Book review: Mule by Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae. Mule. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011.

Reviewed by Craig Blais


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Mule, Shane McCrae’s first book of poetry, is a sequence of elliptical lyrics that deals, mostly, with the subjects of growing up bi-racial in Texas, fathering a special-needs child, getting married, and going through a divorce. These subjects are mostly dealt in reverse chronological order, so that the first poem in the first section begins, “And we divorced…”, while five out of the six poems in the second section begin, “We married…”

 

If the content of McCrae’s poetry is domestic, the themes are more often about the universal, almost epic, struggle that happens within that sphere when we strive for a sense of place and belonging in an imperfect society, and when we search for meaning, certainty, and control in a larger cosmos that is constantly reminding us that most of the stuff in our lives is beyond our control:

 

We married in a taxi in Chica-

go mid-            November in the long wind blowing

Our son has autism married in the back

Seat of a taxi slipping in the wind

We’ll never have         you said another child

On Michigan and on our left the lake

The long white shadow of the lake in the blowing

Wind and what happens           you asked when we die

Who will take care of him…  

                                    from “[We married in a taxi]”

 

Along with the backward movement of the personal narrative, McCrae employs certain stylistic and musical elements that simultaneously—and ironically—unsettle and unify the collection. Visually, the most obvious of these are the double spacing, the caesura, and the backslash. These three elements combined create a D.A. Powell or Jorie Graham-like “look” that trademarks the McCrae poem, or at least the McCrae poem as we know it in Mule.  The caesura traditionally signals a natural break or breath in the line, while the backslash is synonymous with a line break—which also signals a brief pause; however, in Mule, McCrae constantly undermines these expectations to create a line within the line, a suggested break before the true break, hinting at the poem underneath the poem that—like the marriage, the family, and the future—might have been. From “In No Place”:

 

Already sit and don’t go out

 

in an-/ y sudden every sudden thing            and we

In any hurry turn to salt and break          /The farther I

run far from you          the less/ I feel my own body
and turn to salt             / and break              and hurry have

to get now back/ Home to Chicago every sudden thing/ Marries

 

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The music of McCrae’s poetry is also achieved through repetition. One would be hard pressed to find a poet writing today who uses it to the extent that McCrae does in Mule.  It is purposefully overdone to varying effects (nagging, comic, manic, and ruminative, to name a few) and to varying degrees of success. It’s the overdoing of something that is by definition a do-over, a repeating, that gives McCrae’s work an irreverent confidence that the reader comes to trust over the course of the collection. Here’s an example from “In the Garden of the Ghosts of the Garden”:

 

And we divorced in water in a gar-

den in the pond in the garden in the pond

Up to our ankles in the mud and neck-

deep in the water         and we stood in the water

We held our arms above our heads for for-

ty days supported by the water and

Weighed down by the water…

 



Shane McCrae is the author of the chapbooks One Neither One (Octopus Books) and In Canaan (Rescue Press). His work has appeared in African American Review, Agni, The American Poetry Review, Denver Quarterly, Effing Magazine, Typo and The Best American Poetry 2010. He holds degrees from Linfield College, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and Harvard Law School, and is currently pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Iowa. He is married, and has three children.

 

Craig Blais’s poems are in Best New Poets, Spoon River Poetry Review, Bellingham Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sentence, and The Pinch. His first-book manuscript, About Crows, has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, the National Poetry Series, the Philip Levine Prize in Poetry, and the Brittingham and Pollak Poetry Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press.