Shane McCrae’s MULE

Micah Bateman

“... And Lord the sound of their wings / is the sound of the leaves...”

—Shane McCrae, from “Crows,” Mule



is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current [...]
The way things work
is by solution,
resistance lessened or
increased and taken
advantage of.
The way things work
is that finally we believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water [...]
[...] I believe
forever in the hooks.
The way things work
is that eventually
something catches.

—Jorie Graham, from “The Way Things Work,” Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts

Jorie Graham has made a career out of the hooks found by kinetic flow—the “something [that] catches” the lyrical current flowing through the mind of the poet. Work is made by resistance, and it is the subject who resists. Eventually, when Graham sets herself upon the current of poetic lyric, “something catches,” which interruption is the site of the subject. In other words, where the insistence of the lyric stops is where we find, in Oppen’s terms, “the lyric valuables.”

In Mule by Shane McCrae, an erstwhile student of Graham’s, one finds a similar lyrical project:

... and we stood in the water

We held our arms above our heads for for-

ty days supported by the water and

Weighed down by the water     and we didn’t drink

For fear that we would leave ourselves no water

To stand in     and we didn’t piss     for fear that

We would pollute the water and have no

Water to drink stood     forty days in the pond

Nothing was left     of the garden but the pond...

In Mule, however, the anxiety of marring his lyrical fluency induces a kind of iambic insistence, or trance. McCrae fears the "hooks," as the subject of the above poem (“In the Garden of the Ghosts of the Garden”) fears marring or polluting the current in which he stands, precisely because he knows the current’s interruption bespeaks the subject’s gross materiality. This is the dialectic that informs the book—the anxiety of "mule"-ness navigating the lyrical sublimity that utters it. Indeed, later in the above poem we find a conflation of the garden’s Edenic paradise and the water itself in which the subject stands: “Even the water disappeared     the last / Trace of the garden[,]” such that the water and garden are simultaneous and coterminous. If the iambic lyric is the spirit of the sublime, the ethos of the paradisiacal garden and stream, then the subject who interrupts it, disrupts it, diverts it, pollutes it, mars it—is a monster, a "mule." Such is the anxiety of the ascetic, whose countering desire is to be of the water rather than in the water.

The dissolution of the poet within his lyric leads to poetry less like latter day Graham’s and more like mid-career Merwin’s, or what Pound might have called "fluid" content as opposed to "solid." But Graham-like hooks do not make a fluid lyric into a solid form, exactly. The fluid lyric locates the solid form by moving around it or through it. Thus lyrical hooks become sites of recognition that reactivate the reader-subject in the middle of his trance by exposing the consciousness—the human subject—behind or amidst the lyrical current compelling the reading experience. A hook is where a reader must cease for a moment enunciating the text because its lyrical current is stopped, transformed, or rerouted.

In McCrae’s case, intralineal divisions made by backslashes and white space create  simultaneous lyrical enunciations by creating multiple units of utterance:

Dear Lord if this      is what I make

of my / Body why give me Lord a body if

It might have been      like all creation beautiful

In enunciating the above, how does one measure the utterable phrase? Is it Dear Lord if what I make...of my...Body why give me Lord a body if...It might have all creation? If so, then we are putting McCrae’s backslashes, white spaces, and line breaks on equal footing, though they suggest a hierarchy of subunit-phrasings and superunit-phrasings. Read naturally, without McCrae’s redirection, it would sound something like this: Dear Lord... if this is what I make... of my body... why give me Lord a body... if it might have been... like all creation. Even without his channel locks, we have the natural caesurae made by the iambic’s interruption, such that even the meter informs one of the multiple routes for enunciating the lyric.

The overall idea is neither to dam the current nor let it flow. The current roils around the rocks of the poet’s synaptic architecture. His sometimes Stein-esque repetition combined with his iambic insistence compels the lyric forward even as it butts against crags, until finally, the lyric finds a route through, which feels like release:

Is mine if I am in it is / And have I have I ever ever have

Is anyhow my home and have I ever / And have I ever every sudden thing

In every sudden thing I look for you

The ability at last to complete the utterable thought is, like with Graham’s "hooks," McCrae’s replacement for traditional epiphany. It is also the doorway through which to glimpse him. His poems frequently end in comparatively the most apprehensible semantics set to the tune of a structured pentameter. At first glance, this resembles closure, but contextually it provides an opening; here is the clearing in the distorted lyric, which activates connection with the speaker-subject. Thus the lyric, unlike purely "fluid" content, enacts an event by relieving its frequency.

Such events number many in Mule, whose starkly undervoiced (by McCrae’s ascetic refusal) and elementally psalmic music sounds lamentations of broken marriages, maladies of the mind (his son’s autism, his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s),  and confrontations with race and death. The title harkens to the hybrid-monster figurings of the mulatto—“Half donkey and half human being”—as well as to the hybrid status of the poet’s new postmodern lyric, which seeks to advance the experiments even of a younger generation of poets like Dan Beachy-Quick. Ultimately the volume is unsettlingly graceful in its treatment of dire subjects; the sublime that animates the voice betrays the animal conditions, fragility, and fallibility of the voice. McCrae writes, “you / Will recognize yourself in the singing,” and this is his fear: that the grace that sings a broken body also sings its wound—the minds of his son and grandmother, his marriages, and his own disjunctive racial identity. But it is through the wound that we meet such grace. “Imagine // welcoming the wound,” he tells us in his frontispiece, which imagining continues throughout a beautiful first collection.

Micah Bateman posts poems at

by Shane McCrae
Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011
$15.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-880834-93-0
72 pages