The reflective and observant nature of the speaker creates a sense of subtle wisdom that clips [Shane] McCrae’s signature, disruptive syntax.
Shane McCrae’s first book of poetry, Mule, heavily toys with syntax and sound as it studies different relationships– one’s relationship to god, to an autistic child, to a mother, to a spouse, and to a bi-racial self– and creates a disoriented speaker who is evaluating the choices that make a life.
McCrae writes like a film projector– remember being in health class with the teacher who didn’t know how to work the projector? Remember how there’d be a slide showing a dazed child and then the teacher would bump the projector somehow and suddenly you’d see the same slide, but either more blurred or larger? It was the same image and the same story, but the perspective was somehow skewed. McCrae creates that sensation with every other line in his poetry. He states something, and then re-states it differently, adding tension.
And we divorced in any anyhow/ But sudden anyhow
but hurry we /Divorced in sudden hurry the affair/ Become the main thing don’t
want to be mar-/ried still become the main thing anyhow
Already sit and don’t go out
This film projector method adds tension, and however praiseworthy that may be, it did not hault me from wondering if the syntax was too disruptive. Poet Tony Hoagland posed the question in September 2010’s Poetry “Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldiness,” “Should we praise a book for its intriguing concept and method, or even its brilliant individual lines, if the method creates monotony?” McCrae has created an intriguing concept for toying with sounds and toying with the reader’s perspective, but this method is not always successful.
Ocassionally, the syntax overpowers a poem’s plot. In “Pieta,” a poem about how we treat the body or how we should treat it, the reader will instead focus on the repetition of the word “body,” “yes,” and “monstrous.” The reader will be forced to play connect-the-dots with the poem in order to decipher the poet’s intent. Sometimes the poet’s intent or a poem’s meaning will be lost on the reader entirely. In spite of McCrae’s heavy handed attempt to disorient the reader, however, he’s actually created a vulnerable speaker who is himself disoriented and divorced from his life and relationships. The speaker of these poems is observant yet confused; here’s an example from “Singing,” a poem about being left, damaged, in ruins:
We were back then a problem
now we are/ A problem
but we’re not the same
problem we were/ Unsatisfied we wanted what they had
We want what we had then we didn’t know
We had it then we didn’t know how far
We’d have to go how much we’d lose
Mule is separated into seven sections, each containing a different motif. The poems that shine most, or that arguably would be considered more consumer-friendly, are found in section three. These are the poems that let the content speak the most with the least radical syntactics. This section is about the speaker’s relationship to his autistic child, tracing the child’s struggle with autism as well as the parent’s ability to cope. The child, Nicholas, is a vibrantly well-created character who forgets certain words, calls twilight “little dark,” and sparks arguments about responsibility, namely what would happen to Nicholas if his parents passed and he were forever alone.
one day our son one day/ Who looked so much like me he does-
n’t anymore and we in there/ Are dancers
and I see us separating/ In him
his face that was my face/ Becoming yours /His nose still mine
I see us separating
He rides his bike in circles on a hill
The ache in his legs whenever he turns back
Here we see a father watching himself in his child who is maturing but not yet independent, who may never be independent. Here’s a child who will ride a bike in circles even if his legs hurt, just because. It’s about a father’s love, a man’s love, that is sometimes complicated. The reflective and observant nature of the speaker creates a sense of subtle wisdom that clips McCrae’s signature, disruptive syntax. The last line in the last poem, “[Lord God Lord Basket Lord]” perfectly sums the entire collection’s motif: “And those who love You though not always well.” It’s this complicated wisdom that will leave the reader feeling like a better person for having read it, for walking in that strong speaker’s shoes. Pardon the idiom.