by Shane McCrae
94 pages—Noemi Press, 2013
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma
In his second collection of poems, Blood, Shane McCrae pushes his startlingly unique, often cyclical, syntax of union and rupture further out beyond the borders of the personal and into the treacherous swamps of history. Using American slave narratives collected by the Federal Writer’s Project and other historical accounts as a jumping point, his “disconcerting language”—as Terrance Hayes puts it—dives straight into the gully between history and self: a gully that runs with blood, where the self, so many times possessed and dispossessed, can barely recognize its own body anymore. The poems in Blood span nearly every imaginable horror—every severing and betrayal from beheadings to rape to infanticide, from the disavowal of offspring to brothers who are perpetual strangers to one another. And division, dissociation, and fracture permeate the language of every poem as well, surfacing in McCrae’s jarring lineation, visual gaps within lines, and frequent use of slashes.
The book opens with the preface poem “Heads,” based on the German Coast Uprising of 1811—the largest slave uprising in U.S. history—a two-day march toward the city of New Orleans resulting in the deaths of ninety-five blacks and two whites, during which the heads of black slaves were mounted on pikes at the gates of plantations as a warning. Here McCrae brings the reader into the crushing futility of five hundred bodies attempting to march themselves into freedom and finding that freedom is always at bay:
Even ourselves we touched our touch
made stolen even
our own bodies
This is a world where the self is always fugitive. Where no journey, no tender touch, no bloodletting can help the self find its way back to itself. Every act, including the act of killing, only reinforces the false identity created by the oppressor:
We niggers we wanted to be exactly
what the white men thought we were
Kill them with that
and not with who we really were / And now
I see it now and now I didn’t see it then
Killing them we
made ourselves more
nigger their niggers and they
Killing us after
They made themselves more innocent
The above lines also demonstrate how McCrae’s formal variances create a physical landscape out of the poem’s page—a tangible surface for its relentless emotion. Here the word “we” bookends the word “niggers” in a manner that both suggests the press of bodies and simultaneously relegates the self to the margins, the derisive false identity remaining at the center of the phrase. A similar device is employed several lines later in the line break that divides “made ourselves more” from “nigger their niggers and they.” And the “they” (the white men) is noticeably placed at the outside of the line, away from the crowd of “nigger their niggers.” Gaps are also an important part of McCrae’s visual language, and the ones that occur in the above lines serve to show emotional distance: the futility of wanting implied by the space between “we” and “wanted,” the futility of recognition (further emphasized by the slash) felt in the space before “/And now,” and the separation and self-elevation of the white men made evident by the gap between “themselves” and “more innocent.” Given the abundance of such devices in Blood, it is impressive that they never come off as contrived, self-conscious, or overly cerebral. Rather than playing games, McCrae’s bizarre linguistic landscape remains raw and astonishingly organic—a world of super-saturated color in which the natural honesty (even bluntness) of the lines create a sense of accessibility in spite of their deviations from conventional form.
From the very first poem, the world into which McCrae introduces the reader is a world where reclamation is essentially impossible, where every act of rebellion only serves to make the self less human, more lost to itself. And in such a world, harm and tenderness can feel like the same thing—an act of violence indistinguishable from an act of mercy. In the poems of the book’s first section, McCrae turns to the story of the escaped slave Margaret Garner who, when caught, killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife and attempted to kill her other children and herself as well. In the opening poem of this section, “Mercy,” McCrae introduces Margaret Garner with a voice that is stripped down and dulled by trauma’s aftermath, syntax slurred and stuttering from the shock of her own violent rupture:
My first thought was My baby’s sick / Wasn’t a thought
really but that’s what all that blood / Felt like
but all that blood
Really but all that blood felt like my Mary getting / Sick on my hand
Here the slashes and mid-line gaps speak of fracture—of the split, dissociated mental state that comes with committing such a terrible act, as well as the effort of retelling it. But they also serve to suggest the awful contradiction at the heart of such a story: that killing a child might be the ultimate act of love, of mercy. That murdering one’s own offspring might carry the same sensation as nursing her through illness. Or, as McCrae’s Garner puts it in “How to Recognize It:” “I loved her wanted her / Head to come off in my hands.”
In Blood, language and blood seem to run as parallel life forces, serving as the most honest reflections of emotional experience—the only thing the self can really own. Both carry us (speaker and reader) forward and keep us fettered in time, as in “Punishment,” the third to last poem in the first section:
Was free and running stillWhen I cut Mary’s throat
And killing her was running / Was
shackled when I threw Priscilla from the boat
And killing her was also
Here blood, like language, is a medium for movement, a marker for a state of being—a symbol both of escape and of its futility. McCrae again wrings the line for maximum emphasis, tucking “her” between “killing and “running” to show the first child caught within the act of flight, and setting “Priscilla from the boat” off to the side beneath “/ Was” to chain the second child’s fate to her mother’s. Thus we are shown, palpably, how blood exposes the paradoxes of human nature. For it is both what binds families together and what turns them one against the other. And as such, it is a powerful tool when used to alienate, terrify, and control. In “To Show,” a poem about the forced exposure of black women by the Klu Klux Klan, McCrae concludes: “I seen it with my own eyes a man will throw his crying baby to the ground / To watch his woman cry.” To force someone to forget his own blood is, essentially, to take away his humanity—a process McCrae often marks with missing words and gaps within lines.
Blood is an embodiment of identity, a personal narrative unique to each body. And therefore it is what is lost when the parameters of the self are broken down by the stripping cruelties of the world—what we leave behind us like a trail. As McCrae writes in “Brother,” a long poem that comprises the book’s fifth section and relays the tale of two estranged brothers through a series of numbered, interlinking segments: “Our bodies we is always walking leaking / like a ghost can’t be a body in one place.” The body that never truly owns itself—that knows only the stories about itself that have been given by others—is an incomplete vessel, a restless, patched together composite of chimera-like clauses: “whose ghosts we brother leaking is / Whose story of us we is told is us.” This incompleteness and perpetual thirst is a shared birthright though. “Nobody / brother gets it whole,” observes McCrae. Blood is the human inheritance of a violent history, of so many terrible doings and un-doings—an essential element in birth as it is in death. Thus McCrae’s speaker concludes “Brother” with the description of his brother’s birth:
Brother and you were born
And blood sprayed from the artery
like if the Lord had stopped
making in the middle of mak-
and never made their boundaries
Here, in an act of life as gory as any killing, blood explodes like a flower, leaving the confines of the body to become a formless and eternally suspended creation. McCrae’s boundless blood—fractured, incongruous, and perpetual. It is the curse of a sprawling, insatiable, cyclical thirst, as in the book’s concluding poem, “After the Uprising” (a full cycle return to the German Uprising and the initial narrator), which asks the terrible question: “Who do I got to kill / to get all the way free” and replies with the terrible answer: “more people than it was / alive in the world.” But McCrae’s blood carries too, in its partially formed and glistening petals, the faintest suggestion of hope—that even if one can never be fully reclaimed, such confrontations with the past remain a deeply necessary reckoning. And that if there were ever a way to make up for all that has been lost, it would come in the sharp intake of breath between words made raw by so much red.
Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cutthroat, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, Still: The Journal, Sugar House Review, Weave Magazine, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Coeditor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.