by Tameca L Coleman
“Love is never better than the lover,” Toni Morrison writes in her book The Bluest Eye. It’s a line that has haunted me since the first time I read it. More than once I’ve found myself sitting in the silence of my apartment contemplating the results of my upbringing; the love that was there was often unskilled, wrought by the best intentions and hardship. The love that was there was shaped by economic strife and the damaging social constructions of race. I wondered, so many times if I could heal what I had inherited and love better despite it. But these predicaments seemed to say that earnest and well-intentioned love alone is never enough.
Shane McCrae’s first book of poetry Mule brought these ideas to mind again -- specifically, those moments in which the book begins, where McCrae narrates a marriage. “the twigs by the road were dry enough to burn/ It does not matter if we change,” he writes. Reading lines like these, I wondered: How can people join in union when so much of what cultivates and surrounds the possibility of that union promotes fracture?
An answer comes: As best as one can, even if a departure from that union looms, one tries. Two try. We build a life together, and go about it earnestly, despite whatever upbringing, despite whatever holes in our emotional toolkits, despite whatever social constructs lord themselves over us and shake the foundations we try to build for ourselves loose.
So much of this work hits home for me; I feel it deeply. Despite the sadness in these poems, the beauty and imagery in them make me feel hopeful because the kind of attention paid here only comes out of love.
Mules’ poems work best on me when I read them out loud. They are also visibly impressive. The poems’ fractured forms appear on the page as strange line breaks, repetitions or stutterings, spaces in the text, and slashes that cut through, interrupting memory and emotion. Expression is fraught with interruptions. An example of this is in the poem “A Dancer There.” McCrae writes about when “we divorced”:
These poetic devices create an anxious feeling, a feeling that at any moment everything can be irrevocably lost, and there is constant evidence that McCrae is speaking from a place that is backed by the kind of love that would fight to hold on. Why else would the couple try with so much stacked against them? They live in a world in which they are largely invisible, which does not support the foundation they would like to build and keep, and they also live in a world in which their feet cannot solidly land.
McCrae’s couple married in a bug’s thorax, a place where seemingly they could not get their footing. They married in a battlefield, and in moments where they were separate from those around them, and each other. Their relationship moved as quickly as speeding trains, as did the world around them, as did time. But they married, even when emotions ran high, even while knowing their flaws, even when their son was diagnosed with autism. There is a sense of the narrator pushing forward despite the terrible odds stacked against him. There is also that sense that love alone is not enough. McCrae writes: “half of love is hope,” and “no animal outruns its past.” When I read these lines, I feel the defeat.
There is so much music and beauty in these poems. We see nature here: birds, the mountains, a bee, a pond. And there is shadow, too. In “The Cardinal is the Marriage Bird,” for example, the book’s introductory poem, we see a symbol of hope becoming a harbinger of what’s to come. The cardinal is the marriage bird, but it is also “a shadow on the snow but still/The sunlight on the snow”; it is “a flash of shadow and the cardinal is the shadow bird/A flash of wound...” The beautiful and the terrible cannot be extricated from each other because they are inextricable strands of life. Spring is a tree “raw with birds.” A beautiful woman walks, but is also bodiless according to her country; she is seen and also dissolved in that seeing: “she loses / Her body” if she ever really had one (of her own). And being mixed, half, mulatto means that you “Will recognize yourself in the singing you / Will not recognize yourself in the songs.”
These poems communicate a yearning for connection that I relate to, and they show that there are barriers that separate husband from wife, son from the father, man from other people, and also God. For all of the trying in marriage, in fatherhood, in life, and in spirit, that sense of separation persists. The textures of these poems create a feeling of trying, clutching, even when there can be no holding on.
The language in these poems feels simple but to think so would be a mistake. These poems are masterfully wrought. One of many of McCrae’s talents is in his power for relaying raw emotion to the reader. The reader is brought into the text and feels every word. For example, in the poem “The Boy Calls Twilight,” the narrator observes his son with love and also the kind of distance that comes with acceptance; love being an inherent emotion for a father, and the distance because there is nothing he or his wife can do to change the boy’s state:
Despite the heartbreak in these moments, they are beautiful. The reader in these moments can’t help but be in the narrator’s shoes, experiencing these dualities.
Mule reads as an artifact of living. It harbors no judgement over the life it reflects, nor does it wield anything over the reader. These poems are intimate, and as a reader of these poems, I felt the same heart pangs of loss via memory that the narrator portrays, and I was also prompted to remember my own. Further, as in McCrae’s book Blood, the poems ring like music, the lines echo and refrain, and the pauses and fragments serve as overlapping song lyrics (for example: “His ghost we didn’t know him in his bel-/ly no. We did not know him no the son/ We had we do not know the son we have”). These poems could be sung.