The dim lighting obscured the faces, notebooks and seats of the subterranean auditorium. Shane McCrae draped his grey hoodie on a chair and perched his glasses on his face before ducking behind the podium in his red t-shirt. Seemingly abashed from the glowing introduction, McCrae cleared his throat and said he would be reading something he’s never read before.
McCrae’s soft voice reconstructed the black ceiling of Helmut Stern Auditorium into a swirling sky of stars with his mythological, almost biblical tales, inverted to inject the African American and biracial experience.
The poet regained his voice as the momentum of each poem charged into one another. “The Lost Tribe of Eden at the Beginning of the Day of Blood” begins with McCrae’s soft voice growing and turning as he fastens a boy unto a tree to see blood for the first time. A young boy seems to recur in these poems as the narrator, swept up in dreamlike tales of blood, death and bone.
In “The King of the Sadness of Dogs”, the poet attributes the title of the poem to his daughter as she’s said a similar phrase before. Caught between a fairy tale and a cynical reality, McCrae’s simple diction woven into cosmic relevance aids in finding understanding in what it means to live and die in one’s skin, especially when one is confined by oppression.
Each poem ends in a whisper and a flurry of papers being rearranged for a new reading. Prior to reading the work, McCrae introduced it with rarely more than a sentence of explanation of inspiration or anecdote. For “My Husband’s,” he joked that he wrote this love sonnet for his wife.
McCrae’s forthcoming book of poems “The Gilded Auction Block” arrives in June, with many poems set in heaven. He constructs a “multi-heaven” viewed through the eyes of Jim Limber, a historical bi-racial orphan adopted by Jefferson Davis. McCrae uses Jim as a lens through which to speak on heaven. A multi-movement saga, Jim explores the stages of heaven in childlike surprise: He thought he’d be white. In the third movement, Jim considers the justification of evil and the existence of God. He muses on the idea that he can now have white things in heaven but not be white. He describes fields of grasses limp and brown, like death but with no people in sight. Jim finds God to be a Black woman. Jim takes us on a Dante-like journey through what he knows, sees and still struggles to understand. He finds crowds of Black people cheering him on to freedom. He writes his name in water. He discovers how the memory of one’s life works in death. He wonders if babies can be born in heaven. He ends up in limbo, wondering if he was born bad and pondering the ghosts that that haunt us in life and in death.
Jim Limber is at once a historical character and a contemporary vessel through which to make sense of a 21st century climate. McCrae’s latest collection recalls the tradition of looking towards the afterlife in hopes of making sense of living. LSA prof. Greg Schutz once referenced a writing from Matthew Zapruder that described it beautifully — poetry is the machine through which language is reignited. And, McCrae, a prolific poet for an uncertain age, never loses sight of the strange beauty of language in his poetry.