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Shane McCrae’s “Blood”–The Unstoppable Epic

 

 

“Probably the real story of race in the United States, […] an epic that spans three centuries,” reads Kathleen Ossip’s blurb on the back cover of Shane McCrae’s latest collection.  Terrance Hayes concurs with an accolade that sounds like an intersection of his own language and the author’s: “His disconcerting language tracks the estrangement and strangeness, the severance and severity of a Self seized by history.”

McCrae professes a poetics of capitalization and line breaks, where enjambments are not so much meant to amplify aesthetic quality and meaning-related complexity, but convey subversive messages and ensure survival while telling histories of massacre, abuse, and misfortune.

Some niggers isn’t and they is

Never gonna be and them I known

And I remember best

is niggers I seen dead                       / Remember even

the breaths they was

always breathing

(“Heads”—“2. Captured and Returned to His Master”)

 

The “niggers” both exist and do not exist, as they (sort of apophatically) are beyond the ‘grammar’ of the establishment and they endure in ways that elude the masters’ control.  The enjambment transforms an auxiliary verb into a main one asserting existence (and they is/ Never gonna be) and then further assertion is hidden behind the capitalized “Never.”  Bad grammar and typography thus renders unexpected value to the language distorted and translated by rebellion and by the gasping breath of the chased slave—ontology (“they is”), knowledge (“I known”) and cultural heritage (“I remember best”) are thus established and fiercely defended under the nose of “the Master” with the latter’s tools.

Slashes also play a shrewd role throughout the book.  In the quote above for instance the slash is placed ‘unnaturally’ far from the line break it feigns to accommodate, and acts like a hideout for the capitalized “Remember,” and for the way in which the slaves get “even” by never forgetting those who “was the breaths” of their culture.

In fact, McCrae accomplishes a lot with very few devices.  There is barely any description in the book yet the images (and the sounds) are unforgettable.  Complexity is reached by ellipsis, by clashing scenes, narratives, and voices, by speech that seems to be drowned out by other speeches, memories, and fears, but then resurfaces even stronger than before.  The poetry flux is a wave encountering particles of matter (of matter that matters, the one of life and death) and thus seems to be obnubilated, but actually nothing blocks it; in fact, it is exactly such brief (and horrific) episodes that render it perceptible.

Ranting, raging, rambling syncopated voices that seem to sound the same, cover in fact an impressive number of forms and styles—satire (“the silver [money] rattled as I ran it sounded like/ a chained dog jumping”), black (or rather cynic-horror) comedy (“he was barefoot in/ Shit when the white men found him     /[author’s slash] He stank so bad/ They couldn’t hang him didn’t want those feet/ over their heads// That’s why they burned him”), prophecy (“Our Savior comes disguised     /[author’s slash] Like a thief in the night/ […] down from the cross/ And he must set the cross on fire”), ballad/blues/farce (in “The Ballad of Cathay Williams William Cathay”), elegy (“Brother it keep us like a pond keep leaves/ from trees on the pond they/ Rotting in the thing they lived on/ […]/ Brother our father me and him / [author’s slash] That’s how it love/ keep us together”), etc, etc.

The fragmentary epic seems to go full circle when in the last poem, the speaker sardonically acknowledges that “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,” thus echoing as if from the other end of the world (and history) the oppressive image at the beginning of the book, with its ominous enjambment-puns: “The death in us was bigger than the life in us/

except for some of us        it seems like now/ And them the niggers got their heads cut off…”  The massacred rebels are still around (here and) “now,” moreover, they are the (atemporal?) here and now, they have become the matter history is made of (they are beheaded now and… them).  But if the victim, the enslaved, the exterminated want to be free (not to survive…), they’ll have to imagine a holocaust the world is not big enough for.  McCrae goes beyond the victim/victimizer overlap and reaches the negative (capability and) sublime of a poetry that, in order to be true, will have not only to account for but also reenact the endless horrors of his people’s history.

The characters’ confessions are truncated, contorted, distorted, stressed, compressed, pressed for time and space.  If it is an epic it is one of deeply subjective and incoherent voices that have no time or reverence neither for the ample Homeric meter and its circuitous rhetoric—the “niggers’ song” is not meant for ceremony or leisure—nor for the gluttonous Whitmanesque enumerations—since although they crave and recognize democracy (“The Yankees were/ Shaking hands” and calling the slaves by their names) they haven’t really enjoyed any justice or democracy yet.  The vision is not huge, but relentlessly ramified, not gigantic, but unstoppable.  That’s why—it gotta be continued…

[Shane McCrae, Blood, Mesilla Park, NM: Noemi Press, 2013]

–MARGENTO

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