May 11, 2018KR Reviews

Some Notes on Literary Power and Shane McCrae’s The Language of My Captor

Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017. 108 pages. $24.95.

Shane McCrae’s latest book of poems opens in the voice of a man, presumably from somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, who has been captured and turned into an exhibition in what is presumably the United States. Speaking of his “keeper,” he explains:

If he thinks I am / Too wise
he won’t speak honestly

And so I make an      / Effort to make
my language fit his
Idea of what I am

A little later in the sequence, he introduces the title of the book, explaining:

I cannot talk about the place I come from
I do not want it to exist
The way I knew it
In the language of my captor

The situation those lines describe entails a brutal loneliness, but the lines themselves are not confined to it. Instead, they imply an audience other than the captor, someone who might hear his description of the captivity—spoken, it seems, in the language of his captivity—and understand. It’s a limited redress, surely; there’s no indication that either speaking or being heard will set him free. But that doesn’t mute the importance of speaking—not for the speaker, not to the listener it imagines, and not, it seems, for McCrae.

• •

Poetry, like other art forms, gives us the tools not so much to make the best of a bad situation but to make a second situation that lives alongside the first. A poem lives symbiotically on the original reality, not erasing but accompanying, drawing from, whether in description or refusal. When we praise a poem for its power, we’re frequently talking about that—the way it harnesses power that already exists and redirects it, sometimes concentrating it, sometimes turning it back to run, wide as a river, through the very places that run through it.

And power: power is inherently neutral and largely inextinguishable. It can be dispersed or directed, converted or arranged. The power of an airplane can deliver supplies in the middle of an emergency, or it can create the emergency—dropping a bomb in the middle of a village, in the middle of the night, as the villagers sleep, or flying into a skyscraper from out of the pristine early-autumn blue. Vitality itself is a kind of power. And there is power even at the level of the atom, so much so that its undoing could annihilate most life on earth.

• •

Literary power, including the potential power of language, is also neutral, which is not to say that it’s benign. McCrae’s poems frequently return to his own childhood, which is a story in part about the power of words and the power of the reality they attempt to claim. When he was three, his white grandparents—including his violent and racist white grandfather—kidnapped him from his black father. They raised him under the constellation of several lies: that his father was white; that his father abandoned him when he was about eighteen months; and of course the shifting, interlocking lies of white supremacy itself. He was abused sexually, verbally, violently. (When they brought him back to their house, his grandfather walked in the house and threw McCrae against a wall.) He was subject to prejudice aimed at his blackness even as he was told he was white. He knew and didn’t know, and he couldn’t say. And he seems to have spent much of his adult life trying to find a way to give the truth enough power to stand up to all those earlier words, as well as the physical and emotional forces that drove them into his flesh.

How hard it must be, having lived through that, to make any subsequent understanding or insight cohere. How hard it must be to give it, in life or language, enough force to answer what you were told.

In the book just before this one, The Animal too Big to Kill, McCrae wrote about prayer in a way that could also describe many of his poems. He wrote of entering into it


I could stay / Cool      in the hot day
by running in the shadow of a cloud

The lines suggest what we already know, because he, in writing, knows it too: it wouldn’t work. But the lines still run. They merit our belief.

• •

Why praise a poem for its power? Why, online, send it into the world surrounded by flames? Why say it floored me, it killed me, or even it moved me, which is also a way of describing its force? Why, in a literary culture where so many of us are wary of power, do many of us still want power from (or in) our art?

• •

McCrae’s poems have always moved fast. As with that version of himself running to stay inside the shade, it can feel as if the poems are trying to outrun the crumbling of any possible coherence, even though their motion is made up of careful thought. Or, maybe a little more accurate, especially in this latest book, in which the speakers are so rarely McCrae: the poems feel like unusually convincing enactments of the force it takes to make some lives feel real, to pull them, however momentarily, away from a powerful unreality successfully imposed on them.

One poem in the opening sequence deals with the impossibility of ever explaining to the captor just how absurd his sense of privacy is (“I understand / he thinks he means a kind of / Militarized aloneness”). At the end, the speaker swerves, which is what so many of McCrae’s poems do—without braking, they swerve:

I have become an // Expert on the subject
But I have also learned
The keeper will not trust me         / To understand
even what he has taught me

Those lines are doubled too. They describe again a terrible isolation—being limited to an interlocutor whose refusal to recognize you runs so deep. But they also enact an authority over the captor: Within the poem exists the power to define him, to insult him, to call out not only his absurdity but the absurdity of the larger cultural forces and actors he represents. They feel like a kind of justice, in the way that we often want justice: swift, thorough, final, sharp. They are satisfying, wit serving some persistent hunger in us, at least here in this poem, which is vibrant, powerful, real.

• •

Most successful art is covalent. It moves through our minds at least two ways at once, like the single electron two atoms share. It’s more active, more persuasive, on the pulse than most of experience: quickened, vital, arranged to make us alert. But that makes it less real, too; its freedoms and force also serve as reminders of its exemptions, its remove. It is a place apart that constructs its own centrality—and that centrality is based in part on its ability to speak convincingly of, or to, or in the voice of the more common experience of life that it approaches from a remove.

• •

Some books of poems are page-turners. Some are exceptionally good reads. McCrae’s are like that for me. They make me want to keep reading. They make the time of reading propulsive, purposeful—though not because I’m waiting to find out what happens next. They aren’t really narrative in that way. His poems make me want to keep reading because time is a human medium and they make that medium both coherent and alert, because sequence and consequence feel so powerfully aligned. Because alongside all the terrible things his poems describe, there is an accompanying pleasure in reading them, in being carried forward. Because they make that covalent motion, for the time I’m reading them, into a single thing.

In the Language of My Captor is different from McCrae’s earlier books in a couple of ways. It’s less often autobiographical in any direct way; most of the poems are spoken in the voices of fictional characters like the aforementioned, unnamed captive, or historical figures like Jim Limber, “the adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis.” (All those characters, though, speak in the same unpunctuated but easily traced tumble that has always driven McCrae’s poems, which lends those characters, alongside their distinctiveness, an audible kinship with McCrae—who only speaks in this book in a prose memoir that moves much more patiently than anything else in either this book or his previous work.) And finally, McCrae has almost completely done away with the stutter that stuck out of his earlier poems like rocks in a current, marking their speed (and maintaining the meter). Here, for example, are a few lines from his earlier poem “Brother”[1]:

We the thirst   brother the
we water from the inside from the lips
From nowhere to the lips
We water inside brother we to say it water
from the inside

Here, by way of contrast, is the opening of “Jefferson Davis the Adoptive Father of the Mulatto Jim Limber Dreams the Future of the American Entertainment Industry as He Dreams He is Arguing His Case in Washington D.C.”:

The wheel of history turns in the gut
of the white man      but the Negro is strapped
to the wheel      and broken by the turning
and nearly liquefied by the turning

and the white man sickens      to him who says
we do not pay for the life we enjoy
I say we pay with our sickness      I say
our enjoyment is not what you suppose

The constant between the two, beyond their visible similarities, is the carrying forward—and the way that the propulsion registers as urgency. There’s a sickening proximity here in Davis’s hunger to be heard, in the fact that he is occasionally right but never about what he intends: What propels his speech—what its energy imagines into being—is his implied and self-pitying argument that he should (that his Confederacy should) be forgiven, that he and it should be found innocent, that they are, in fact, as so many still claim, heroic.

The poem doesn’t encourage sympathy for Davis, though it does embody Davis’s hunger for it. Instead, it lets Davis get close enough to breathe on the back of your neck. It lets you feel a little of him in your blood where, for many of us, if we’re honest about our lives, he already is. And at the same time, it asserts a power over him, the ability to make him speak, and fail. In the same motions, it makes him unreal and real.

• •

Thought makes motions in the brain that seem to move as one. Reading converts letters on a page into an electric current—into the movements that come together as a mind. The mind’s current is both enlarged and simplified; it is attuned.

The power of a poem is a charge that comes from outside the mind and then persists within. The charge sounds different from the particular mind it now moves in, but it’s not so unrecognizable that the mind can’t claim it. And maybe that’s part of what some of us mean when we say a poem moved me—that it placed me outside myself, as myself. That I am altered, however slightly, and thereby renewed. That the poem has pulled me into a strangeness or surprise in which I feel for the moment more real, closer to reality, more aligned or alive.

• •

So often in McCrae’s poems, I experience a sudden and powerful balance in the poem and in myself, a charged alignment of forces that include the injustices they describe as well as the poems’ ability, in describing them, not only to name but to interpret and use. In one poem Jim Limber speaks of the dead child in whose clothes the Davises dressed him, concluding:

Wore his clothes still and the whole year I lived with
Momma Varina      and with daddy Jeff
I never lived so good as when I lived with
Them and especially it was daddy Jeff
Who kept me fed and wearing those nice clothes
Until they fit as tight as bandages

The prose memoir that McCrae interpolates with the Jim Limber poems includes a terrifying description of sexual abuse:

When I was a child, I was willing, even eager, to let anybody do anything they wanted to me, so long as they didn’t hurt me, and so long as what they were doing looked like the things I saw in my grandfather’s magazines, which seemed, especially among the boys I met, common . . .  and in which we discovered, not images corresponding to any overwhelming desires we might have felt, but guides to the overwhelming desire encompassing us. What I remember most distinctly is not any single act, but the sensation I felt, both empty and vast, as I watched what people did to me, and what I did to them, reluctantly, but I would if they asked me to, checking to make sure it looked right, familiar. I was comfortable in that vastness, and afraid of it, and I hated it, and yearned toward it, but not toward it, exactly, but toward people I thought might be familiar with it, as my grandfather was, and willing to inflict it.

As long as we approve of what it attempts to master, watching someone work masterfully can be a source of delight. It’s another way of stretching the experience of being human. In observing we take in a kind of grace, or power, or both, that stands outside what being human usually entails. In the Jim Limber passage above, McCrae, writing through Limber, swerves at the end into metaphor so that the binding experience of the Davises’ supposed love and actual provision becomes an image, too, of McCrae’s authority. The clothes, still clothes, turn instrumental in his hands. And the suffering of Limber, so much like McCrae’s own, turns into his power over language and experience—or, at least, his ability to steer them, to guide them, under his control, deeper into themselves.

The prose passage, too, seems masterful to me. I feel pulled forward even in the absence of the rush that usually runs through McCrae’s poems. I feel his confidence in registering what harmed him and his ability to enlarge it by taking it apart: “in which we discovered, not images corresponding to any overwhelming desires we might have felt, but guides to the overwhelming desire encompassing us.” Insights like that, with the characteristic move from syntactic complication to final balance, pull me forward with the promise of seeing the world more clearly, and more suddenly, as well. For all that we humans destroy, including each other, I do think we’re marvelous, even if we aren’t especially good. And the chance to see us—an us that includes not only the people who harmed McCrae, but McCrae himself, steering these experiences into meaning—to see a sum of insights that includes our ability to generate insight . . . that moves me, reliably, and I follow it from page to page.

• •

A poem late in the book, in the voice of a woman escaping slavery by passing as white, includes the following lines, describing why the mistress sent her into the fields when her sons “Began to look too long at me”:

                        No I don’t think
To keep us separate

but to keep the boys from doing
In the house what they wanted
To do to me in the house

I think it’s white folks what they want
It isn’t really or it isn’t just
to / Not see the wrong

They want to not see
It and they want to know
It’s happening where it belongs

Though I am white, I enjoy the piercing of her comment on “white folks.” It has an appealing rightness, the energy of insight, and the pleasure once again of McCrae’s mastery, the way both sentences turn on the fly. In the first sentence, the repetition of “do in the house” snaps the rejection of a less awful interpretation (“To keep us separate”) into place. In the second, “not see” repeats, enlarging as the second iteration expands into “and they want to know / It’s happening where it belongs.” Once again, the sentence is self-revising, beginning in rejection (“It isn’t really or it isn’t just”) and then moving on the energy of that power—the power of saying no—toward something more true. (In that motion, they remind me of the earlier prose passage and the way it lands on “guides to the overwhelming desire encompassing us,” repeating, by way of correction, the phrase “overwhelming desire” from the sentence’s earlier statement, one McCrae introduces in a swerve that swings out, setting up the return, under “not.”)

Since I am white, though, it may be worth asking what it means for me to take pleasure in something made from the suffering of black people in America—perhaps especially for me to do so this publicly, in something that I hope for others to read, in which I am attempting to establish some authority of my own. In the current literary moment, we talk a lot about literature and exploitation, especially the exploitation of others’ pain. Often, it seems like an accurate and necessary critique. Many books, poems, stories, etc., do seem to use others’ experience without intending any kind of accountability, any real reaching for understanding, and the result feels cheap, especially in relation to the rewards it hopes we’ll give it in return. (Not coincidentally, they also live alongside and off a version of reality that seems obviously wrong, such as the one in which white people are somehow always the central figures in people of color’s lives.) But I do think it’s worth trying to understand and hopefully accept the inevitability of use and lay it alongside our well-founded rejection of exploitation.

In the Kantian formulation, we must see people as ends rather than means. As an aspiration, that seems right. As a standard, though, it seems to me to ignore the actual experience of being a person in the world. My love for my wife is something I experience as a primarily pleasurable feeling in myself. Talking to her, holding and being held by her, I am aware of an otherness that my mind reaches out to take in. I try (though I often fail) to serve her and meet her in terms that are meaningful to her, in part because her being is meaningful to me. I try not to let my use of her—the way her presence lends my existence meaning, among other things—run in directions that are not meaningful for her. But I have no hope of disentangling the two, nor any belief that doing so would be consistent with either her or my humanity.

There is no way of valuing literature, I think, that is not a kind of use. But to say whether or not my use of McCrae’s poetry veers into exploitation I would have to see myself more objectively than I know how. And I should acknowledge that if my theory about being moved is right, then part of what allows me to be drawn out by these poems is that I hear them as sufficiently similar to what I already believe to believe in them. The most I can say for myself here is that the pleasure I take in his poems is real.

• •

There’s one more major character in the book, Banjo Yes, an imagined black actor famous for his demeaning roles in early cinema. One of those poems, “Banjo Yes Talks About Motivation,” reads in full:

The difference was they had names like a name
a boy   / Might think a grown man wants      / The white boys

did the actors names like Rex      and Duke      / We niggers
had names like a boy might get for

Some stupid shit
He did once when he wasn’t thinking when he did it

Like      they would call a nigger Hambone Jones
Because a white boy spotted him      sucking on a ham bone

Probably      thinking about his woman
and he’s hungry and he’s poor

They named you for a thing
your hunger made you do

And what could you say back
You’re not      a man and you’re a poor man

What won’t you do

Like every poem in the book, it’s a poem about power, among other things. It’s about the power of hunger and the power of having wealth among people who are impoverished (and about the ways in which the power of wealth derives in part from the manufacture and exploitation of ideas about race). It’s about the power of language, too, in particular the ways in which the power of language can be purchased through other powers, powers that that same language has helped to generate.

One translation of the title In the Language of My Captors would be simply “In English.” It’s unlikely that McCrae’s poems, many of them among my favorite recent poems, will cleanse that language of its complicity in suffering and injustice—and not only because language can never be cleansed of what still lives in the world that uses it. (The power of language can, however, help to change that world.) Nor do I think they intend any such cleansing; a language devoid of cruelty could never speak meaningfully to the experiences he describes.

That’s not to say these poems aren’t instructive. They are often driven by insight, even as they run, and the insight they proffer is not only meaningful but charged. Nor is it to say that poems can’t do ethical work in the world, or that there aren’t poems whose cardinal value is the way they drive or draw some of us toward justice. It is to say, instead, that these poems are alive in me. That they live powerfully in this language and in this world. That out of the terrible eccentricity of McCrae’s experience he has constructed something that feels central. That if they do not turn injustice into justice, they do turn it into a power worth cherishing.


[1] A brief disclosure here: “Brother” is one of two poems, as well as a short essay, McCrae has let me publish in At Length. But we’ve never met and haven’t interacted outside of that and a brief email exchange after I reviewed The Animal Too Big to Kill.

Jonathan Farmer is the editor in chief and poetry editor of At Length and Critic at Large for the Kenyon Review. He has written about poetry for publications that include, Literary Hub, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Poetry Foundation. He teaches middle and high school English and lives in Durham, NC.