The Last Poem I Loved: “The Hell Poem” by Shane McCrae


Many poets write from dreams, but few poets alive today have embarked on the monumental visio, or dream vision, genre of poetry. In its classic form, the visio reveals knowledge not usually accessible to the quotidian mind of day: the divine mechanism of sin and punishment in the circles of Dante’s Inferno, for instance. The visio was a very popular genre in the early Medieval period and was resuscitated with enthusiasm by nineteenth-century Romantic poets, like negative capability Keats and untimely drowned Shelley, who believed dreams to be gateways to revelation. In a typical visio, a narrator recounts their experience of falling asleep and seeing a vision, or going on a dream journey, often with the aid of a guide. The visio ends with the narrator waking, determined to record the dream—thus producing the poem.

In Shane McCrae’s “The Hell Poem,” the culmination of his phantasmagoric 2019 collection The Gilded Auction Block, the waking part never happens—which is perhaps no accident for a poem that offers a particularly contemporary kind of Hell, situated in a book witnessing the grotesquery of America in the age of Trump.

It’s important to note how “The Hell Poem” is situated in The Gilded Auction Block as a whole. It follows twenty poems rich with allusions to figures and events in America’s racial history and in our recently departed Trump-inflated news cycle. When I taught this book to undergrads in the fall of 2019, I had them count how many allusions went over their heads and to look into at least two of them. For many, it was the first time they learned that the president had called Black Congresswoman Maxine Waters “an extraordinarily low IQ person,” or that in 2017 Code Pink activist Desiree Fairooz, protesting at Jeff Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become Attorney General, was arrested and prosecuted for laughing when a senator, speaking in favor of confirmation, proclaimed that “Jeff Sessions’s extensive record of treating all Americans equally under the law is clear and well-documented.” Speaking through Fairooz’s persona, McCrae indicts Sessions with his own words, writing:

America I’m laughing can you hear me
I’m laughing when I heard you say you ___weren’t
Racist because you shared a hotel room
On more than one occasion with a black

Lawyer I’m laughing while you worked to keep him
From voting can you hear me when I heard
You say you liked the KKK ___until___
You learned the Knights smoked pot I’m laughing

My students’ and my own unfamiliarity with some of McCrae’s allusions points to an education gap. This gap is not the same one with which we greet the allusions in perhaps the last great visio to appear in English: T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” In that poem, the knowledge gap is primarily literary. In The Gilded Auction Block the gap is historical, both history long past and history just barely having happened, particularly history as it has effected and continues to effect Black Americans. These allusion-rich poems say: you cannot fall asleep to the news of the day when what it reports begins to feel like a collection of omens—omens portending an intensification of beliefs and attitudes that will solidify into policies meant to harm you.

This idea isn’t news to any attentive poet reading and writing today; it informs some of the strongest work being produced by Black poets central to our current renaissance in political poetry: poets like Jericho Brown, Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, and Patricia Smith, to name but a few in a bounty of voices. What makes The Gilded Auction Block, and “The Hell Poem” in particular, so unusual is that it is firmly located in the American Gothic tradition and its offshoot, the American grotesque. Throughout McCrae’s book, American Gothic’s fascination with disturbed psychic states, especially nightmare and insanity, meets the grotesque’s interest in monsters, hybrids, and masks—all against the backdrop of an American experience and history that literally is a nightmare, meant to make you crazy, or dead.

Visios, as journey poems, often come with guides. If Dante had sad, patient Virgil, who, in Robert Pinsky’s translation, “seemed nearly to fade / As though from long silence,” the speaker of “The Hell Poem” gets a foul-mouthed robot bird, who makes one of the grand entrances in American poetry: looking like “a big gray seagull” it drops down between the speaker’s feet and starts barking like a dog:

__________barking it said Hey fuck you
asshole you fucking asshole fuck
You follow me and coughed this little
_______skeleton hand up
__________________middle finger up
__________________Then it took off

I love McCrae’s take here on the classic call to adventure, at the start of this infernal hero’s journey. The speaker and the robot bird have a few adventures together in “The Hell Poem,” though perhaps “adventure” is the wrong word: the speaker falls into a series of scenes that offer nothing but atmospheres of brutality and despair, in vividly grotesque tableaus. In section two of the poem, “The Tyrant Beetle at the Banks of the Living River of the Dead,” a giant, black, hundred-legged beetle with a pulsing orange belly addresses a row of “mumbling kneeling corpses” and says, perhaps with a cadence and vocabulary you’ll recognize, “Look at me __I’m a huge __success __you / want to know how I got to be where / I am __of course you do … see this tremendous line / of people here __I promise you / Trust me __ok __you will not find / A more tremendous group of people / … all waiting / For me __just to hear what I’ll say.” Suddenly the last corpse in the row gets up and walks into darkness and the speaker follows, soon realizing “the man who / Had risen was free __only to walk / From one oblivion to another.

At this point in reading “The Hell Poem,” it felt enjoyably strange and comic-booky, in a goth vein I was well-familiar with, because this vein has informed my own television and film watching for years. Indeed, by the time I read “The Hell Poem,” a new hybrid cinematic form had taken hold of the American imagination in Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). In those movies, the American Gothic tradition meets horror movie tropes meets Black historical and contemporary experience. What was especially thrilling about encountering that mode in “The Hell Poem” was that it was unfurling as verse—in a contemporary book of poems decidedly positioned as political. As we know, political poetry can sometimes seem earnest and humorless to a fault; The Gilded Auction Block, and “The Hell Poem” specifically, defied these tendencies, sometimes to grimly hilarious effect. But, while I found the robot bird surprising and funny, I also found the way it engaged the speaker puzzling: why did it speak so abusively to our dream journeyer? An answer soon arrived that deepened my appreciation for “The Hell Poem” and for McCrae as a subtle and canny dreamer.

After a set-piece that ends in our speaker getting clawed by The Angel of the Body, a demon in the horrific guise of a two-bodied, eight-limbed, two-faced child, he passes out and into a dream within a dream: “I dreamed I was alive I dreamed / in Hell I woke,” an anxiety dream where the he rests for what seems like years on a mountainside. The bird comes and goes many times, mentioning over and over “a test” he “might __not recog- / nizing it fail.” The speaker sits cross-legged, transfixed by pine trees moving as if breathed in and out by the mountain. The whole dream-within-a-dream has a metronymic feel and gets a little tedious in repetition: mimesis in action. Soon enough, though, the trees start climbing towards the speaker, their dark needles glowing redder. When they almost reach him, the bird shows up and steps between him and the climbing trees, which apparently mean our speaker harm, and begins to address them. McCrae writes that our robot bird:

…spoke a language I had never
Heard it sounded speaking like
Wind in pine needles the trees spoke back
They spoke __a different language back
Their language sounded like a bird’s
Wings flapping as it leaves a tree
But I could see they understood
Each other

The bird peaceably, through conversation, fends off the reddening trees and I thought: Aha! To trees it speaks tree-language, and the trees reply in bird. Could it be that the bird speaks the language of the listener, whoever or whatever the listener may be? Was the bird’s abusive, curse-laden addresses to our speaker the language he could best hear and respond to? By the logic of this Hell it seemed so! Either because of personal or societal experience, or both, he was expecting abuse and punishment, and this Hell was obliging.

The pines ignite and their needles flame all the way up to a hole in the sky until they are utterly dead. The bird turns to the speaker, who is still passively sitting and watching this conflagration, and barks, “Shit even this even Hell you think it’s / OK.” The bird loses it at this point and tries to lunge in rage at the speaker, but cannot, held back by whatever rules dictate its function in this Inferno. A hot light bursts from its back and it begins to melt, screaming. McCrae then ends the horror of the set-piece in what is to me an ironic gesture: a neatly rhymed iambic couplet: “That sounded like a world of screams / I heard the world and still I dreamed.”

In the visio, Wikipedia tells us, the narrator finds “potential resolutions to life concerns.” You might assume that in “The Hell Poem” the speaker’s concerns are related to social justice, especially after reading the first twenty poems in The Gilded Auction Block. But this is not explicitly stated anywhere in the poem. Throughout “The Hell Poem” the speaker is not positioned as a Seeker, but as a hapless, rather dissociated figure. Unlike Dante, who traverses Hell with decision and purpose, Hell happens to this speaker: he stumbles into it while walking around behind his apartment complex.

Of course, stumbling into the hell of racism and white supremacy is the foundational experience driving all the other poems in The Gilded Auction Block. “The Hell Poem” feels oriented differently. Once the speaker stumbles into Hell, Hell tries to talk to him, about himself: from the robot bird endlessly upbraiding him for his passivity and stupidity to the way, early in the poem, he falls through a hole sporting images of “people I had hurt / Through selfishness __through inattention /…I saw the harm I did.” After I read this passage, I assumed I was embarking on a pretty traditional sin/admission/penance/redemption journey. But then “even my / Harm disappeared I disappeared I / Had thought __at least the scars I made / Would be the scars I made forever.”

I’m fascinated that the speaker’s harm disappearing is a function of being in Hell. Most of us would feel relief at this development, but for the speaker it’s a source of misery. I think this is because, while the harm disappears, the speaker’s memories of it do not: his guilt and remorse remain. And if the evidence of harm disappears, so does the possibility of penance and forgiveness; penance and forgiveness depend on harm being witnessed and acknowledged. So, what kind of journey is this speaker on? What resolutions to life concerns does this Hell journey offer?

In “A Face,” the third section of the poem, the speaker, his clawed chest healed, falls awake into an old west ghost town. The robot bird shows up yet again and barks out a pre-recorded welcome message from the King of this Hell that includes some real talk on the nature of humans: “I made / You what you are __death-seeking // Out of pity for / My son __Death __who before / You couldn’t find a job.

After the bird delivers this message, it starts to leave but then turns back to the speaker. It tells him that “the boss”—King of Hell, Satan, Lucifer—was present at the beginning of the world: “…you want to know what / God said __what words God spoke to / Call humans into being / The boss says God said Snails // Make shells __humans make hells / And winked and there you were / And there was Hell beneath you / A face beneath a heel.” The only resolution this visio offers is confirmation that, to quote Robert Lowell, who borrowed it from Milton’s Satan: “I myself am hell.”

Does the speaker believe this? Does the reader? Before finally really leaving the scene, the robot bird adds, “But the boss lies a lot,” and disappears like “[p]aper burned loose from the kindling.” On this note, “The Hell Poem” ends. And McCrae, does he believe this? He’s still working on “The Hell Poem,” adding sections, writing an alternate ending: as dreamers everywhere can tell you, knowledge is never fixed.

Yet it’s significant to me that in a book as deeply engaged with current events and race in America as The Gilded Auction Block is, McCrae’s boldest gesture is to assert the hell-making capacity inside each of us. In times such as these, when the emergencies of civic life call on us to respond, the questions lyric poetry asks—Who am I? Why am I here? Where is my own face?—are crucial. We can dismiss them as “navel-gazing,” but shouldn’t we each travel back into the personal sources of how we became who we are, to discover and confront our personal capacity to do harm, even if unwitting, in mind and in the world? We build hells together, you and I—how do we move forward out of their fires? By walking through them until we wake up, as McCrae, like any dreamer, knows.

Dana Levin is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Banana Palace (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) and Sky Burial (Copper Canyon Press, 2011), which the New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” Her essays and reviews have appeared in Agni, American Poetry Review, Bennington Review, Boston Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. Levin is a grateful recipient of many fellowships and awards, including those from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. She serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in Saint Louis. Copper Canyon Press will publish her fifth book, Now Do You Know Where You Are, in 2022. More from this author →