The poetry of Shane McCrae has been celebrated for its unflinching engagement of race, identity and trauma, particularly as experienced by a speaker who personifies the collision between whiteness and blackness. His three previous books, Mule, Blood, and Forgiveness Forgiveness (all three published within the last five years) are so close in subject matter that they create an extended narrative of one interracial speaker’s awareness of his place in the troubled American landscape. McCrae’s skillful use of the fragmented line only adds to the tension of the raw delivery of this difficult personal story embedded within the larger conversations of this country’s history of violence and racism.
In his latest collection of poems The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books), the interracial speaker returns to his formative years, “Growing up black white trash.” This arresting self-designation becomes an unsettling chorus that challenges the reader to contend with the speaker’s unusual upbringing by a family of white supremacists: “Growing up black white trash” meant growing up drawing swastikas on t-shirts, bemoaning the fall of the Nazi Party and “growing up raised by nigger.” But in order to move “safely” through this racist space, the speaker has to become complicit in his invisibility:
You grow up no inside
you grow up void surrounding
You grow up never sure you see yourself in mirrors
You grow up thinking what you see / Is only it might be
90% / Accurate maybe less
And though he becomes disembodied—or “skinned”—that doesn’t protect him from catching glimpses of his true self, acknowledging the inherent contradictions of his “black white trash” identity. The poem “What It Takes to Get the Attention of White Liberals” details the speaker’s need to be accepted by the white gaze, not for what it sees on the surface, but for the unassailable reality of his complexity beyond the skin. The speaker, longing for a friendship with a white boy in the neighborhood, encounters the harsh consequences of prejudice:
He sees your desperation and he hates you for it you
embarrass him with his own beauty
Your desperation and your ugliness
what you and he have been raised to see as your ugliness
The first part of the book provides one unrelenting scene after another in which this interracial speaker who embodies both whiteness and blackness is forced to experience his childhood as if they are mutually exclusive. How does such a person transcend that damage? How does such a wound heal? The answer lies in the organizing principle of the book, which is divided into three sections subsequently labeled “Morning Prayer,” “Midday Prayer,” and “Evening Prayers.” Appealing to a higher power is one step toward salvation.
The journey toward religion, however, is not expressed through a conventional “born again” narrative: redemption comes from revisiting bible stories in terms that curtail the familiar lessons and that reach for ambiguity and open-endedness. When Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers, for example, the speaker adds:
You also cursed a fig tree never to produce / Fruit again
because you have come to it hungry Lord
and found it barren
And in the retelling of the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus, the speaker wonders why the perfume wasn’t instead “sold and the money given to the poor.” These daring questions and reinterpretations show a once-repressed mind unleashed upon a plane that permits contemplation and imagination: literacy. The first hint of this need to expand his world through books is in the poem “Empathy Erases the Heart”: “Growing up black white trash you read/ Poetry yes Shel Silverstein/ Novels for kids about smart kids who don’t fit in.” But with religion, the speaker also finds a path toward spiritual enlightenment, self-acceptance, and even forgiveness. In the title poem, which also opens the collection, the animal too big too kill is a composite of all the animals the speaker ate before he giving up eating meat. With the invocation of God, the poem reads like a biblical allegory, though the reader eventually begins to extrapolate the levels of guilt and regret embodied by this early appeal for redemption.
In the longest poem of the book “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” the words are actually statements attributed to Jesus during the crucifixion. McCrae presents the statements out of sequence, each adding a scene to the plight of the interracial speaker who is undergoing his own transformative journey. The metaphorical death and rebirth is positioned as a descent into the dreamscape of the subconscious, he’s
Sure not sure whether
Are part of old things
Or new or sepa-
rate things their own
Things and so he
Might be in the dream
The speaker, in an act of self-discovery and recovery, must reconcile the two components of his identity and so he enters a realm—his inner sanctum—in which such a seemingly impossible existence has always been true. With inner peace comes the act of renewal, emerging from the darkness—a kind of resurrection—as a visible being with his own language in order to tell (indeed, to write) his story:
Silence is for
Outside the power
Of your imagi-
nation and when you
Try to imagine
Past the blackness
The blackness goes
Away but you
See letters black
ters on a white
bled as if they
Had been dumped out
Of a bag
The book’s “Evening Prayers” is comprised of only two shorter poems. The first, “I Know It’s Hard for You to Believe You Still Benefit from Slavery,” asks the (white) reader/ the white self to consider a historical photograph of a black boy tied to a pickaxe. The challenge is to look at the photograph not through the white gaze but through the black gaze—the speaker’s gaze, he who identifies (after his spiritual rebirth) with the black body imprisoned by/ inside whiteness. As a metaphor representing his personal history, not just the history of the USA, the ability to view the imagery as both indictment of the past and as evidence of transcendence, survival and perseverance offers a small but hard-won glimmer of hope. The interior struggle is never-ending. After all, the speaker is only human, fallible and imperfect, as shown in the closing poem “The Calf,” in which the speaker admits that he has faltered—despite the initial guilt expressed in that prophetic opening poem “The Animal Too Big to Kill”—and has eaten meat.
McCrae’s latest book is a perfect conclusion to a stunning tetralogy that approaches a difficult subject matter with a challenging use of metaphor, trope, and allegory. This delicately crafted narrative, now four books long, is a testament to a personal experience so powerful, so complicated, it needed to be revisited and reconsidered through different angles. If a fifth book, like a fifth chapter, is forthcoming, then given the history and success of McCrae’s previous works, it will be just as compelling and rewarding.