For Robert Frost, forests and woods inspire contemplation of roads not chosen and “miles to go.” But a look at the work of African-American poets such as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Angelina Weld Grimké, Terrance Hayes, and now Marcus Wicker reveals trees to be less innocent, associated often with the terror of lynching.
Wicker, an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana, signifies on this long association of trees with lynching—dating back even to the spiritual that first associated Christ with a lynch victim: “Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?”—in his poem “Self-Dialogue Camping at Yellowwood State Forest.” The poem depicts the narrator on a camping trip with ten friends in Brown County, Indiana. Though the narrator doesn’t specify the race of either self or friends, he alone in this “Self-Dialogue” associates trees with lynching, seeing “Red & white pines / resemble neat rows / Of nooses / hung from navy sky”—a tableau that by invoking the colors of the national flag identifies this form of terror as peculiarly American. The narrator refers to himself in second person, a technique befitting a “self-dialogue” or what WEB DuBois called “double consciousness”: “Can even one of ten friends see / you struggle / For space inside / a gutted speck of forest?” The forward slash deployed mid-line, like the slanting trees of Yellowwood, makes the rather short measures of the poem even more claustrophobic.
Terrance Hayes has praised “the vigilant conversation with the world and with the self” in Wicker’s book, and that capacity for dialogue, particularly with pop culture antecedents, is most audible in the unrhymed couplet concluding this sonnet-like poem, where the narrator says, “The next morning smells of quelled fire / The next morning sings of deliverance.” Two of only three lines not broken by a forward slash, they nonetheless do not promise genuine deliverance but instead resonate with the 1972 John Boorman film, based on James Dickey’s novel, in which four city slickers are attacked by rifle-wielding locals in backwoods Georgia. In other words, this self-dialogue does not end with relief or consolation but instead with an intensification of terror, magnified by an iconic cinematic moment.
Self-Dialogue: Camping at Yellowwood State Park Driving east on 45 Red & white pines / resemble neat rows Of nooses / hung from navy sky / knotting All / the oxygen surrounding your frame. Can even one of ten friends see / you struggle For space inside / a gutted speck of forest? Does anyone notice / the way trees shrink Breath inside / your tiny throat? Someone sees / makes a joke about death That lashes your spine / with cold / pimpled fear. Nightfall chatters in space / between lips & your stomach / is stuffed with white teeth. The next morning smells of quelled fire. The next morning sings of deliverance.
This poem appears in Maybe the Saddest Thing (Harper Collins, 2012), a National Poetry Series selection in 2011.