race.

The Drowning Boy’s Guide to Water ends with a piece that is both a poem and a kind of “About the Author” note titled “Notes on Cameron Barnett”:

When I say I do not care for my skin, when I say I wanted to get rid of it, when I say it has given me everything, when I say it does nothing for me, when I say I am numb, when I say I don’t see my own race, when I say it sees me, when I say every consequence carries a color, when I say you can have it, when I say it is mine . . . what do you hear?

It is a question asked, one way or another, not only by Barnett, but by Evie Shockley and Marcus Wicker. And it is a question we all ought to spend some time trying to answer.
[1] SEMIAUTOMATIC, by Evie Shockley. Wesleyan University Press. $24.95.
[2] SILENCER, by Marcus Wicker. Mariner Books. $15.99p.
[3] THE DROWNING BOY’S GUIDE TO WATER, by Cameron Barnett. Autumn House. $17.95p.