Shane McCrae, Mule (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010)
I cut my poetic teeth, back in high school, on the dadas and the surrealists, thanks to Michael Benedikt’s anthology The Poetry of Surrealism (a text that desperately needs to come back into print; to this day some of the translations in there, especially the late Michael Hamburger’s, are my favorites of the poems in question). As a result, I’ve generally been less impressed with the whole autobiographical/confessional school of Whitman descendants that seem to rule American poetry. The exceptions—Bukowski, Richard Siken, a few others—are those whose poetic style is distinctive enough that at times it seems to overcome the material. Shane McCrae, whose Mule is exactly that sort of thing (a book about courtship, marriage, and divorce), is one of those poets. Mule practically bleeds style, and while I’m not one to complain when style gets in the way of substance (e.g. my review of Timothy Donnelly’s Twenty-Seven Props for a Production of Eine Lebenszeit, a book no one else I know gets), it should be noted that at no point does McCrae ever lose sight of his subject matter here.
“We married on a speeding train the roof
Fighting with knives a speeding train we were
Fighting each other stabbing through the roof
The windows but where were the passengers
Stabbing each other full of holes but no
Blood and no bones the knives slipped through our bod-
ies and we didn’t lose our balance…”
(–”[We Married on a Speeding Train]”)
I don’t think it would be a spoiler alert to tell you that this will not end well.
This is McCrae’s first book, but it doesn’t feel like a first book; this is accomplished poetry with a strong voice from a guy who knows what he’s doing. If this is the beginning of his career, then he should be fearsome by the time we get to the middle of it. ****