Shane McCrae, author of Mule (2010), In Canaan (2011), Blood (2013), Forgiveness Forgiveness (2014), and The Animal Too Big to Kill (2015), has created a glowingly powerful book in his most recent collection, In the Language of My Captor, and to approach it means to do so carefully. Everything from its content, largely concerned with black experience in America throughout history, to its personal sincerity and nuance, raises the book above a fixed reading experience. The resulting poems cause multiple thoughts at once, and for that I am grateful.
The chronological nature of the book’s personas (from the Civil War era through the beginning of talking films), interspersed with contemporary first person perspective, accounts for a narrative of African Americans hovering all too near violence throughout American history. Not surprisingly, McCrae admits in an interview with The Rumpus that he prefers to write from multiple perspectives, including historical ones, as the reader will notice in his latest book:
I think that the moment we’re living in offers the best opportunity we’ve had in a long time in that a lot of things having to do with identity politics are being talked about in poems . . . But, if your concern is getting away from the confessional type of poem, then talking about history, while not talking about it in a reflexive, first-person way, is one means of doing so.
To achieve this non-confessional identity politics, In the Language of My Captor offers a mix of historical and semi-fictional persona poems, all of which echo one another in the larger implications of race and violence in the book. The unnamed person in the zoo cage (part one); Jim Limber, the adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis (part two); and Banjo Yes (part three) inhabit the book in their own spaces, after which the fourth section brings these various voices together. “While the very basic historical events recounted in these poems did happen,” McCrae writes in an author’s note for the Missouri Review, “I made up everything the speakers say. I wanted to do my very small part to at least present the fact of Jim Limber.” Through his docupoetic figuration of Jim Limber, McCrae investigates the space between hate, tolerance, and love, and in a way that gives each its consideration so that the reader can better understand their complexities.
Taking for example “Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Cannot Afford to Make Demands of Love,” the reader ends on a touching note from Jim Limber regarding his adoptive father, Jefferson Davis: “that’s how I know he / Loves me because he don’t mind what he shows me.” It would be too simplistic to explain this moment as one of intersection between racism and love, for those vectors are in constant motion in McCrae’s book. This tender moment, however, compounds with the weight of earlier lines such as, “it’s something like a Ne- / gro cannot listen like the folks he owes / A duty to and that’s a great relief.” Something is lost from this love, as racism taints this act of confiding in Limber with its categorical or hierarchical thinking—who can and cannot listen.
But perhaps an act of love such as confiding will remain loving regardless. McCrae offers such open readings, even in the small gaps within lines of the same poem:
A lot of the time he talks to me about
Things he don’t talk he says to nobody
About he says it’s something like a Ne-
gro cannot listen . . .
There is available room for a reader to do a myriad of things with the typographical spaces, from reading them as implied punctuation, to leaving room for additional words from the reader’s mind. For example, “Things he don’t talk he [never] says to nobody / About he says [to me] it’s something,” reads as possible according to McCrae’s cues. There are other possibilities, and these go to show the multivalence of McCrae’s poems swinging toward the loving positive, and then back again toward the inherent hate of racism. The shifting meaning, line by line and poem by poem, attests to McCrae’s excellent care of race and language. Through its poetics, perhaps McCrae’s book has something to teach us about nuance of thought in the face of divisive moments.
The inclusion, however, of personal account, primarily in part two, “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and Father of Sons,” balances the book’s outside influence of personas and at the same time risks the speaker’s experience, whether McCrae’s or his invention’s. These experiences naturally tie in with the other parts of the book and its broader strokes, as when the boy speaker in part two admits of himself, “When I was a child, I was willing, even eager, to let anybody do anything they wanted to me, so long as they didn’t hurt me.” Much like Shane McCrae’s speaker entering deeper into the woods, “fear compelled me towards the things I feared” in reading this book. Its often casual accounts of violence and oppression give it a surreal feeling at times, such as in the prose section of part two:
The first thing my grandfather did—that was the way my grandmother always told the story—the first thing he did after we moved into our new house was throw me into a wall, the living room wall, the stretch of wall, maybe four feet wide—in a few years he would hang a painting . . .
McCrae then describes the various paintings that go up on that wall afterwards, without further mention of the grandfather’s act of violence. The understated and direct quality of this and part one’s conversation between a zookeeper and a caged man (perhaps alluding to Ota Benga, a man bought by African slave traders and exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s) calls out the horror even more in the reader’s imagination, and we become involved at the level of the voyeur or more. Throughout In the Language of My Captor, McCrae involves the reader in the underlying racism that necessitates the book, and sometimes this happens directly, as in the “Banjo Yes Asks a Journalist”:
I didn’t marry none of them white women
Because I was a /What did you say a free black man
The use of the second person intensifies the reader-implication here, making a reader assume the journalist, another form of the voyeur. The reader will likely have questions coming into the book—possibly in reaction to the title, author, and their own experience—and in the process of reading, those questions take the form of dialogues and relationships, in which no one can answer with finality. Not even the end of the book can sift through these dialogues:
. . . /Daughter age four
She thinks it might he [the old man in the waves] might be real she shouts Hello
And after there’s no answer answers No
Ultimately, what I most appreciate in this book is its experiential reading and its nuance of thought. It encourages the reader to have an internal conversation on racism, on hate and love, and on the need to avoid violence. In the Language of My Captor is a thoughtful book that causes its reader to think on the level of care. Challenging while inviting with its imaginative abilities, McCrae has written a book that is a valuable read for anyone.
About the Reviewer
Cole Konopka is a poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, where he serves as the assistant director to the Creative Writing program’s reading series. His work can be found on Gramma Weekly.