Comprised of postcard-length poems written to Lil Wayne during his 2010 incarceration on Riker’s Island, Lauren Ireland’s Dear Lil Wayne employs Wayne as a conduit for Ireland’s own vulnerabilities. The date-stamped poems reveal the poet’s angst-ridden struggles with universal concerns—love and rejection, isolation and longing, magnetism and repulsion—in surprising, dissociative threads: “Childhood is supposed to be happy, but all I remember is being embarrassed for 19 years,” she writes, “Teach me how to swagger.”
Ireland, a self-described former debutante from suburban Maryland, uses the lightness of non-sequitur to balance her existential queries. These digressions prove less effective when they veer away from empathy, bypassing a deeper interrogation of the ways in which race, privilege, and place inform perspective. Too often the poems run aground on the poet’s pedestrian concerns: “There’s a piteous rain. Are you feeling something? I am. I am both lost and in love, which means the terror of being free.” When she does this, the tension between her speaker and her subject goes slack; after all, a Black man in Rikers has a fundamentally different relationship to “terror” and / or “freedom” than a White writer living, by choice, in a gentrifying Brooklyn. Every isolation is not equal and Ireland’s conflation suggests naiveté.
Ireland’s letters frequently reduce Lil Wayne’s fertile subjectivity to various manifestations of a passive object: a therapist who can only listen (“Do you know what it’s like to be crazy? I think it’s like this, only a lot more fun.”), an estranged friend who is never allowed to answer (“Why did you let me cut my bangs.”), and an object of lust (“You’re an amazing fucker. Even when you’re standing in one place.”). Wayne’s status as a captive audience (“Have you ever been to Philadelphia? Well, you’re in jail, so.”) brings Ireland’s representation of Wayne dangerously close to the maligned and tired trope of the ‘Magical Negro’ (“Lil Wayne, I am sure everything mystical springs from your head.”). None of this alone dooms Ireland’s poems. But the book begs for profounder inquiry, anything to complicate its core relationship. Thus, its failure to address Lil Wayne’s objectification of women in his music (an analog for Ireland’s own task) registers as a missed opportunity. Ultimately the book becomes an unwitting, unintended metaphor for how society handles Black men—invisible objects of its collective imagination, ragdolls without will.