Shane McCrae is the author of Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011) and two chapter books: One Neither One (Octopus Books, 2009) and In Canaan (Rescue Press, 2010). He has attended the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Harvard Law School. He is working toward a PhD in English at the University of Iowa.
“Some books come down like gods dying to transform us out of our empty, shattered lives. Mule is such a book. Never shying away from sudden confusions of pain and beauty, Shane McCrae’s questions are not why so much pain? why so much beauty? but, instead, how can they remake us? McCrae’s is a living, breathing poetry made of wisdom and wrenching song.”
“Syntax is the facility of the soul, O’Hara taught us, and somehow in the first decade of the 21st century, our poets decided to separate syntax and what compels us, as if the two weren’t of the same element—as if we read no Berryman and memorized no Shakespeare, and as if their punctuation did not stop our breath! What a joy now to discover a voice such as Shane McCrae’s, who in this first decade of a new century finds his new music, and compels us with its outbursts and heartbreak and yells and stuttering of joy and its sudden clarity of perception that is like no other. Shane McCrae is a master.”
“In his first book, Mule, Shane McCrae admits us to the marriage of impediments (‘Half donkey and half human being’) in a country that too often insists on fracture over union. McCrae’s ‘mulatto’ sings us through mash-ups of race and class, even as he divorces us from ‘the bud and green of May,’ its more random cruelties and collateral damage. ‘You / Will recognize yourself in the singing you / Will not recognize yourself in the songs,’ he says, but (because he is a singer of prodigious gifts) we do—and in that inlet of recognition we are goners. Mule is a splendid and heartbreaking debut.”
“This astonishing, extremely beautiful book is, in a way, a new twist on the epithalamion, tracing the innumerable and inescapable marriages that fissure our lives. And it traces them with an eerie repetitive force that, while echoing the edgier experiments of Modernism, still manages to feel utterly unfamiliar. It’s a book both haunted and haunting—possessed by sound and its tremendous momentum, that somehow-suspended momentum, hypnotic in its rhythms and compelling in its headlong fall into the truth of the heart.”
Shane McCrae and I trade YouTube clips of bands we like over e-mail. There's a tonal quality in the types of clips we send -- the bands we like tend to have lyric sensibilities while their words and their guitar sounds are distorted through a tangle of reverb and fuzz. I know Shane's favorite band is My Bloody Valentine. I know he likes the Jesus & Mary Chain. He likes bands with guitars that sound like purring chainsaws. Of course, I like these types of bands too. There's something about the union of the lyric with the cacophonous that puts me in a meditative state. Drone music. Layered music . . . music that I can feel in my jaw. Ultimately, it's music that breaks my heart. The hum of it rising from my stomach into my blood so that the bass syncopates with my pulse. Distortion is part of the message. That no matter how hard a musician strives for that perfect note, for virtuosity, there's beauty and grace in his or her failure to reach the achievement.
This is all to say that Shane McCrae's first book of poetry, Mule, breaks my heart in the same delicious way that I enjoy having my heart broken again and again while listening to my favorite LP's on a slow Sunday morning. Such art asks for active cooperation between reader and artist in order to achieve transference. The reader must be willing to surrender, since a total understanding of the speaker's grief in Mule occurs beyond the bounds of reason or logic. At the heart of Shane's work is a heavy layering of formal poetic impulses -- much of the book is written in meter and rhyme -- with the distortion of the meter through caesura, elision, and slanted lines that signify a break in the metrical count. There is no punctuation throughout the book unless you're counting the forward slashes as punctuation. Shane also makes use of heavy repetition. I'm telling you this now because I want you to understand something -- the tension taking place in Mule between the poems' collapsing sonnet-like forms and the highly emotional material (the end of love, fatherhood, race, and loss) will slay you as it did me.
The poem, "Internal Horses" is one poem that tore me up. The poem follows the speaker whose marriage is dissolving while he observes his autistic son:
As we divorced Nicholas rode
internal horses / And watching him
from the bench at the edge of the park/ In wildflowers
him in wildflowers in fields/ Of wildflowers him in fields on
Blossom from the ground
and then the ground
Must be covered over with foam with bark
The stammering syntax suggests a speaker who is feeling for some solid, verifiable ground and in failing to find it, resorts to a stutter. I like to think of the loop machine employed by Merrill Garbus, the lead singer and performer of the tUnE-yArDs. She deftly records multiple tracks of her voice and then intersperses them in the song with a touch of a foot pedal. The effect is astounding. The impact of the vocal repetition is primal. So too the impact of the repetition of "wildflowers" in this poem. The portrayal of the speaker's sense of the child rocking and horses running is a pitch-perfect dissolution of form. It gives me the impression of a climber searching the crevasse of a sheer rock-face for a foothold.
Speaking of which, the iambic meter surges the scene forward while the speaker seems to attempt to hold the action back by breaking the metrical count. The forward slashes signify the end of a metrical line. The image of "internal horses" suggests that the autistic child is rocking to sooth himself while the speaker imagines an idyllic place for the child's attentions. The poem continues:
To love him just enough to sit there watch-/ ing not enough for
us to stay together
Not more enough than us
The above lines refer to one of the central themes of the book -- how to stay "married" despite everything in the world . . . how everything is "Not more enough than us." The idea of marriage, throughout the book, is mutable. Though marriage refers to the speaker's ending marriage, it also suggests the fusion of other disparate selves. In this case, the child is not enough to keep this marriage from collapsing. But in other cases in the book marriage refers to race, fatherhood, and a myriad of other selves that cannot keep the speaker's world from bursting apart.
Finally, the poem closes:
If we had put our ears to the ground
we might have heard the horses/ Carrying him our son away
the sound carried away and al-/so back both both together
Not running from and not running to us
Imagine this last stanza to be the closing quatrain of a sonnet. The speaker speculates what might have been had both speaker and his soon-to-be ex-spouse listened to what the son might be hearing. But of course, we know that such an exercise is a futile one. The poem is a momentary stay against confusion and ultimately fails to keep the speaker's world together.
Now, I understand that one of the pitfalls of writing challenging work is the potential for readers to feel required and not invited to participate. It's the old issue of accessibility and whether or not the poet is being generous. Let me say that the work in Mule is generous beyond measure and that Shane McCrae's poems are more than inviting. It's so easy to provide the reader an answer, a simple hook, a stable core, but the materials that Shane McCrae handles in Mule can't be touched with kid gloves. There's nothing easy about heartbreak.
I had this discussion with a couple of friends about Radiohead's new album The King of Limbs. It's a difficult album, but if you're attentive. If you listen closely, it will break your heart with every listen. The album's use of layering as well as distortion, plus the barely audible sounds in the background add tremendous resonance to the entirety of the album. I like to call this type of music "headphone music." It's not an indictment of the album, but rather high praise. It means it requires immersion, an attentive listen. It means it's the reader's moral obligation to give over an afternoon or morning to the celebration of the work. Mule is headphone poetry. It's the type of music I expect Shane to link in his e-mail. It's the kind of poetry I'll play on a loop.