Books discussed in this review:
The Language of My Captor (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017)
Sometimes I Never Suffered (New York: FSG, 2020)
The Gilded Auction Block (New York: FSG, 2019)
As a first-generation white American, I have mostly only felt “American” when the emotional barriers shatter between the many peoples that constitute our large swath of contested geography. Not that such feelings necessarily require a shattering of the “I,” literal or metaphorical; it just seems to happen that way most of the time. It’s as if “we” are most “us” when we are least “I” or “me” or “my.” It makes intuitive sense, even if we are not likely to walk through our daily lives that way. Since we are unlikely to do that, the great “Us” of our country direly needs someplace where our minds can rest together. Some religions offer this, but aside from some less common faiths like the Baháʼí faith or local community-based parishes, there are always steady and stolid walls that divide us. Of course, not even this accounts for the decided atheists and agnostics, let alone the singular folks—the lost and the clearly found—who lay claim to their individual bodies and leave the rest to the cosmos. Who has the heart and mind for all of that mass? In poetic terms, who has the vision?
Walt Whitman attempted an erotic vision with such a scope but was not as inclusive as we allow ourselves to believe. Hart Crane depicted a grand and historically resonant vision of America in The Bridge and yet wrote in a poetic difficult enough to shut many readers out. Adrienne Rich spoke to a singular American vision at times but deviated from that vision from poem to poem, never allowing a larger tapestry to develop. And Allen Ginsberg certainly did, at least in some of his larger works such as “Howl” and The Fall of America, but it was a vision much more closely tied to historical representation, speaking to a common historical reality while also inviting all the existential tensions—the traumas, joys, schisms, divisions—into the realistic vision through its often-times hellish detail. “Humanity cannot bear much reality,” was a piece of wisdom T.S. Eliot dropped on us some time ago, one I cannot help but remember, especially these days.
No surprise to me, a human who came into being on the color line between the Black and White peoples of this country, that perhaps the greatest source of existential terror and tension between the peoples of our country might also be the source of a vision that allows us to recognize, appreciate, and at least temporarily transcend our realities within an imaginative space. Shane McCrae is that human, and “A Fire in Every World” is the long poem that contains such a vision. McCrae’s long poem spreads across three of his most recent volumes beginning in sections of In the Language of my Captor, followed by sections of The Gilded Auction Block, and concludes with the entirety of Sometimes I Never Suffer.
His vision, woven through the first two collections and constituting all of the final volume, is rich with grief, as “A Fire in Every World” explores heaven, earth, purgatory, and hell with Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy, Jim Limber his adopted son, and a “hastily-assembled” angel. McCrae places Jim Limber centrally here but not exclusively, as the preface to the third volume focuses us not only on Jim but heaven and not only on heaven but at “the Nexus At Which the Many Heavens of the Multiverse Converge.” The image here is defined in terms that we may be more likely to find in the fields of science and comic books such as the process theology of Alfred North Whitehead and the “multiverse” concept that goes back to the ancient Greeks (at least) and then again as recently in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s a tall order, a tapestry that hangs in, and beyond, our four dimensions.
That the poem speaks to suffering only reaffirms its effects on us as a respite from life’s suffering. Contrary to the modern moving image’s rise and supposed ability to mesmerize and open our eyes the full stretch of an IMAX screen, such images fail to hold us but rather, moves us, skating the surface rather than allowing us the deep and rich look inwards where the image and the self meet. After all, it’s the stillness that allows us the gaze; movies are a speeding train. It’s stillness that allows us the calm and steady self to arise and apprise the two-fold look inwards and outwards. It’s the stillness that allows us respite from an ambitious and suffering world.
McCrae welcomes us into his vision, a calming image, a shelter from the storm, and also the storm itself. It’s not necessarily a pleasant place but the calming effects hardly shock us with much we didn’t already know. (If you don’t recognize and accept the inherent discrepancies and inequities between Black and White lives at this point in American history, it’s not his job to fill you in on that subject.) His strangely historical but also fictitious image evokes a parallel reality and history that may not have been but might just as well have occurred in a heaven, limbo, and hell that allows us to consider a reckoning that never occurred. The strangeness of the image cannot be underestimated: it both was and was not. It’s an inherent contradiction that forces a leap of faith, with just enough historical veracity and emotional intensity that it maps out as concretely as relationships may be represented; there is something about it that rings with the “objective correlative” T.S. Eliot presented in his essay “Hamlet.” There, Eliot argued “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.” I would not venture to pinpoint a single emotion that applies to McCrae’s “A Fire in Every World,” but to say that it resonates with American history would be an understatement.
The strongest analogue to this sort of imagery that contemporary American literature has produced may be George Saunders’ Lincoln at the Bardo, a novel which also revisits history via an alternate reality, though it does so through a distinctly Eastern lens while placing the image in limbo, not without its parallels to McCrae’s depiction of purgatory. This reevaluation of our past has appeared in many ways, including Cindy Sherman’s historical portraits and Kara Walker’s cartoonish and introspective images of American slave history. Like the work of these women, we find both Saunders and McCrae in an imaginative space related to but free from the constraints of the dominant discourses of American culture, finance, science, and faith. It’s a boon that they all retain the playfulness of comic books and, much like the aforementioned Spider-verse, they allow us the room to explore and hang out in our imaginations long enough for a respite from the sense of crumbling finance that normally shadows the contemporary art world. It may be only a temporary shelter, but it’s welcome—there’s so very much storm out there.
We need this kind of space in our heads, and we need it badly, as it buoys us up from our hardwired nervous systems—our animal nature. It transposes our existential suffering by recontextualizing our suffering in an alternative imaginative space, and it allows us all in. It is a respite and a recognition of real historical suffering. All this, despite McCrae’s subject matter being so difficult.
Ultimately, it’s McCrae’s musical verve in each line that lilts us through these visions of heaven and hell. While the prose poem passages lay out the groundwork, it’s the verse that allows us to enter this world as easy as breathing. After the first two sections lead us through purgatory and hell (a clear nod to The Divine Comedy here—even if the order in which McCrae’s narrative unfolds is not the same sequence) before drawing us up to heaven in the final volume Sometimes I Never Suffered. Its patchwork narrative serves its own purpose: it refracts the theological and the dramatic truths it speaks to and makes them more palatable, less unwieldy.
First, we encounter the “hastily assembled angel” who we follow from heaven, where he is pushed by other angels, to Earth, where he reflects on things heavenly and existential. Then we encounter Jim Limber once again, who by now has come to reflect on his time on earth with peace and seemingly some forgiveness for what the world did to him. In “Jim Limber in Heaven Writes His Name” he reflects on the earthly qualities of heaven in a beatific tone before he concludes with thoughts on the earthly hunger in heaven:
Walk just to see the stream appear
Sometimes I lead it through my name on Earth I couldn’t spell
My name now my great thirst has been revealed to me
Unlike Dante’s gradual removal from earthly life, we come to arrive in a heaven that looks like Earth, despite the horrid past we know preceded Jim’s (and peoples like Jim) arrival in heaven. It’s both the recognition of history and the re-imagining of that history that allow us to see a possible heaven despite our earthly hell, but also a heaven imagined here on earth. It’s a contradiction for sure but it’s by embracing the contradictions that we allow ourselves the irony to leap over what will only drag us down. (After all, would lingering in purgatory with Jefferson Davis really enlighten us much?)
Ultimately, McCrae also opens up his world by permitting the alternate directions his vision can take. Unlike traditional narratives, his patchwork indicates no clear beginning and end, but really, like the Escher drawing of a castle that turns on itself in dimensions that run counter to our intuition, McCrae’s vision hangs together in ways that force us to accept the contradictions. Moreover, the final section of the work evokes improvisation and variations on the themes through a section titled “Variations on Jim Limber Goes to Heaven.” These poems introduce an open-ended imagination that reaches out to explore further possibilities, not unlike how superhero multiverses and fan fiction allow the reader’s imagination into the narrative world. This may not be a first but it certainly is a powerful move in a poem that already makes such fundamental gestures for our democracy. There’s a faith in that gesture, a faith in his reader, and a faith in the imagination that, even as an agnostic, I can accept and find solace in. It’s a faith that I cannot do without even if I would like to think that I can.
That is why the title both affirms Jim Limber’s existence, yes, but also human life in general. It’s poetry’s strength to transpose empathy into a common regard for one another, and the irony implicit in one of the titles (Sometimes I Never Suffer) speaks to a common human-animal experience. It certainly was Jim Limber’s, but it is also ours. I’d love to hear if there’s really another balm to our existence that does not come in a pill.
Read Shane McCrae’s poetry in TLR: Do You Love Me?
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PK Eriksson is a poet, critic, and English teacher from Chicago. PK loves this life, Earth, and the intimacies words sing. PK’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Anomaly, Quail Belle, The Santa Fe New Mexican, among other publications. @pkeriksson10 for twitter.