The Animal Too Big to Kill by Shane McCrae
A new era of civil rights protest is here. #BlackLivesMatter announces a new racial consciousness locked on highly public injustices, police violence caught on dash cam videos and decried on Twitter, weeks-long street demonstrations helicoptered over and fed into living rooms via live streams. With the muscular momentum of wider discord, It stomps a foot in the dirt, showing us the hard truth that racism in America is as strong as ever, a brutally systemic force, at once blunt and complex.
It is into this outraged public consciousness that Shane McCrae's prodigious output of poems (four collections in the past five years) occurs and must be received. Read some of the titles of the present collection, The Animal Too Big to Kill, and this protest is confirmed -- titles such as "What it Takes to Get the Attention of White Liberals" and "I Know It's Hard For You to Believe You Still Benefit from Slavery," which evidence a deep awareness of the context in which these poems will be read and gesture a distinct stance -- one of provocation and protest -- toward that context.
So it is surprising that such a collection would begin like this:
I haven't Lord I haven't You I have-
n't praised enough You Lord although I with or would
With every poem praise you
This is no fist pounding the podium, no screech of the megaphone. In fact, it doesn't even address a public at all. It's a prayer -- a personal prayer -- stumbled through with uncertainty and hesitation. The speaker is not making demands but lies utterly prostrate. Take this style along with the titles I mentioned above, and we already see the dichotomy that animates this work: the public protest and the private plea.
Of course the broken speech of McCrae's stutter is, in fact, expertly crafted -- it is his characteristic style, seen across his books. It's his "intelligible haze," as he has called it, which can take the weight of noise, and through an almost visceral persistence with small but accumulating breakthroughs -- such as how we arrive at "praise" in the above quote -- articulate it toward larger revelation.
In the present collection that revelation is one about personal history. McCrae has, throughout his books, anchored his projects with confessional-style approaches, but in this collection this mode is at its most direct. The devotional framing (the book is split into three sections: "Morning Prayer," "Midday Prayer," and "Evening Prayer") enacts a therapeutic meditation into the self's past -- into childhood -- in order exorcise its demons, to use an apt phrase.
A significant feature of this exorcism is McCrae's peculiar experience as a person of mixed race who was raised by white racists. It's an experience that he jams -- like too much clay into an oddly shaped jar -- into the paradoxical demographic signifier "black white trash," which opens many of these poems as a kind of thesis refrain. Here he is at work with it in the poem "Exiled from the Supremacy":
Growing up black white trash
In Texas Round Rock Texas meant
Growing up middle class
Growing up raised by whites growing up raised by nigger not
Knowing black people use that word at all
Until you're twelve
And live in California
Lord / Growing up not able to talk
to anyone about your skin
And what it does to you and kids you know and strangers
Growing up loving The
Elephant Man on HBO
but you can't look at him
Wishing your skin could somehow
suffocate you in your sleep
Growing up drawing swastikas on t-shirts
Growing up raised / By whites and white
things you can't keep
This is but one particularly tuned example. McCrae spends considerable effort elucidating this category in several poems. Growing up black white trash:
(from "Empathy Erases the Heart")
you grow up told
The Nazis lost the war because
only because they
Ran out of gas
(from "What it Takes to Get the Attention of White Liberals")
you grow up marched
Hands up the barrel of a pellet gun
Stuck in your back
(from "How You Are Owned")
You grow up no inside
you grow up void surrounding
You grow up never sure you see yourself in mirrors
And so on.
There is much to make of McCrae's customized and colloquial demographic category. Jonathan Farmer, in his review at Slate, analyzes it incisively as a "modifying phrase whose brutality dominates whatever it describes. The clause packs together racism, contradiction, disdain for the poor, and, in our expectations about what should follow 'growing up,' sentimental notions of childhood."
To that I would add that this clause captures an extraordinary tension between public generalizability and personal being -- it powerfully enacts the ambivalence at the very heart of identity politics. McCrae must fashion this category for himself, and he must do so with the coarse colloquial and tonally dangerous language -- "white trash" being a complexly prejudiced epithet -- that constitutes his surrounding lexicon, and he must, then, belabor its definition in poem after poem. Because he doesn't fit into any neat category, and no single aspect of his identity -- race, class, or gender -- will suffice as summary. It's the primary lesson of postmodern racial discourse: as much of this book is about growing up poor as it is growing up black, and nearly as much is about growing up as a boy.
McCrae writes especially movingly on poverty. In the poem "On the First Day of the Last Week of His Life Jesus Overturns the Tables of the Money-Changers," McCrae intervenes in the classic story of Christ's revolt with an altogether different portrait:
Maybe You suffered in Your body first the suffering of in Your body Lord
Inhabiting Your poverty
Maybe Your body Lord was shaped by foods You hated
Maybe You sometimes walking to the market / Felt everybody even only
for a moment / Glancing at You
knew Lord You lived on figs
Lord and You hated figs and always had
And on the day You overturned the tables of the money-changers
You also cursed a fig tree never to produce / Fruit again
because You had come to it hungry Lord
and found it barren
McCrae exquisitely marries two distinct pains: the feeling of being abandoned to one's poverty and the secrecy/shame of poverty (race, too, is often couched in secrecy/shame) -- these are the kinds of nuances of the human condition that gives McCrae's account a deeply personal understanding, and it is telling how he applies it to the Christ story. It's as if he can't imagine Christ any other way, can't imagine Christ's motivation as anything but resentment. The contemporary statement follows right along with it: Only those with money can complain about money's influence.
McCrae arrives at these conclusions through a persistent meditative exercise, which culminates in an epiphanic turn -- a volta, as Farmer describes it -- toward revelation. It's confessional to the max, and it's no surprise, then, that the long poem included in this collection, "The Seven Last Words of Christ," is essentially a marathon version of this form of meditation.
This poem is a bona fide stream-of-consciousness journey into the interior of the psyche:
The dream he most
Dreams often dreams is
A dream in which
He doesn't know he's
he wakes about
An inch or so
above his bed.
Broken into subsections titled by quotations from Christ as he was being crucified (though the poem charges right through those breaks with nary a syntactical pause), the poem seeks that most classic object of poetic healing: reconciling the death of the mother. It is heartbreaking stuff:
Such thing your mother
Said no such thing
Death being a part of
Life she was just
Sleeping and then
She died and then
Something you had
Never seen before
Left her and you
Could see that it
How far we are, at this moment, from public protest. McCrae's obsessions are older kinds of obsessions. His habit is to look back -- to his past, to religion, to the early twentieth and nineteenth centuries. It is telling how little media is in these poems -- even Robert Lowell, in his famous civil rights poem "For the Union Dead," crouches to his television set. Media and the public discourse of race hang in the background of McCrae's poems in a kind of citational nether-dimension, leaving the sorts of tracers such as we have already discussed: the provoking titles and especially McCrae's demographic refrain of "black white trash." One could even view his use of the forward slash with his poems as a nod toward this sort of citationality, as though they were already being quoted.
Media might be in the background, but it is extremely important, and we see that in one critical poem. When we wake with McCrae from the dream depths of "The Seven Last Words of Christ," we are staring at a singular piece of media, a historic photograph of a bound slave by John L. Spivak, which is the subject of the penultimate poem, "I Know It's Hard for You to Believe You Still Benefit from Slavery." Look how heavy-handedly McCrae emphasizes the mediatization of the subject, the fact that what we are looking at isn't a person but an image:
The boy in the picture is
Tied in the picture to the post in the picture or
Look closer it's a pickaxe look
Look, look. This is the sort of directive at the absolute heart of the twenty-first-century condition, but McCrae chooses to make it only toward the very end -- as a larger kind of volta, perhaps, a jarring turn from the interior to the exterior, from the private to the public.
This choice is -- like every choice McCrae makes in this collection -- one of necessity. Despite all of the messaging we hear today, we don't actually live in media. We converse in it, we are moved by it, angered by it, entertained and persuaded by it, but our lives are still something separate, our lives still have to do with how we are seen on the street, what it feels like to be hungry, and what it's like to watch our loved ones die. Media abstracts these experiences into a discourse, and today at a superlative frequency and amplitude. What McCrae's poems do is remind us of this; they give us an important form of continuity between the private turmoil of hatred and abandonment and the public voice that seeks recognition, community, and atonement.
The Animal Too Big to Kill by Shane McCrae