The Animal Too Big to Kill by Shane McCrae

The Animal Too Big to Kill: Poems BY Shane McCrae. Persea. Paperback, 80 pages. $15.
The cover of The Animal Too Big to Kill: Poems

Shane McCrae is the rare poet who can write a poem that is cool, easygoing, and deep—often all at once. He uses conversational language, casual references to pop culture, and slang as though he were talking to a circle of friends. With this mixture, he makes some of the most heartfelt new poems being written, offering a piercing rendition of how a truly contemporary consciousness—and conscience—deals with the ugliness of contemporary America, as well as with the old-fashioned human condition.

McCrae is the best at this balancing of high and low in poetry since D. A. Powell, our great chronicler of the long tail of the AIDS epidemic and of gay life in the last decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. Despite its apparent casualness, McCrae’s work, like Powell’s, is intensely concerned with a serious subject: race and its attendant political and personal ramifications. In four books published in quick succession since his 2011 debut, Mule, McCrae has established himself as one of our most necessary poets, personalizing the imperative discussion around race, and contemplating how that discussion is rooted in American language.

McCrae writes his poems in his own brand of stream of consciousness: His jerking lines repeat themselves, hitching back, stuttering with a willful redundancy, dramatizing the mind in the act of trying to qualify unconscionable facts. “Growing up black white trash you grow up wondering you/ are raised/ Wondering what you did and when Lord wrong to// Deserve your skin.” McCrae here experiences race from within and without, recalling, with bitterness and longing, being “marched/ Hands up the barrel of a pellet gun/ Stuck in your back” by a white neighborhood kid “to the gates of his gated/ white paradise.” In this scenario, he finds the haunting origins of how race plays out between adults:

You grow up desperate for that boy

to be your friend that boy / He sees your desperation and he hates you for it you

embarrass him with his own beauty

Your desperation and your ugliness

what you and he have been raised to see as your ugliness

embarrass him. . .

This voice, as often filled with anger as tenderness, pleads near to the reader’s ear, a kind of urgent whisper. He means, often, to shock us with what he is forced to tell himself, desperate to hear the truth from someone.

McCrae is almost speaking to himself, but the addressee in these new poems is not the self, nor us, but the hedgingly sought “Lord” name-checked above, a doubtful contemporary deity who stands by as so much violence, both physical and emotional, is perpetrated against African Americans. This is the poetry of the age of Ferguson, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, viral videos of atrocities next door, and the Charleston church massacre. Implicitly, these poems wonder how a loving God could let these tragedies happen. And yet, the poems also suggest, McCrae believes that he has no one else to whom he can appeal to, no one nearer to the self nor more likely to listen.

This book is, on the one hand, a rage-filled entreaty for an explanation for this violence. On the other, it’s the record of a religious conversion, an admission that “I can’t escape responsibility// for being the kind of creature that requires signs Lord from You.” This is a speaker who prays “So that the day would be a prayer/ And every gesture I made in the day.” McCrae longs for a believable god in the face of so much obvious injustice. That’s nothing unique. What’s most remarkable about these poems is the way we are made to assume responsibility for our considerable part in allowing violence to happen.

In the arresting poem “I Know It’s Hard for You to Believe You Still Benefit from Slavery,” McCrae describes an untitled photo by John L. Spivak. The photo, taken in 1932, shows a black man, tied up and nearly dead, lying on the ground of a Georgia labor camp as another black man looks on matter-of-factly from deep in the background. It’s worth Googling the photo—an image search of Spivak’s name will bring it up instantly—if only to meet the poem’s urgent challenge: “you/ Have all the pieces picture it.” Here, McCrae turns the poem’s mirror toward us rather than God. As McCrae struggles to render the image—most of the poem is a blistering, aghast description—its import and the meaning of the title begin to sink in.

The boy in the picture is

Tied in the picture to the post in the picture or

Look closer it’s a pickaxe look

Away from his / Face to the base of the post look

that’s the head / Of the pickaxe look

back to his face

He’s not a boy his

face the expression on his face the sadness it

Looks like the kind of sadness usually / A grown man won’t let anybody see

Usually if he has a choice

Every few words the poem repeats its command, “Look.” McCrae intends for us to hear the echo of the slaver’s use of the word boy, to understand that language and physical violence have colluded to rob this man of the power even to conceal his own feelings. Toward the poem’s end McCrae writes, “he’s facing you / not with his eyes but with his body”: This is a dark counterpoint to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” But this body says something more than “you must change your life”: It’s too late to change this, and the rules that made this image possible are still in play. There is nothing here that does not see us, as Rilke says, but McCrae asks whether we see, whether we are willing. If God won’t act, we should.

Craig Morgan Teicher is the author of several books and the editor of Once and for All: The Best of Delmore Schwartz, forthcoming this spring from New Directions.