Shane McCrae’s second full-length collection of poems, Blood (Noemi Press, 2013), adapts the sliding and stuttering syntax of his first collection, Mule, to narrate and lyricize gruesome slave narratives from America’s past. Actually McCrae gives voices to the wounds themselves from such narratives, assembling an otherworldly chorus of haunting grotesqueries. Whereas nineteenth-century abolitionist novels waged their battles largely on the grounds of sentiment, McCrae’s collection switches the arena to horror staged with graphic realism. Rather than demythologize the America we all know was founded on its original sin, McCrae repaints America’s creation myth. Like Athena springing from Zeus’s cleaved head, what if America was born from a bath of blood? This collection depicts its new genesis.
Blood begins with a first-person-plural souped up from his first collection, Mule, with different social stakes in its brazen grotesquerie:
500 men in uniforms in army
uniforms 500 slaves / 500
niggers we happy we nigger
soldiers marched on New Orleans
Mule begins in the intimate first-person plural—the "we" who divorce and marry in the first collection’s beginning sections—and crescendos into a singular instance at the beginning of its fourth section of the broader, social or political "we"—“We were back then a problem…”—before it resolves into first person narratives. Blood starts right off with the "we" of a 500-man slave revolt: the 1811 German Coast Uprising.
The uprising is the largest slave revolt recorded in U.S. history. Though there were minimal white casualties, what began with a few dozen slaves on march to New Orleans ended with a roster of nearly 500 men. McCrae catches the beat and spirit of such a snowballing rebellion by the third line’s grotesquely happy dactyls, which resolve his initial Steinian stuttering into a swinging song uncanny in its ironized minstrelsy: “niggers we happy we nigger…” Already McCrae is revising the poetics of relief from his first collection whereby jolting repetition often opens out into musical or semantic release. In his first collection, the release into music or the completed thought often sounds beautiful: “In every sudden thing I look for you…” In his new collection, the release is bloody, devastating, and fatal. Take, for instance, the end of the poem “How To Recognize It”:
Thinking of what he did to me my
body what I knew he would
Do to Mary to Priscilla cut / Didn’t just cut
and leave her body move
On to her sister made sure she was dead
I loved her wanted her / Head to come off in my hands
The stuttering of small repetends—“what… what,” “to… to,” “cut… cut,” “her… her… her… her”—punctuated by white space, line break notations, and actual line breaks, leads into the same uncanny, dactylic release as in the third line of the book: “Head to come off in my hands.” The first section’s leading poem, Mary, contains a similar "release":
My first thought was My baby’s sick / Wasn’t a thought
Wasn’t a thought my first thought was I wasn’t / Was I hadn’t but I couldn’t stop
After the first
Cut I couldn’t stop
I couldn’t stop / Hurting her because it hurt I had to cut her head / All the way off
One begins, after lines like these, to read every forward slash or each release as a kind of perversely merciful decapitation. This is to say that Blood delivers on its title from its gruesome subject matter of violent slave narratives to its poetics of musical or semantic release, which purchases said release with blood itself. It’s not only a symbolic blood—the signifier for African American lineage and heritage—but also a nearly hyperreal blood: the copious blood of a Tarantino film, say, though deployed as an antidote perhaps to last year’s Django Unchained.
Tarantino ironizes slave resentment in Django to present Jamie Foxx (Django) as a freed slave who bloodies up the plantation South with a Grendel-like zeal. His character’s seriocomic extravagance is the direct response to Calvin Candie’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) question, which articulates the film’s antithesis ad absurdum: “I spent my whole life here right here in Candyland, surrounded by black faces. And seeing them every day, day in day out, I only had one question. Why don't they kill us?” Candie goes on to exposit what amounts to a phrenological explanation of the slaves’ submission to white domination, but in the end, neither Candie nor any of his cohorts are spared Django’s wrath. It’s the singularly embodied wrath of slavery itself, set loose to incardinate the Western’s imagined black-and-white costume of the Antebellum South. Tarantino’s assumptions in Django are unpardonably offensive: that a slave rebellion had to be imagined in the mythology of Django’s character, and that without Tarantino’s revisionist intervention, there would be no therapeutic histories or narratives of African American mobilization or defiance (similar to Inglorious Basterds’ Holocaust Europe). Tarantino’s film speculates with exculpatory irony: If only there had been a Django… The perceived lack of historical, Antebellum slave heroes lend to Django’s massacres an orgasmic catharsis. It’s supposed to be as hysterical to watch Django slaughter scores of white slaveholders as it is to watch the Inglorious Bastards pump Hitler full of bullets.
McCrae co-opts Tarantino’s maximalist violence and turns it smartly on (or off) its head. McCrae depicts multiple acts of slave defiance that ultimately result in the slaves’ excessive bloodshed. “Heads,” the poem about the German Coast Uprising whose players end with “the meat in their necks hanging down / Like ivy on the gates of heaven,” begins the collection in the first person plural before moving into the singular voice of Margaret (Peggy) Garner in the first full section. Famously (think: Toni Morrison’s Beloved), Garner murdered her own two-year-old daughter before she could be returned to slavery after Garner’s family had fled to Cincinnati. Garner had planned a murder-suicide of her whole brood and herself lest they all be returned, but a posse of slave catchers caught her before she could kill her other children. Described as a mulatto, Peggy had also given birth to children thought to be fathered by her white slaveholder, including the murdered Mary, after the slaveholder’s wife had become pregnant: “for every child he gave Elizabeth for every / child who bore his name / I bore that white child’s shadow,” as McCrae renders it, too beautifully.
Filial confusions abound in this section of the book (as in others), where Garner falters on whether even to call her white father her "father": “My father once took me across the river / To Cincinnati I was seven not / My father but my master…” Indeed in another poem, Garner’s father sells her to his brother, her uncle. Family ties, ownership, and racial lineages complicate each other unto violent confusion, whereby the symbol of violence itself—blood—stands in as McCrae’s ultimate and tragic concession of unity. When the murdered Mary’s white father mourns over her corpse, he transgresses symbolic boundaries between master and slave, father and illegitimate child, and white and black, which discomforts his cohort who are not in the know about the child’s dubious parentage: “His / neighbors and the marshals / couldn’t understand / As Mary’s blood // Dried on his forearms / Tangled his hairs together.” And it’s his skin covered in blood that unites him with the collection’s black characters (also covered in blood). Blood is what he and his dead daughter share. Blood is what the white and black characters of the book are made of, and what they both seek to spill. Much more sinister than Whitman’s statement of compositional unity, “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” or Shylock’s “if you prick us, do we not bleed?,” is McCrae’s "we’re all red when the blood gushes out": “...there was so much blood / They couldn’t tell the [black man’s] fingers from / the white man’s fingers.”
Blood’s sanguineous violent resolutions radically revise Tarantino’s catharsis-by-bloodshed. McCrae’s continual releases and violent acts offer no relief from American racism’s symbolic mire, not even for a hysterical second. Whereas Django’s massacres of entire organizations of slave plantation personnel feel filled with the potential, though comic or hysterical, to bring to satisfaction America’s deep racial wounds, the speakers of McCrae’s poems are made to seek only more wounds, so deeply have they introjected the violence visited upon them and the struggle against their subjugation:
[...] the first thing I
Done with my freedom was 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, for McCrae, there is no resolution. Violence becomes reflexively iterative. In his notebooks, Whitman writes: “I am the poet of slaves and of the masters of slaves.” McCrae is the poet of neither. Rather, he is the poet of slavery itself and the blood that wells therefrom ad infinitum ad absurdum ad nauseum. What fabliau is to romance is what Blood is to the too-tame abolitionist text. Like tropological ghosts, his speakers can only visit their most violent traumas and ends, and so in place of lyric, what McCrae really gives us is an archive of crimes uttered in living detail down to the last tangle of sinew. It’s no wonder that McCrae adapted many of the poems from slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project, though the narratives are closely cropped around the most haunting moments. Blood is a terribly important book that will make you feel the true horror of America’s slaveholding past from which has emerged its sadly fraught present.
Micah Bateman (@micah_bateman) works and teaches for the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. Find him at works.bepress.com/micahbateman.
by Shane McCrae
Noemi Press, 2013
$15.00 (paperback), ISBN: 9781934819302