Blood by Shane McCrae

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Shane McCrae’s astounding third collection of poems, Blood, is a book of dramatic slave narratives that are written so close to the bone that every poem reads like an insider’s account of what happened inside the burning frame of a history nobody read. This is a treatise about slavery in every conveyance of the word: slavery to the man, to the Klan, to the child, to the land, to a murderous heart, to bad thinking, to the betrayed and to the betrayer. And every poem seems to be written from the place of some final recognition, a reckoning: This is who I am. This is what happened to me. This is what happened to us, as a people:

Well some of us escaped
into the swamp and some of us
Snuck back quick to our masters    and our masters knew
who stayed and who

Ran with the rebels to    / Kill with the rebels
still    / Some of us snuck back quick
we knew we valuable
Besides you kill a man you can’t

Murder him forever
not even for that stretch of forever
white folks own
but only negroes get
old in    and some of us
snuck back heavy
like how the first thing I
Done with my freedom was I thought

Who do I got to kill
to get all the way free
And it was    more people than it was
alive in the world

“After The Uprising”

This is the concluding poem and it makes for a stunning last tape—if one considers how the book reads like oral history and calls into question—as many of the poems here do—the confounding notion of what freedom means when one lives as a casualty of history and life is defined by what it instinctively opposes: captivity, mostly, and killing. Everything that happens in “After the Uprising” forecasts ruin and self defeat. “Who do I got to kill/to get all the way free.” Everything happens at the same time nothing continues to happen. Rage makes a circle of rage.

Murder, suicide and a seemingly endless trail of dead children rain down on these pages where the weather never changes; burning crosses; people burned alive—such atrocities bleed into the language while the syntax constantly doubles back on itself in horror and amazement, as if to say, there’s no sure language for this. Was there ever sure language for this?

Was a revival a was    / A tent revival the
preacher he had
Preacher he couldn’t stop himself
From showing off  his baby’s corpse
from “Revival”

Or this:

Owed him his wages when he asked
the white man stood and shook
a hammer in his face
And so he hit the white man with the hammer
And ran he didn’t
from “Why They Burned Him”

Or this:

Klan didn’t want    most of the time they wasn’t want / To rape nobody most
of the time the Klan they want is scare    people but first they had to kill ‘em
Kill him you got a nigger scared for life
from “To Show”

Blood is as radical in structure as it is in the unbridled wildness of its emotional center. Lines descend on the page in varying lengths usually culminating into a single stanza and often broken or interrupted by a caesura or sutured with a slash—a blade, appropriately—or, as I came to think of the slash: a mark in the account where the tape got spliced. It’s a powerful visual effect—where the content is so married to its delivery—and approaches—strange and as hallucinatory as it can be—the dignity of oration. These are poems that are unrelenting and immediate—never delicate and never gentle.

Blood is many things, as the title itself is many things—a book that feels as though it came out through the fever-like collective mind of slaves intent on getting the history down right while keeping sure the proximity to atrocity doesn’t destroy the witness in process. There’s an overwhelming sense through the entire book—particularly in the way it pushes through grammatical awkwardness—that it was written in a hurry and should be read in a hurry—before it catches on fire. But you really don’t read Blood, as much as watch it move across time, like a newsreel.

And the news here is people. Like Margaret Garner, (the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Beloved) who, killed her own daughter so she wouldn’t have to be returned to slavery and, in “Margaret Garner in Canann Land,” merges her father, her master and a lawyer together to tell a her freedom story—which is always a story about rebellion:

“My father once    took me across the river
To Cincinnati I was seven not
My father but my master    on the ferry
and the lawyer said my lawyer after
Running    my lawyer in Ohio
Said I could have claimed my freedom then
White men in Cincinnati
would have fought to make me free
Lawyers like him…”

The pattern in Blood is one of echo and fragmentation and dislocation as it applies to time, but also as it applies to the soul inside the body. The poems come barreling across their history in a kind of brutal dreamscape. These are missives that confront captivity as much as they consider flight; poems about love as much as they are about murder—always this study in contrasts not only in how the personal is measured, but in how history insinuates itself upon personal memory itself. Here’s the end of “Priscilla”:

“I cut her sister Mary’s throat
And hit her    Cilla with a coal
shovel the flat of the blade / Swung
down    like I was putting out a fire

So hard I couldn’t hear    the sound of her body    between the noise of the shovel
and the noise of the floor beneath her
And then the Master caught my arm pulled    me away
And then I heard her cry again

And jumped in after
I heard her had heard her crying   / After she hit the water
But didn’t   in the water
hear her anymore

And I was happy then
And I was happy to be saved…”

Every poem is set in the same register. Again, the words double back on themselves. But the thoughts do, too, and the lines stretch out as if being unraveled more than merely being reconsidered—fractured and put back together again to make the meaning and make it again: true—a testament beyond its own meaning. Something is occult here. And there is such a precise awareness of how the heart informs language more than, perhaps, the mind. In Blood, it is the heart that remembers what the mind can’t even fathom.

Michael Klein’s third book of poems is The Talking Day (Sibling Rivalry Press). His books of prose are The End of Being Known and Track Conditions and work is forthcoming in Provincetown Arts, Folio and Poetry magazine. He writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books and teaches at Goddard College in Vermont. More from this author →