An Autobiography of Captivity
Nov 14, 2017
11 Min read time
Shane McCrae's new book, a finalist for the National Book Award, is an astonishingly precise account of a complex emotional past.
In the Language of My Captor
Wesleyan, $24.95 (cloth)
Shane McCrae is one of the hardest working poets in America. Not only has his output been prodigious over the past few years, but all of his books have worked, separately and together, to articulate richly nuanced understandings of race and racism as they operate at the crucial intersection of public history and personal experience. His fifth collection, In the Language of My Captor, a finalist for the National Book Award, takes this ongoing project into a new, dramatically realized mode, employing the constituent dramatic elements of scene, voice, and audience.
McCrae, acutely attuned to the theoretical terrain he traverses in poems about race and power that are so characterized by notions of performance, never lets the reader forget that ‘captivation’ derives from ‘captive.’
Divided into four sections, In the Language of My Captor presents a cast of characters who speak through persona poems, and anchors their disparate voices with a central memoir that is spoken directly in the voice of the poet. The first section is told from the perspective of an unnamed African captive caged in what we take to be an American sideshow or circus. The second section presents McCrae’s memoir, interweaving it with the stories and dreams of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his adopted mixed-race son, Jim Limber. The third section is told from the perspective of an early black film star known as Banjo Yes, and the fourth brings all of the voices together in a short final act. McCrae, acutely attuned to the theoretical terrain he traverses in poems about race and power that are so characterized by notions of performance, never lets the reader forget that “entertainment” derives from “to hold together” and “captivation” from “captive.” The poems interrogate performance as a form of bondage, and explore the inherent demands of audience, drawing powerful connections between the material bondages of slavery, with its attendant effects on the raced (and sexed) body, and the cultural bondages of racism, desire, and surveillance.
The first section serves as a philosophical overture for some of these issues. The persona here—the caged African man—most clearly enacts the title of the book: he has presumably just learned English, and his adoption of the language feels like an initiation into the American racial hierarchy. But the language also provides him partial mastery over the predicament into which he has been thrown, an analytical toolset by which he can understand the ways of this new world:
Because I’m on display in
A cage with monkeys
I / Must speak and act
carefully to maintain / His privacy
and // If he would listen I would tell him
Must be defended
There is no privacy
I have become an // Expert on the subject.
This man may be caged, but here he is the “expert,” and he uses his expertise to speak truth to power. McCrae is a skilled stylist, and the sections in verse exhibit his refined feel for the dynamics of syntax, lineation, and punctuation, including his signature use of forward slashes. By organizing plain-spoken language through these various techniques for arranging its grammar, McCrae is able to charge that language with a kind of gyroscopic momentum, a dynamism of expositional thinking that almost always arrives at powerfully felt revelations. Consider the way he uses simple inversion (“listen” and “tell”) and negation (“privacy” and “no privacy”) to give analytical motion to the sentence. By contextualizing this truism about privacy within an account of telling and listening, he posits a complex relationship between privacy, truth, and power’s willingness to listen. Likewise he complicates our role as audience: perhaps our act of listening is a transgression of privacy? Or perhaps the speaker sacrifices his privacy in order to speak truth to us? Do we, as audience, mirror the captor? Or does our presence offer some avenue of emancipation? Through five short, simple lines, McCrae is able to sketch this entire constellation of questions.
These poetic techniques are McCrae’s, but they are also his personas’, and their deployment belies some underlying irony: the ultimate power in language for these characters inheres in what one does not say. The African captive must “speak and act carefully,” and the character Banjo Yes, in “Banjo Yes Plucks an Apple from a Tree in a Park”—also in a mode of commanding monologue—describes the importance of reticence:
No nigger tells the story of himself
Man even if I hate a nigger what-
ever he does I do I ask myself
Before I do anything it don’t mat-
ter what it is Who’s watching me and What
They gonna think they see . . .
If the opening persona is a philosopher, Banjo Yes is an entrepreneur, someone who has taken the truths he has come to realize and developed them into strategies for survival—even success. The heartbreaking aspect of these strategies, however, is that they almost always involve some form of self-effacement: “no nigger tells the story of himself.”
In the Language of My Captor draws powerful connections between the material bondages of slavery, with its attendant effects on the raced (and sexed) body, and the cultural bondages of racism, desire, and surveillance.
Fitting, then, that McCrae stands in the cleared-away space between these two historical voices and does just that: tells the story of himself. McCrae’s memoir is a distinct counterpoint both in goal and aesthetic. These intimate prose pieces—which, along with the Davis and Limber persona pieces, comprise section two—interweave two projects, poetic cycles aimed at constructing remembrances. The first project confronts memories of childhood sexual and racial trauma, and the second painstakingly recounts a site of enigmatic personal meaning—an abandoned village in the woods near his childhood school. This latter project functions, among the dramatic elements and theatrical conventions that shape the collection, as a central scene or setting. McCrae begins, “The village was the emptiest place I had ever seen. But the warehouse and the houses were full. The houses were full of furniture nobody had used in years, and old kitchen appliances, and shoes.” Here we have the poet’s place of personal reckoning, the ruins of a domestic life serving as material manifestations of past pain. The care with which McCrae goes on to describes the details of the abandoned residences suggests a kind of bracing oneself in a space where the poet tries to piece together an autobiography defined by moments of trauma.
These traumas include the transfer of custody from his parents to his grandparents, his uneasy reception by both family and community as a boy of mixed race (his mother was white, his father black), his grandfather’s racism (in one section McCrae carefully defines him as a white supremacist), and sexual development that was characterized by violent, though often welcomed, encounters with neighborhood boys. McCrae narrates these encounters with arresting clarity and calm:
The village was the emptiest place I had ever seen. But the warehouse and the houses were full. The houses were full of furniture nobody had used in years, and old kitchen appliances, and shoes—I remember several pairs of shoes—and stained jeans. In the first house I walked through, the first couch I saw had been tilted on its back. It lay in a small living room, and next to it was a pair of cracked brown wingtip oxfords, and a few feet in front of it were two empty, beaten-up suitcases; otherwise, it was surrounded by old sheets of plywood and fragments of the walls. The houses stood even though they looked as if more material had been torn from the walls than could have been in the walls in the first place.
In scenes such as this one, sex is not an act of pleasure but release. The passage describes a release of the self from the body, echoing the self-effacements described by Banjo Yes and the African captive, but in this case it is not a moment of hiding the self through carefulness or subterfuge. Instead, this scene implies annihilation or casting off—the self set adrift in the void. It is a distressing but transformative moment, and it, too, is predicated on notions of audience and performance, though this time viewer and performer are one.
This passage (and the scene-setting example before it) entails a distinctly different kind of prosody than the poems in other sections, not only because the text is unlineated, but because it manifests a more careful and direct intention. Here, McCrae eschews the lyric charge of the personas, their prowess and relishing, in favor of a voice that is simply trying to get it right. An important counterpoint to the persona poems of other sections, this voice lays things bare, and yet McCrae curiously softens its impact by interpolating even more persona poems, this time in the historical voices of Davis and Limber.
These persona poems, however, are unlike those that frame the book. They are not assured performances or explanatory monologues, but much tenderer affairs. Some of them take place in dream, as in “Jefferson Davis the Adoptive Father of the Mulatto Jim Limber Dreams of an Unknowing Love”:
I draw her close to me and as I reach
for her face her master’s wife calls her name
Varina she calls where are you and she
calls with my Varina’s voice she calls her
name and mixes it with mine Jefferson
where are you I have fallen asleep in
my study my Varina calls for me
as the moon calls for the light of the sun
from across an unknowable blackness.
“I draw her close to me” is romantic stuff, a far cry from the garbage-littered floors of the abandoned village, the analytical exposition of the African captive, or the self-effacing void of sexual violence. McCrae can be saccharine in these poems—lines including “as the moon calls for the light of the sun” verge on the sentimental—but just as Davis’s name mixes with that of Varina in the dream, so too does McCrae mix his identity and history with that being recounted here.
It’s an odd choice, treating this figure—the Confederate president!—so sweetly, and positioning these poems so close to the rawest, most personal material in the book. But we can quickly see—from the almost aggressively descriptive titles, and perhaps from our own historical knowledge—why these characters are woven through McCrae’s memoir: they are an analog for his own history as an adopted, mixed-race son (the section is titled: “Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons”). By positioning his own personal explorations against this particular performance—by speaking through Limber and Davis—McCrae is able to approach the topic of love.
Whether love can be found is almost moot. These poems provide a pervasive ambiguity, a sustained holding-between that never fully satisfies, never fully redeems.
Whether love can be found is almost, in light of these emotional entanglements, moot. As in the dream of “unknowing love” in the poem cited above, love itself is often subject to sentimental performance. The poems of In the Language of My Captor provide a pervasive ambiguity, a sustained holding-between that never fully satisfies, never fully redeems. McCrae’s concluding sentence of his description of the abandoned village offers this purgatorial vision: “each thing preserved, both dead and outside of death, not in Hell, but in the one fire everywhere, after which there is no suffering, and so from which there is no relief.”
Yet love remains there as a possibility. In this negotiation of performance, memory, and the binary of erasing and unveiling the self, the poems find something like a love that might just be enough: the sharing of love’s impossibility, of that which history has forbidden. In this mode the audience is no longer the captor, nor the readers’ own selves, but the one by whom we want to be seen: the audience becomes the beloved, and perhaps through that configuration the bondage of performance can be sublimated and a truer self can emerge. The character of Limber describes it best as he considers his father’s love:
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 like the folks he owes
A duty to and that’s a great relief
I know he’s scared sometimes but he don’t show
It much to nobody else that’s how I know he
Loves me because he don’t mind what he shows me
In this passage from “Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Cannot Afford to Make Demands of Love,” we see a reversal of the privacy issues the African captive initially considers. Here the claim is not for what should be defended but what should be offered up: our vulnerability. This switch brings us, as readers, to a new understanding of privacy, of the acts of telling, showing, listening, and seeing: McCrae suggests that it is possible, even necessary, to show ourselves to those whom we love and to receive what they show to us, even as we continue to protect ourselves from the wider world (“the folks he owes / A duty to”) through endless performances.
In the Language of My Captor is an astonishingly precise account of a complex emotional past. In the very attempt at understanding—in McCrae’s careful prosody and patient attentiveness to difficult personal and public questions—the book already succeeds. And yet it succeeds even further as a work of drama that, in its enactment by readers and hearers, never lets us forget that someone is always watching and we are always performing. At the same time these poems affirm, within this complex field of power and performance, the possibility of a true self through earnest telling, vulnerability, and love.
November 14, 2017
11 Min read time