Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011. 84 pages. $15.95.
A first book of poetry can feel like a new relationship; it’s fitting that many of the poems in Shane McCrae’s first collection, Mule, revolve around the conceit “we married in.” Early in the book, McCrae locates the experience of matrimony inside an insect:
We married in a thorax no idea
What kind of bug a flying bug we mar-
ried off the ground we married in the air
We married over a trailer park by the sea
At sundown . . . (18)
The space of disorientation and exhilaration explored in Mule could, similarly, be compared to the space inside the thorax of some strange flying bug. The poems fairly lift off, over seas and trailer parks: a new species of poetic insects bumping and flying with a prosody and a music of their own.
This music is refreshingly and uniquely invested in, even obsessed with, the mechanics of meter. Many of McCrae’s poems are sonnets or sonnet variations; in the poem “Horses Running Fast,” given here in its entirety, McCrae manipulates the pentameter line variously and mercilessly:
We married in an open field a wide
And open field a field of wild and run- / ning
horses wide a field of horses run- / ning though
we married in an open wide
Running and full of horses open
field / And we married in and in we mar- / ried in in
one direction they the hors- / es they
disguised the wind as horses in the wind / The horses running
fast in one / Direction
as the horses running through / The horses as the horses run- / ning through
and each of us as me and you / As horses running fast
In one direction and
no animal outruns its past (20)
The first line of this poem is standard pentameter; in the second, McCrae indicates the line break with a slash but continues across the word, moving to the next line only after the verb is complete. From here, the page’s unconventional 13-line sonnet co-exists productively with the 14-line metrical sonnet indicated by the slash marks and disrupted by the actual line breaks. The pentameter breaks are audible, but McCrae’s enjambments and emphases shape the poem on the page, allowing for breath in places (“ we married in an open wide / Running and full” [line break marker mine]) and breathlessness in others (“fast in one / Direction”). McCrae’s verse is meticulously controlled; this control spurs the poems on.
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. “After the Diagnosis” ends:
The same monsters on the map and in the world
And not the same world on the map and in
The world the same sea in the world and in
The world the monsters stretch from coast to coast (25)
This is by no means a hopeful ending: the literal diagnosis here is a son’s autism, and the book probes the instability and disintegration that follow. Nonetheless, the sieving of repetition and heavy enjambment filters out the metrically perfect last line. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls lyric poetry a “reciprocal catastrophe of sound and sense.” “After the Diagnosis”—indeed, much of Mule—happens within that catastrophe. The vista the poems present is ominous, but the verse itself eventually offers the comfort of momentary stillness or rest.
While Mule is prosodically rich, it also explores personal history, race, and religion at length, as well as giving new versions of confessional and devotional poetry. And even if some of the book’s middle poems perhaps detract from the prosodic excitement felt elsewhere, in the end McCrae doesn’t sacrifice form for thematic exposition, or vice versa. In an interview with Carol Guess, McCrae has said that he wants his poems to do “something of what my favorite bands do in music . . . I’m thinking especially of My Bloody Valentine here. I wanted to reproduce something of their intelligible haze—I wanted the words to blur together, to somehow both erase and reinforce each other.” McCrae’s virtuosity with structure and moments of elevated grace seems, to me, to form a sort of “shoegaze” poetics: from their charged “haze,” “intelligible”—and important—themes emerge. Above all, then, McCrae’s Mule is about as obstinate as it should be: the poems stubbornly refuse to abandon either free verse or metered line and just as stubbornly insist upon the co-presence of lyric attention with personal history and identity. As in the poem “Mulatto,” Mule works by fusion, producing a song which is neither entirely the singer’s project nor the listener’s chore, a song
Which unrelated to the body pass-
es through the body and that body is
Made more or less a human body the
Singer’s the listener’s . . .