Almost half of Shane McCrae’s The Gilded Auction-Block is set in Hell, where the poet is led around by a swearing robot bird. This seems like something worth mentioning. The fact that one newspaper recently reviewed the book without mentioning it at all also seems worth mentioning, for two reasons.
First, because it’s a testament to the sheer amount of other stuff going on this remarkable collection. Second, because it’s part of a wider trend in the reception of poetry – celebrating the anecdotal and autobiographical, highlighting poems which can be presented as an account of the poet’s life, and shying away from those which can’t. It’s something I’ve been guilty of myself, but in the case of work as rich and ambitious as McCrae’s it seems like a disservice.
Yes, his poetry draws on his own fascinating story (of which more later), but also on a host of others, not least forgotten voices from the past. Like fellow American Tracy K Smith, he edits archival documents into poems; in one, the words of a former slave, Ann Parker, are shaped into iambic lines. Elsewhere, he addresses or ventriloquises America itself, its politicians (Joe Arpaio, Jeff Sessions, Maxine Waters), the literary canon (sometimes oddly – in a poem responding to Sylvia Plath’s use of the N-word, he quotes the medieval Scot William Dunbar), and creatures that only exist only in his imagination (such as the Frankenstinian “Monster Made of America”).
The strength of this book comes from the way McCrae unites this crowd to reveal the common shadows cast over all of them – racism and authoritarianism, a broken country, broken family ties. His state-of-the-nation poems’ starting-points are sometimes obvious, but their destinations are always a surprise. “America I was driving when I heard you/ Had died,” one poem begins, bluntly – but by its closing lines the poet is dreaming of himself as an “African Queen”, an image carried from the Ann Parker poem on the previous page, as if her mind were flowing into his.
The opening poem, “The President Visits the Storm”, draws on a self-congratulatory speech Trump gave to survivors of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A sample line: “You’re what a great a crowd big smiles the ratings”. (Later, an orange-bellied insect in The Hell Poem speaks with an eerily similar instinct for le mot injuste.) Mocking a populist orator’s word-salad by turning it into unpunctuated pentameter is an entertaining trick, if not a new one; it’s exactly the same trick EE Cummings pulled a century ago in “Next to of course god america i”. If that were all this poem was doing, it’d be a good wheeze. What makes it virtuoso satire is that there’s something different happening in almost every line. McCrae swerves between styles and moods – arch, furious, despairing. Like something out of late Yeats, the president is “both swan and horseman trumpeting/ From the back of the beast”; mischievously quoting a bit of Four Quartets, McCrae sees “the fire and rose are one/ On the president’s bright head the flames implanted/ To make a gilded crown”. But the laughs fall away when we reach the starkness of this:
The body of a storm is a man’s body
It has an eye and everything in the eye
Is dead a calm man is a man who has
Let weakness overcome his urge for death
The glue holding such different styles together is rhythm. McCrae’s prosody is very distinctive. The typical McCrae line is neat pentameter or tetrameter, but in disguise. There are mid-line gaps; words are cut in half by line-breaks; unpunctuated half-phrases stumble over each other. It’s something slick and difficult, made to look like something simple and clumsy, a technique best seen in a poem where he stutteringly reassembles a childhood memory of a car accident: “in the back seat we were we my grand/-mother and I were passing the it must/Have been a mall”. It’s hard to do it justice with a short quotation, but over long stretches it creates a vivid sense of voice.