Sunday, November 16, 2014

Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae

Shane McCrae
Forgiveness Forgiveness

Factory Hollow Press, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-9835203-1-3

Reviewed by Joel W. Nelson.

Shane McCrae was hired to teach for the Spalding University brief-residency MFA program as I was completing my final semester in 2013. During my graduating residency, I was fortunate enough to be a part of a workshop he led along with Greg Pape. McCrae came across as humble, often self-deprecating, guy who is smart, talented, hard working, and an all-around cool guy. To date, McCrae has released three full-length books of poetry: Mule, Blood, and Forgiveness Forgiveness. His fourth book, The Animal Too Big to Kill, is forthcoming from Persea Books. McCrae is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa University Writers' Workshop. In addition to teaching at Spalding University, he is an assistant professor in the Creative Writing program at Oberlin College.


Review of Forgiveness Forgiveness

Forgiveness Forgiveness comes at a time when race relations are tense. The case of Michael Brown still looms large in the news, even as the stories of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and countless others begin to fade. A society assumed by some to be post-racial is proving to be anything but. There are still two Americas. We are still divided, still struggling. We claim to be equals on the one hand, while equality is denied on the other. The narrative is still one-sided, but it is very much in flux.

* * * 
My grandfather liked to paint pictures
of Native Americans discovering water
as if water hadn't existed before a white
man painted it, wearing expressions of
uncomprehending awe, crouching to
touch the river.
          -“How My Grandfather Painted Water”

Shane McCrae's third full-length book of poetry, Forgiveness Forgiveness, is a powerful, haunting work that deals with issues of identity, race, family, abuse, belonging, and finding a way to move forward. The poems are mostly unpunctuated, often ungrammatical. Ideas burst forth and crash into each other, as if the speaker is recollecting things for the first time and hasn't had time to filter these thoughts through the conventions of syntax. The effect, in McCrae's hands, is masterful. Although McCrae has made use of similar techniques in previous books, Forgiveness Forgiveness feels even more authentic, personal, and emotionally raw.

Forgiveness Forgiveness is structured in two halves separated by “A Pastoral Interlude.” Each half contains three sections, “The Visible Boy,” “Materials Sketch,” and “Draft Epilogue,” with the second half of the book providing alternate versions of the first three sections.

The first half introduces Little Brown Koko, a quasi-allegorical figure pulled from a racist children's book the speaker found in his grandparent's home as a child. Koko walks barefoot, steals watermelons, strolls along picket fences, and gets beaten by his mother's wooden spoon. He is essentially a puppet, a stereotype, a black character who is thrust into the imaginary world and manipulated by a white author and a white illustrator. The voice of Koko and the other black characters in the book are not authentic voices but instead racist fabrications:
in the book as I remember it
The illustrator indicates the motion / With action lines 
Parentheses surround the rolling pin

Parentheses surround 
Little Brown Koko running from the house 
The black of the parentheses

Is different from the black of his brown skin 
The two blacks tell the reader 
everything the reader needs to know about him 

Like two-way mirrors
          - “6. The Two Blacks” from “The Visible Boy”
The second half of the book turns its focus to the speaker, a man separated from his black father and white mother and raised by racist grandparents. The grandparents are incapable of acknowledging the speaker's father and attempt to twist family history to further alienate him and minimize the speaker's blackness, if not erase it completely:
[…] I couldn't remember my father
anyway, because I was three when
my grandparents took me from him
and they never told me that, anyway,
they told me he had abandoned me
          - “How My Grandfather Painted Water”
In addition to being a racist, the grandfather becomes sexually and physically abusive. The resulting confusion and dissonance caused by this troubling home environment prove to be fertile ground for McCrae's poetry, made even more compelling when considering the dynamic between the speaker's story and that of Little Brown Koko.

While the two halves of Forgiveness Forgiveness interact and inform each other, they are not mirror images. The parallels between Little Brown Koko and the speaker are more metaphorical than literal and are understood to speak to--but not necessarily for--a broader community. The poems in the second half of the book are more personal, perhaps even confessional. The early Koko poems are lighter in tone and gradually become darker and more grotesque as the racism becomes more overt and violent. The progression of the second half of the book is generally the opposite. Koko is left ravaged, but the speaker's story is accented by hope.

Although a title like Forgiveness Forgiveness might imply a tidy conclusion, the end of the book brings little resolution, at least not of the feel-good type. The speaker moves on with his life. He has a wife and a family of his own, but he never fully makes amends with either of his grandparents. Perhaps such amends are impossible. The final poem in the collection, “Forgiveness Forgiveness,” serves as a suitable but devastating capstone for a truly compelling book of poems.

* * *

Perhaps caricatures like Little Brown Koko are no longer acceptable in contemporary society--people today prefer news stories, select personal anecdotes, and misleading statistics--yet still, people are stereotyped and placed in a race narrative. Their voices are replaced with another voice, a voice often imposed on them by people who look a lot like me. Forgiveness Forgiveness is a powerful book of poems, not only because of its deep and personal nature or because of McCrae's unique presentation, but because the work speaks to contemporary America. Voices like McCrae's are important. He not only has something to say, but he says it while maintaining artistic integrity with poems of a very high caliber.


Joel W. Nelson spent most of his childhood in the sub-Saharan countries of Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire. He has an MFA in Poetry from Spalding University and lives with his wife and son in Louisville, KY. His poems may be found in the Bellevue Literary Review, the Found Poetry Review, The Louisville Review, and A Narrow Fellow.