• Review: 2017 National Book Award for Poetry, Part III

    Spencer Hupp


    Shane McCrae’s fifth collection, In the Language of My Captor, examines a demographic fact foundational to our nation’s identity: that the ancestors of one in nine US citizens were brought to this country as slaves, and today those citizens are still subject to the inheritance of bondage. McCrae first approaches this fact, via metaphor, in “In the Language,” the final poem of the book’s first section, whose speaker we find caged up in a zoo. The zookeeper, a “fat white man,” guides the curious to the speaker’s cage with clockwork regularity. These zoogoers are us, the American reader, for whom the lives of African Americans are so often reduced to spectacle. The speaker’s voice is his only means of expression, but that voice, fed through English, a language forced upon him by historical circumstance, is fragmentary, imperfect. Throughout Section 1, line breaks, slashes, and caesuras buttress this argument graphically. These pauses and separations mimic Anglo-Saxon poetry, in which caesuras and alliteration balance each line. Here’s the first time we hear from the zookeeper, a single line from “His God”: “Often the fat man squints and says It real- // ly makes you think.” An Anglo-Saxon speaking Anglo-Saxon, making vapid reference to the litany of questions the scene provokes—these lines are electric with irony. The speaker maintains an illuminating dialogue with the zookeeper, one that suggests that we, the reader, are implicated along with the English language, the means by which we consume these poems, in this continued act of subjugation: “I did not think my people / superior to other people before / The keeper’s language has infected me.” Language, here, is an instrument of twofold oppression, both enforcing and inculcating prejudice. It is at once the captor’s whip and his weaponized smallpox blankets. I imagine Apollo’s arrows in Book 1 of the Iliad, spreading pestilence through Agamemnon’s camps; captivity and combat, it seems, share a similar vocabulary of “us and them.”

    Section 2 presents several poems narrated by Jefferson Davis’s adopted son, Jim Limber, a former slave. In “Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Met his Adoptive Mother at a Crossroads,” the adolescent Limber, who was taken in by Confederate First Lady Varina Davis after she saw him being beaten by his mother on the road to freedom, remarks on a peculiar distortion of parental love:

    When white folks ask    I tell them I was happy
    With momma and she didn’t beat me of-
    ten till the war got bad    but we was going
    North and I didn’t want to go the morning
    Momma Varina rescued    me she whups me
    Different    like what she wants from it is love

    Where Limber’s mother beat him in the interest of survival, to keep him moving on the path out of slavery, Varina beats him, counterintuitively, to evoke affection. Even love, the ostensible cornerstone of the human endeavor, becomes a means of subjugation.

    Here McCrae deftly reverses the dynamic set up in Section 1. Each Jim Limber poem is a rough sonnet, the captor’s tradition channeled through the voice and experience of a barely literate black teenager. McCrae seems to implicate not just our language but its creative means— that is, poetry. These aren’t particularly pretty poems; McCrae seems openly antagonistic to regular cadences and rhythms of language. But there’s a sonic realism here that strengthens his argument, that language is often ugly, and gives people the license to do ugly things. Therefore, poetry is a kind of violence, a defacement, a scratching onto stone. And violence, in the American tradition, is, as Richard Slotkin reminds us, regenerative; McCrae’s speakers earn a kind of redemption through this fractured phrasing.

    This is not to say that McCrae is deaf to the music of line and lyric. Lines like “you fatten off the people you would free” betray his formal acumen and aesthetic understanding of the language. But this sonically satisfying, perfectly iambic line comes from the mouth of Jefferson Davis; it is literally the language of the captor. The captive, however, cannot afford the ease of Davis’s oratory. Too much is at stake; ornament would merely muddle the speaker’s case for freedom. In fact, the best “poetry” in the collection appears in Section 2’s five confessional prose pieces (which are broken up by the Jim Limber sonnets, as well as several narrated by Davis). McCrae charts a narrative of adolescent isolation, set in a cluster of abandoned houses in the woods behind his house. All the horrors of childhood are here: bullies, parents, the awkward threat of maturity, of the body’s growth and its rumor of coming decay. The threat of violence abides.

    In one particularly affecting episode, titled “4,” McCrae’s speaker recalls torturing a dog: “One day, for no reason, I don’t think I had a reason, the dog had never hurt me, I grabbed a length of lead pipe and called the dog to the hole, and when it stuck its nose into the hole, I smashed it with the end of the pipe. This is what I remember most clearly about the dog . . . smashing her dog’s nose again and again.” This is strong prose, but the effect is decidedly poetic. In lieu of metaphor, McCrae employs a deadpan brutality, violence in its simplest terms. He does something similar in “3,” describing his grandfather, an avowed white supremacist (McCrae himself is of mixed race): “as a child, [he] had lived in poverty . . . Because of and despite this, he hated ‘white trash’ almost as much—although the hate was a different kind of hate, a sad duty—as he hated blacks, my father especially.” Here is McCrae’s most powerful insight: that hate, torture, and misunderstanding are human “duties”—something one seems required to perform—as inseparable from us as language, embedded, even, in language itself. And though language moves linearly, its effects are static. We feel its sting; while a bruise will fade, you always remember the fist that delivered it. Therein lies the horror of captivity, the thought that one’s condition will never change, that torment is permanent, that we are all individually caged, “captor” and “captive” alike. This revelation comes at the close of Section 3, as the speaker recalls wandering into a cemetery where a single headstone marks the bodies of eighteen children killed in an orphanage fire. The speaker imagines the children underground, still writhing in the flames, and wonders if we occupy “a whole world of wrecked, and burned, and abandoned things, each trapped in the moment of its destruction, each thing preserved, both dead and outside of death, not in Hell, but in the one fire everywhere, after which there is no suffering, and so from which there is no relief.” These are a child’s thoughts, but such is McCrae’s incantatory power that I’m inclined, here, to believe them.

    Spencer Hupp is a poet and critic from Little Rock, Arkansas. He currently lives in Baltimore and serves as a fellow in the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where he took his MFA in 2022. Hupp was an assistant editor at the Sewanee Review from 2017 to 2020.

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