In Canaan by Shane McCrae, Rescue Press, 2010. $10
Reviewed by Lisa Vihos
Shane McCrae’s latest chapbook, In Canaan, (Rescue Press, 2010) is not an easy read. This is not to say the reading should not be undertaken. These poems reveal something significant about the past and remind us of a darkness in American history that we might rather ignore or forget. In Canaan most definitely should be read and pondered.
But brace yourself. There is desperation, blood, humiliation, slavery, rape, and infanticide. There is a story told here in 18 poems. The story comes out in fleeting, halting sentences; in words that tumble out in the voice of the one speaking as though that person is on the run, which is, in fact, the case. In the very first lines of the first poem, titled “Mercy,” we are confronted with:
My first thought was My baby’s sick / Wasn’t a thought
really but that’s what all that blood / felt like
but all that blood
Really but all that blood felt like my Mary getting / Sick on my hand
The form is at first not easy to decipher for the average reader of poetry. Why the back slashes? Why the spaces midline? Who is the voice? In the beginning we don’t know for certain. We are pretty certain the book has something to do with slavery (the title, the cover illustration, and the vintage runaway slave appeal on the book’s back cover give us some clues). But, are we hearing from a man or woman? This unidentified person killed someone. A child. His or her own child. Why? The narrative begins to come gradually into focus by the third stanza of the first poem.
I couldn’t stop / Hurting her because it hurt I had to cut her head / All the way off
The marshals came with the Master / I wasn’t
Thinking about mercy or love
Why is this person cutting the head off a small girl child when this is also true:
she was the first person I loved
Something is very wrong here. Slavery. Slavery is very wrong. McCrae masterfully paints a picture that haunts long after the book is set down. He shows us what is evil: the use of a woman’s body as a receptacle, repeated rape of a young girl, the expectation that she will care for the offspring of these forced conceptions, her journey to the brink of madness where all she can do is kill these sons and daughters so that they will not be abused and raped some day by the sons of the Master.
These parts of the narrative only come out as we make our way, horrified, through the poems. With each poem, the helplessness of the protagonist’s situation becomes clearer. We learn that her name is Margaret, and while betrothed to another slave named Robert, with whom she has a child named Thomas, she is the favored recipient of the master’s sexual urges:
I was seventeen
The Master was a small man and an angry man
His wife had fallen down the stairs and died / His
first wife Margaret Ann
And so he married an Elizabeth and starting raping me
The protagonist shares the same name with the Master’s dead wife, but not the same color skin. The power of the poet’s words is that he is able, through sparse, direct language to put the reader right in touch with the horror of this situation. Imagine being the bearer of multiple children who are the product of rape. The phrase I was going to use, “terrible conflict,” barely describes the agony. Margaret says:
I knew my body
Best when it hurt
with my eyes shut
tight and I couldn’t see / What or who was hurting me
And had to hold it after in my arms
the hurting thing
And love it
in the world would ever love it.
McCrae employs a complex form of syntax that he uses in other poems as well, poems outside this particular chapbook. It seems to be his trademark, a form he has settled into and explores to give shape and rhythm to a variety of different topics in his work. The poet describes his poetic structure, which he explains is based on variations of the sonnet, thus:
I don't write free verse poems—mostly because I can't. But I am interested in the musical effects achievable with free verse . . .my attempts to create a meter that is simultaneously formal and free, and to think, for musical purposes, at the level of the verse paragraph rather than the line…. Where a line "ends" metrically is denoted by a "/" if that point falls anywhere other than the actual end of a line, and generally where each new line "begins" metrically is denoted with a capital letter (the only exception being when a line begins mid-word).
At first, I must admit, the form was a bit off-putting for this reader. However, after setting the collection down for a while and picking it up again quite a bit later, when I had grappled with the main threads of the story on earlier readings, I discovered that the halting, repeating, oddly broken, and compellingly rhythmic lines are quite successful at transmitting the terrifying and catastrophic state in which Margaret finds herself. This “transmission” is so close to the bone, it actually hurts at times to read McCrae’s words. The picture he creates of this woman, raped, abused, mistreated, and driven to kill her offspring is one I will not soon forget.
On the back cover of the book is a “wanted” note written in old script in “period” English, seeking the return of one “Mulatto slave” named Sandy, who “when drunk is insolent” and “in his behavior is artful and knavish.” A cash reward is offered for the return of this human being to his “master” who happens to be none other than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and who, in the same breath, owned many slaves.
Shane McCrae hands us In Canaan and we are forced to confront and remember that it (and other stories just like it) really happened. We have to think about this and remember this, not just because it happened in the past, but because—in different ways, with different characters and circumstances—it still happens today. And where is this mythical Canaan anyway? Where is this promised land? In the last poem in the collection, Margaret remembers being seven and being taken across the river to Cincinnati for an afternoon by her father/master:
And I was seven had a woman’s hands my hands
Were small and used to work my father’s wife would never do / Were
like my mother’s hands
She learns later that there were lawyers in Cincinnati who could have helped her achieve her freedom, but looking out at the sea of white men’s faces in the crowd, all she can think is that
trample me if I fell.
How do we alter the present in order to shape a more just future? We start with awareness and not turning away from the truths of the past, as hard as they may be to absorb. Shane McCrae’s In Caanan puts words on the unthinkable and brings them into clear, sharp focus. Only by shedding light on what has been can we ever hope to make things different. So, please take a deep breath and read In Canaan; please don’t ignore or forget.
Lisa Vihos worked for twenty years as an art museum educator and is now the Director of Alumni Relations at Lakeland College. Her poems have appeared previously in Verse Wisconsin, and in Free Verse, Lakefire, Wisconsin People and Ideas, Seems,and Big Muddy. She is an associate editor of a new literary journal, Stoneboat, which made its debut in October, 2010. She resides in Sheboygan with her 12-year-old son and maintains a weekly poetry blog.