Sunday, May 26, 2019

Shane McCrae, Forgiveness

1. The Subject

Little Brown Koko goes by Koko
in the book as I remember it
Although he is    / Little and black although he is

Subject to the book
in the book as I remember it / Nobody calls him Little Brown Koko
nobody in the book

The writer calls him Little Brown
Koko and    / It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s little what
Matters is that he’s black

And even without the illustrations the
Reader would know he’s black
Because his name is Little first    then Brown

although     / Nobody calls him Little Brown
Koko in the book as I remember him
Although he is

subject to the book (“The Visible Boy”)

Sometimes the difficulty with receiving so many books in the mail is the occasional reminder of what might have slipped by, as other packages of books appear, one by one. While cleaning out some poetry titles from my office recently, I realized I had a copy of one of New York poet Shane McCrae’s earlier titles, Forgiveness (Hadley MA: Factory Hollow Press, 2014), discovered well after having read and reviewed his fifth and sixth full-length collections In the Language of My Captor (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017) [see my review of such here] and more recent The Gilded Auction Block (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019) [see my review of such here]. Forgiveness is McCrae’s third full-length title, after Mule (2011) and Blood (Noemi Press, 2013), and opens with a fascinating examination of racist tropes through what not that long ago was considered appropriate children’s literature (I remember the same, from my own childhood, only half a decade older than the author), moving through the fictional “Little Brown Koko” to pull apart the inherently violent and debasing stereotypes of black people, and black “boys” in what presented itself as children’s story. As this first sequence of eleven poems ends:

I saw him also in the words
but wrong in the words / In my    head as I read the words
His body    / Hadn’t been

flattened swelled until it wasn’t anymore
a body     until it was
a white man’s black boy’s body

“Koko” returns in a further sequence, later in the collection. I’m fascinated, through Forgiveness, to get a clearer sense of how McCrae has been utilizing poetry as a means to explore and critique cultural trauma, legacies and their ongoing effects. How does one negotiate with and navigate through such an ongoing history? Through “Koko,” and  among other poems that thread throughout the collection, Forgiveness exists almost as a character sketch of the accumulated effects of racism and its myriad abuses—from slavery and repeated murders to racist depictions of black people to the daily micro-aggressions of ongoing discrimination—articulated into a precise and powerful lyric. As Annie Won writes in her review of the book for American Microreviews and Interviews: “It has been said that unlike other memories, trauma continues to make its presence known until we make our peace with it; all other memories run currents around the trauma to understand and reconcile what has happened.” The book opens with forgiveness, but speaks to how the very idea might even be impossible, especially without, at the very least, the open admission of continued abuses and further trauma; he speaks to trauma, and to how trauma could change anyone. As he writes to end the poem “The Sweet Kids”:

Lord if I smashed his nose with the end of the pipe
Lord if I wept    Lord when I found
The sparrow with the broken wing    on the path in the forest
Lord if I took it home and killed it
blubbering as I threw it / Against the guest room wall
how I am spared

If I killed what I could

No comments: