“After the Uprising” came to us as the last poem from McCrae’s new book, Blood, just out from Noemi Press. It’s a partner poem to the first in the book, “Heads,” some thunder back at that original lightning. “After the Uprising” begins this way:
Well some of us escaped
into the swamp and some of us
Snuck back quick to our masters and our masters knew
To begin this poem is to immediately be set into a world that we can contextualize from American history (endnotes in the book confirm that the poem is based on the German Coast Uprising of 1811). But regardless of which slave rebellion this is specifically about, there’s an immediate sense of the emotional freight of the poem, even in the chaos of this opening scene. After reading the poem a few times, you realize that the not-knowing of specifics by name in the poem is part of the raw force here—that the setting and story could be from multiple historical points across the antebellum American South, that its location in time is plural rather than necessarily specific. With great intention, the poem makes meaning in this way both generally (as an antebellum horror-reality, playing out in different rebellions across the South) and specifically (the German Coast Uprising).
I was interested immediately by the way opening with “well” should not work—such a flat, hemmed-in word, a word that is the opposite of an energetic entry into the energy of this poem. But it is also a word of consideration—a word of active assessment, of a mind at work, churning to process, to respond, to make sound choices given the choices at hand. Eventually I realized that “well” is an invitation: we’re invited to participate in the assessment of options that the voice in the poem has also considered; we’re invited to participate in the narrative through-line of the poem. This is a dislocation for us as readers, as it implicitly locates us inside the story—it’s uncomfortable, and it is a felt experience. This is what comes in the wake of difficult knowledge, and this is how the poem exercises its great power: to escape with the rebels or choose the “safety” of staying; to kill or choose not to; to be free temporarily, but know it means likely eventual capture, torture, and death, vs. the choice to not rebel and to “sneak back quick” to the master:
Besides you kill a man you can’t
Murder him forever
not even for that stretch of forever
white folks own
but only negroes get
The language governing decision-making in the poem is straightforward and impossible, presented in a clear and rational mode, and this is partially why it is so devastating—the calculus of the poem is both utterly human and yet not at all humane. The effect is unsettling and riveting, as the situation and tone feel as if they must be mutually exclusive, and yet they somehow aren’t. Is that a failure of my reader’s imagination to comprehend historical reality, one where the voice in “After the Uprising” could exist? I’m ashamed that it may be, but I’m not ashamed by what the language in the poem teaches me both about history and about myself. It’s a short poem, and it ends this way:
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
Lindsay Turner, in a review of McCrae’s Mule, noted this about his syntax: “One effect of this doubly broken verse is a sense of fracture, stutter, or incompleteness within the lines; another is that the full line or the full image, when it does appear, is all the fuller.” I think this is exactly right. Meanings double or triple along the enjambments, white space and fault lines in the poem, and when an image comes searing, it comes like a freight train loose from its tracks. That image is all the more startling for appearing through the noise an active reader makes when puzzling through the fractured syntax: how forever means something entirely different in this poem depending on your skin color, or how freedom is rationed out by degrees, so that there are many different types of it, including “all the way free.” And that freedom is not a condition, it is a tool to be used. One implicit question when you are finished reading: How do you use your freedom?
When I’m reading poetry submissions for KR, I always try to put the submission in a bigger context—editorial work is stewardship: of The Kenyon Review name, at least, and of a cultural institution at best, one that will go on long after I’m no longer working here. It’s a double pressure—I want to do work that holds up to what The Kenyon Review has been, but also to what it is going to be, as it continues evolving forward, adapting to the moving mercury of a contemporary cultural moment as that moment swoons and slumps in the telling glass of the year’s submissions. That up-ahead part is really exciting for KR. Of course, the editorial process is also a process of personal taste—it’s the work in front of this particular reader, with his own sensibilities. Still: that desire for context usually leads to a few different responses when I’m considering work for publication, even though the submitter often only gets to participate in the limited yes/no binary: a no to these, but thanks (always!) for letting me see them, for giving us that gift; or: no to these, but yes to this poet—I want to see what you are writing two, three, four years from now, I can see that work as something I could advocate for; or: every once in a while, someone sends something that thrills and sustains in a deep, interrogating, continuous way, and I think (periodically audibly): I want to read everything you are writing.
I’m not a stranger to Shane McCrae’s work—he sent earlier poems that we published in the Summer 2009 issue of KROnline, I read his book Mule (Cleveland State University Press) with the same agog look as many others who took the time to find it and love it, I have In Canaan (Rescue Press), his poetic sequence on Margaret Garner that utterly inhabits her persona, her fidelities, and the impossibilities she was forced to live with and be complicit in. We even ended up sending back a few poems at one point that we couldn’t love as much after seeing what Shane was capable of with his work—his sense of scope and ambition in subject and tone, and his ability to create this tension line by line, even word by word, with his particular and peculiarly fractured syntax and formal constructions, his repetitions and ruptures. His lineation is careful, and defining; the poems halt or leap, line by line, and you find yourself moving at a pace you neither dictate nor control. This is part of the sincere pleasure of a McCrae poem—the experience is one that you travel through at the pace of the world the poem creates for you, and there’s no mistaking how the poem guides you through itself.
Anne Carson said this in a recent profile in the New York Times, but I think McCrae could lip sync it admirably if he wanted: “I’m really trying to make people’s minds move, you know, which is not something they’re naturally inclined to do. . . . Given whatever material we’re going to talk about, and we all know what it is, how can we move within it in a way we’ve never moved before, mentally? That seems like the most exciting thing to do with your head.” I’m persuaded by this—that the poem’s work is to move you, emotionally and physically. And spiritually. To move is to change perspective, and in so doing, to change the landscape and your relationship to it. Poem as making-machine, poem as gift slingshot, pointed dead-on at your chest, poem as buoy in the you-sea, marking the place where the danger starts, where the unknown begins.
I’ll close by suggesting this: the other reason for the poem’s power is that it recreates a historical moment that our contemporary one is founded on, is derived from, is complicit in. There’s a shared DNA between who we are and what we have been. McCrae’s poem is a chance to both bear witness through his language, but also to begin to understand what we have historically been in an active way, from the inside out, to learn where the limits of understanding are, beyond which we can only intuit, gesture at, and understand through the facility of art. We need what this particular art can do to teach ourselves, and help us see.