Spring 2017, Volume 22

In the Language of My Captor By Shane McCrae

Review by Bill Neumire

Author of Mule (2011), Blood (2013), and The Animal Too Big to Kill (2015), poet Shane McCrae’s fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, is a masterful blend of history, memoir, and poetry that comes to us through four characters: a black man captive in a zoo exhibit (reminiscent of Ota Benga, a Congolese man purchased by African slave traders and featured as an exhibit in the 1906 Bronx Zoo); Jim Limber, the adopted mulatto son of Jefferson Davis; a black movie actor called Banjo Yes; and Shane McCrae himself. McCrae, who has a black father and a white mother but was raised by his white supremacist grandparents, offers his personal story at the center of the book, alternating blocks of prose memoir and metrical Jim Limber poems, the effect of which is that the poet’s own story ripples out to overlap and speak to the other historical personae. 

In this collective statement on captivity and freedom, the poems often have far more surprising things to say about the captors than the captives, such as in the first section, which is a dialogue between a  drunk white zookeeper and his black exhibit, who says, “I am the keeper tells / Me the most popular exhibit” (3). In an interview with The Rumpus, McCrae said, “I tend to think about this book in terms of (...) exploring different kinds of captivity and putting forward a token of escape.” Though the speaker is held as less than human, he spends his dialogue and reflection revealing his captor’s own strange, tortured humanity: 

         His god is not a god like mine / His god 
         Is not a mother    not a father 
         not a hunter   not a farmer 
         his/ God is a stranger 

         From no country he has seen (4). 

That these comments are aimed at analyzing the captor’s level of humanity, that the exhibit is working as a mirror, becomes explicit:  

         I say Whether you’re here 
         to see me or to see the monkeys 

         You’re here to see yourselves (5). 

The man in the exhibit is a clever investigator, and though he is physically captive, he seems psychologically the master, often employing coy strategies to coax information from his interlocutor, all the while affirming his own essence while questioning that of the beastly, drunken, at times pitiable zookeeper: 

         If he thinks I am / Too wise 
         he won’t speak honestly 
         And so I make an/ Effort to make 
         my language fit his 
         idea of what I am (7). 

The next section is more complicated as it involves a conflicted act of “love”: Confederate Civil War leader Jefferson Davis and his wife adopted (took from his real mother, most likely) a mulatto boy named Jim Limber and raised him. At first, Limber seems happy, appreciative: 

         I never lived so good as when I lived with 
         Them and especially it was daddy Jeff 
         Who kept me fed and wearing those nice clothes 
         Until they fit as tight as bandages (40). 

Those tight bandages, though, reveal the constraints of captivity, even in the problematic guise of love. This section alternates between Jim Limber’s story and McCrae’s own childhood story, about which the poet has said, “parts [...] about me really resonate with the poems about [Jim Limber] and Davis. (...) It’s horrific that Jim Limber’s story and my story can speak to each other intelligibly.” There are dark, unsettling passages of violence, abuse, and sadism in the memoir, including McCrae’s smashing of a dog’s nose with a pipe and this bit about a bigger, older boy: “He threatened to beat me up if I didn’t leave my bedroom window unlocked for him. But I would have left it unlocked even if he hadn’t threatened me. When I was a child, I was willing, even eager, to let anybody do anything they wanted to me” (27).  

The final section features the character of Banjo Yes, a fictional early film actor constantly acting the part of some caricature of what his white directors think a black man should be, though the part never corresponds to any actuality. As Banjo confesses 

         Anyway    no    I never learned to play no banjo 
         no     in the movies I just 
         wiggled my fingers 

         and they laid the music over me (81). 

Banjo Yes is a pragmatist, offering some survivor’s realism at every turn, warning, “this ain’t      / No kind of story where the nigger says / No I bent down and cleaned his shoe” (56). He sums up his worldview in two killer moments, moments in which McCrae demonstrates an ability to make concision explode with depth. Here is the first: 

         how they own you is they own your options 

         You can be free 
         Or you can live (59).  

The second harkens back to the voice of the zoo captive, turning the gaze on the captors, as Banjo Yes says, “They named you for a thing / your hunger made you do” (63). That the voices are all in dialogue in this book proves progress is slow and history is always with us.  

These poems are frequently a mix of free and metrical verse, and they often employ the virgule to accomplish that hybridity. The poems, especially in the Jim Limber section, also employ sonnet structure and rhyme, which is fitting and complex, considering these forms have such a steeped history in white patriarchy. Of the forms in this book, McCrae has said, “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 use of the virgule is a result] of my attempts to create a meter that is simultaneously formal and free.” This book seems a natural culmination to McCrae’s previous projects, and by his own admission, it offers a fraught but distinct hopefulness: “I was thinking about how to allow room for hope, a legitimate hope for escape from the cycles of abuse that the book talks about, a legitimate hope for escape from captivity to racial parity or whatever it is.” It’s there in the deep ironies of this book, such as this moment from ‘Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Visits His Adoptive Parents After the War’: “He said we might see good from seeing each other / Tortured we might finally see each other” (77). And it’s there in McCrae himself, who is now writing, if not history, the kinds of narrative that reveal and alter power dynamics, the kind of poetry that tortures us into seeing each other.





BIO: Shane McCrae is the author of four books of poetry including The Animal Too Big to Kill, Mule, Forgiveness Forgiveness, and Blood. He lives in Oberlin, Ohio.

In the Language of My Captor

Hardcover, 108 pages
Publisher: Wesleyan (February 7, 2017)
ISBN-10: 0819577111
ISBN-13: 978-0819577115