The Animal Too Big to Kill by Shane McCrae
Persea Books, 2015; 80 pp
Reviewed by Wesley Rothman
With The Animal Too Big to Kill, Shane McCrae decisively extends their daring and substantial presence in contemporary poetry. Even for those familiar with McCrae’s, all recent, three other full-length collections (Blood, Forgiveness Forgiveness, and Mule)—all of which are prize-winning, independently daring, and startlingly inquisitive works—a crucial component of McCrae’s work that demands reflection is its prosody, the invented structures that scaffold the poems.
In addition to a voracious wondering, reflective interrogation, discovery, uncovering, McCrae has invented a syntax, a punctuating system, re-invented how to mark and connect language on the page in order to embody a speaker. They stylize their linebreaks to a unique rhythmic effect, space-pauses longer than em-spaces, lunging the reader (and speaker) into a leap, sometimes into a forward slash which doesn’t signify another linebreak or even an “and/or,” but becomes a stutter, a blink-pause of language as built by the mind. No matter the speaker, this new organization of language urges readers to slow their intake of the words, to become the speaker of the poem in a way I’ve never seen in anyone else’s poems. In fact, the effects of this structure seem akin to the ambiguous “you” of Claudia Rankine’s much-discussed Citizen: An American Lyric. The enactment of “you” involves the reader and speaker, a common usage of the second-person pronoun as universal, and McCrae’s seeming transcription of the mind, though quite challenging to decipher at first, leads the reader closer to the speaker, to the mind carefully making meaning, as it is making meaning.
The Animal Too Big to Kill reveals a mind constructing sense about growing up multiracial, as is signaled by the frequent, first-line refrain, “growing up black white trash.” This phrase, and the many poems that bloom and flow from it, cultivates a meditation, serves as a mantra, posits reiterations of self-formation; this speaker is trying to understand their self, what growing-up experience did to them, and is ultimately revealing to the reader that these experiences were given by the insidious norm/supremacy. The speaker has been made to think of their self suspiciously, contemptuously, doubtfully, and these poems portray the speaker noticing this molded manipulation, working to self-empathize, self-recognize, and construct the self anew, on their own terms. When McCrae’s invented syntax and punctuation merge with this line of inquiry, the result is a jolt: a cyclical, semi-paranoid, compulsive, stammering hesitation, the haunting realism of working one’s way back from default hesitation, placed there by the world and its power structures.
Among other rather meaningful motifs, McCrae hinges The Animal Too Big to Kill on regular impressions of prayer, allusion to organized religion, its cultivation of habits and attitudes. The book is divided into three sections, “Morning Prayer,” “Midday Prayer,” and “Evening Prayers,” the opening poem, “With Every Gesture,” establishes this mode:
I haven’t Lord I haven’t You I have-
n’t praised enough You Lord although I with or would
With every poem praise You every breath and eve-
and various other titles directly address religious tradition and holy texts: “Mary Massages His Feet with Perfume Worth What a Worker Makes in a Year” and “The Mountain Will Be as a Cottonwood Seed Taken by the Wind…” These religiously aware pieces often use scripture to offer a contemporary account of the effects of religious tradition. Similarly, other poems explore the effects of social tradition, economic tradition, historical tradition, tradition, tradition, tradition in the minds and bodies of now.
In the two-part “Exile from the Supremacy” we hear how white supremacy cultivates an economic dependency (among other dependencies) on itself for all within its reach, and yet how white supremacy, by definition, withholds so much from those it forces into dependency upon it. Among other socio-politically apparent poems, including “What It Takes to Get the Attention of White Liberals,” “How You Are Owned,” “Claiming Language,” and “I Know It’s Hard for You to Believe You Still Benefit from Slavery,” we are offered the wildly intimate and humming, “The Seven Last Words of Christ,” a thirty-page introspection that eerily examines how humans understand themselves through the body and the mind. The Animal Too Big to Kill guides us through this noticing, these reflections with remarkable subtlety and nuance. McCrae brings to us a voice that is calm yet booming, plain and common yet loaded and looming; without begging aloud it begs us to listen for all the echoes. The work deals the force of megatons with a caress.
With innovation, urgency, a boldness and tenderness, and a disturbingly precise rendering of recent-present society’s mind (akin to so many of the world’s remembered poets)—I say this with the sincerest, sternest, greatest thrill, and most electric blue clearheadedness—Shane McCrae is one of the greatest poets of our time.