In the Language of My Captor

In the Language of My Captor

by Shane McCrae

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Overview

Finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry

Winner of the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry (2017)

Acclaimed poet Shane McCrae's latest collection is a book about freedom told through stories of captivity. Historical persona poems and a prose memoir at the center of the book address the illusory freedom of both black and white Americans. In the book's three sequences, McCrae explores the role mass entertainment plays in oppression, he confronts the myth that freedom can be based upon the power to dominate others, and, in poems about the mixed-race child adopted by Jefferson Davis in the last year of the Civil War, he interrogates the infrequently examined connections between racism and love. A reader's companion is available at wesleyan.edu/wespress/readerscompanions.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819577122
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Pages: 108
Sales rank: 470,774
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

SHANE MCCRAE is the author of four other books of poetry, including The Animal Too Big to Kill, Mule, Forgiveness Forgiveness, and Blood.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

His God

I am the keeper tells Me the most popular exhibit You might not think this cheers me but it does I'm given many opportunities

I like especially to ask the groups I am careful to Led by fat white men Never address the fat man but the group
How has it come // To pass

that I'm on
this side of the bars And you're on that side
And Who stands in your shoes You or the people you resemble

they don't give me shoes
// I say Gesturing toward a zoo employee and I smile Often the people do not answer me

and says Often the fat man squints It real- // ly makes you think
or Something like that There but for the grace of God / I tell the keeper they must be The daughters and the sons of nearer gods

I tell him my gods had to stay behind To watch my people / He likes it when I talk like that the truth is I don't know when he's drunk The keeper

Sometimes he says I'm lucky To have been rescued from my gods And I should thank the man who bought me but now I grieve I used to laugh at him

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

from no country he has seen


Panopticon

The keeper put me in the cage with the monkeys Because I asked to be Put in the cage with the monkeys Most of the papers say the monkeys

must // Remind me of my family The liberal papers say the monkeys must Remind me of my home The papers don't ask me

some days // I tuck notes explanations Into soft monkey shits and call white children to the bars I warn the parents / But still they let their children come

And that's my explanation / I am their honest mirror I say Whether you're here to see me or to see the monkeys

You're here to see yourselves



Privacy

I tell the keeper I don't know What he or any white man means When he says privacy
Especially

In the phrase In the privacy Of one's own home / I understand he thinks he means a kind of Militarized aloneness

If he would listen I would tell him Privacy is impossible If one's community is Not bound by love

Instead I tell him where I'm from we Have no such concept 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 and with his guests I find with him

Because I'm on display in A cage with monkeys I / Must speak and act carefully to maintain / His privacy

and // If he would listen I would tell him Where privacy Must be defended There is no privacy

I have become an // Expert on the subject But I have also learned The keeper will not trust me / To understand even what he has taught me


What Do You Know About Shame

Late very late long after The many families and the lone white man Who stayed long after The families had gone had gone

Last night the keeper staggered to my cage / Weeping he said his wife Was leaving him And he would never see his son

Again I said I did not understand Why he would never see his son again he was ashamed He said And his // Wife was ashamed

and she was going back to Her people was his word and / Taking the child I said I did not understand

Why he would never see his son again Again I said there would be no Ocean between his son and him No bars

Between / Him and the ocean if there were an ocean And I said Surely I am making you A wealthy man

you can
// Afford to travel can you not
The keeper stepped close to my cage and snarled / Your women / Tramp through the jungle

with their tits out
// What do you know about shameand I shouted You are drunk Go home and be / Drunk with your family While you still can

He growled and struck the bar between us And stumbled back and fell
How do you know a white man's really hurt I laughed

He / Stops crying


Privacy 2

I tell the keeper I don't know What he or any white man means When he says privacy
Especially

In the phrase In the privacy Of one's own home / I understand he thinks he means a kind of Militarized aloneness

If he would listen I would ask him whether The power / To enforce aloneness and aloneness can exist together

Instead I tell him where I'm from we Have no such con-
cept if he thinks I am / Too wise he won't speak honestly

And so I talk the way the men He says are men like me Talk in the books he reads to me I understand

Those books are not supposed to make me wise And yet I think perhaps They show me what he means By privacy // Perhaps

by privacy he means / This certainty he has that The weapons he has made Will not be used against him


In the Language

I cannot talk about the place I came from I do not want it to exist The way I knew it In the language of my captor

The keeper asks me why I Refuse him this I think to anyone who came from / The place I came from It would be obvious

but // I did not think my people before Superior to other people The keeper's language has infected me I knew of // Few people

Beyond the people / I knew before and when I met new people The first thing I assumed was they were just like me

Perhaps even relatives Who had before my birth been lost In the jungle or on the plain Or on the other side of the mountain

And so at first I thought the white men / Were ghosts one spoke my language And said that he had spoken to my father I did not fear them

I thought they had been whitened by the sun / Like bones wandering I thought I could / Help them I thought they didn't

Know they were dead

CHAPTER 2

Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons

I myself prefer to be left face up in a ditch and for someone to go to jail because of what he's done to me.

— PRISCILLA BECKER

Ajax (within) Boy! Where is my child?

— SOPHOCLES (TRANSLATED BY JOHN MOORE)

1

Most mornings, on my way to school, I would stop on the bridge over the branch of the creek that separated the school from my house and peer through the railing down at the minnows twisting in the pale current.

Some afternoons, and sometimes on the weekends, I would climb through the thick bushes behind the school — I would push, violently, sometimes knocking whole trees down, sometimes stomping on them, imagining myself hacking through a faraway jungle, and once I brought one of my grandfather's machetes with me, his only souvenirs from the army, although he hadn't fought in a war, two machetes and a pair of boots, and hacked so desperately, so gleefully then that I didn't get anywhere, but stood in one spot, hacking — and through the bamboo trees beyond the bushes, to the village of abandoned and rotting houses in the placeless clearing.

Two houses, both wooden, and both painted brown, although most of the paint had peeled away, stood in the center of the village if one were facing the village, having just emerged from the bamboo forest. To the left of the houses a narrow dirt road led away from the village. To the right of the houses stood a building that looked like a cross between a barn and a warehouse. It, too, was brown, and brown also where the paint had peeled away, exposing the wood underneath.

The village was the emptiest place I had ever seen. But the warehouse and the houses were full. The houses were full of furniture nobody had used in years, and old kitchen appliances, and shoes — I remember several pairs of shoes — and stained jeans. In the first house I walked through, the first couch I saw had been tilted on its back. It lay in a small living room, and next to it was a pair of cracked brown wingtip oxfords, and a few feet in front of it were two empty, beatenup suitcases; otherwise, it was surrounded by old sheets of plywood and fragments of the walls. The houses stood even though they looked as if more material had been torn from the walls than could have been in the walls in the first place.

The houses and the warehouse were separated by about 100 feet of dirt, and patches of broken concrete, and thorny, low bushes, and grass. I call it a village, but there wasn't more to it than what I've just described. I call it a village because it was abandoned — the words seem to go together — and filled with trash and also things I thought people wouldn't have left behind, things that looked important to me, toys, mostly, some whole and some broken, all filthy, mostly in the warehouse. I remember the ivory-colored stuffed bear I saw near the bottom left corner of the mouth of the warehouse — the first thing I saw in the warehouse, the thing that drew me to the warehouse — best. But toys were scattered all over the floor of the warehouse, and at the back of the warehouse — I only visited the warehouse once, after I had visited the houses several times, and didn't return to the village for months afterward — I saw a door, like the front door of a house, but deep and far in darkness.

Back then — I was six or seven years old — as now, fear compelled me toward the things I feared, and so I made my way slowly — and I lost my balance a few times, slipping on stuffed animals or dolls or fire trucks or doll parts — to the door, and turned the handle, and pushed. On the other side was a small workroom with a desk — a board about the size of a door, but smaller, laid across two saw horses — a dirty chair with metal legs and brown vinyl padding on the seat and the back, and a few shelves full of paint cans. A dusty toolbox, a small lamp with a flexible neck and a metal, cup-shaped head, and a Phillips screwdriver sat on the desk. The room's single window was intact, and sunlight fell through it and across the desk, striking the head of the lamp, which glowed. I stared at the glowing lamp, terrified, feeling suddenly near, as children sometimes for imaginary reasons do, death, hoping the lamp was on.

JIM LIMBER THE ADOPTED MULATTO SON OF JEFFERSON DAVIS MET HIS ADOPTIVE MOTHER VARINA DAVIS AT A CROSSROADS

Up north it's midnight in America Here in America it's midnight too Daddy Jeff says he says it was always two Americas and he just keeps it law I don't know anything about the law Except I know what's true and isn't true But sometimes I'll see Negroes running through A field in the dark and not say what I saw

When white folks ask I tell them I was happy With momma and she didn't beat me of-
ten till the war got bad but we was going North and I didn't want to go the morning she whups me Momma Varina rescued me Different like what she wants from it is love

2

Later, months after or before, when I wake in the sharp grass, and the large, older boy, who a moment, a minute, how long was it ago had been crushing my chest against the brick pillar at the edge of my porch, and every inch of my body except for my chest had felt like it was disappearing, and alongside that feeling, the other feeling, the feeling I had been looking for, the feeling I had asked him to give me, please, after he had offered it, guessing I must want it, the feeling that my body was no longer mine, is now standing above me, and my skin burns where each blade of grass touches it, and I feel the world more particularly than I've ever felt it before, and so I hurt in a way I've never hurt before, when I wake, the first question I ask, thinking it would be like this, to return to my body, burning, is, "Am I dead?" And the large, older boy doesn't answer me. The large, older boy doesn't help me up. It's the first time the large, older boy has visited my house during the day, and after he leaves, the large, older boy will never come back — not during the day, and not at night. I lie in the grass, not sure whether I'm supposed to stand. The corners of the large, older boy's disproportionately large mouth turn down. Then he calls me a faggot and walks away.

I was passed around the neighborhood as a child — never from adult to adult, mostly from child to child, and sometimes from child to teenager to child — not me in my body, but the rumor of me and my body, according to which I took my place in the world more surely than if I stood where the rumor went. I must have met the large, older boy who, the day we met, told me to leave my bedroom window unlocked for him later, on that circuit, but I don't remember where, or when. He was much bigger than me — a child, also, but old enough and big enough that I couldn't form a clear idea of his age, and he seemed, as all older, much bigger children seemed, somehow bigger than my father, who was, anyway, my grandfather, the man raising me who was married to the woman raising me. He might have been a teenager.

I was afraid of the large, older boy from the moment I met him — I don't remember much about the moment itself, but I remember the fear, and I remember 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, so long as they didn't hurt me, and so long as what they were doing looked like the things I saw people doing in my grandfather's magazines, which seemed, especially among the boys I met, common — not my grandfather's magazines in particular, but most of the neighborhood boys found similar magazines in their own homes — and in which we discovered, not images corresponding to any overwhelming desires we might have felt, but guides to the overwhelming desires encompassing us. What I remember most distinctly is not any single act, but the sensation I felt, both empty and vast, as I watched what people did to me, and what I did to them, reluctantly, but I would if they asked me to, checking to make sure it looked right, familiar. I was comfortable in that vastness, and afraid of it, and I hated it, and yearned toward it, but not toward it, exactly, but toward people I thought might be familiar with it, as my grandfather was, and willing to inflict it.

JEFFERSON DAVIS THE ADOPTIVE FATHER OF THE MULATTO JIM LIMBER DREAMS OF AN UNKNOWING LOVE

She is a slim young Negress but I know she is my Varina she is a girl I saw only once a few weeks ago in town on an errand with her master

whom she resembled and his wife who did not look at her but commanded the air immediately before her own face and the Negress three steps behind obeyed

she was nobody she is Varina I recognize her as she was and is two women in a single body I stand hidden in a shadow in the dream

watching but I stood in the sun when I saw her but things are not as they were and I stand hidden in a shadow and as she passes three steps behind her master

who had passed half a step behind his wife I reach for her and in the way of dreams touching her who was the moment before a stranger I know her and have known her

from the moment of her birth and in the way of dreams also she is new to me as the moon is she is both known and strange I pull her into the darkness that hides

me from her master and his wife and hid me from her before and there I desire her as a white man desires a Negress as two women in a single body

I draw her close to me and as I reach for her face her master's
wife calls her name Varina she calls where are you and she calls with my Varina's voice she calls her

Jefferson and mixes it with mine name

where are you I have fallen asleep in my study my Varina calls for me as the moon calls for the light of the sun

from across an unknowable blackness



JIM LIMBER THE ADOPTED MULATTO SON OF JEFFERSON DAVIS INHERITS THE KINGDOM OF THE NEGRO IN AMERICA

I lived with momma for a nigger's age For seven years since I was seven I Ain't seen her once and now I'm almost eight I think she must be free momma Vari-
na she says it don't matter who your mom-
ma was if you're a man she says Are you A man Jim look at Joe I look at him But I don't see me in his eyes but two

Blue shadows that ain't black like shadows should be I look at him and I don't see no way For me to be a man but I see daddy Jeff and my face is shadows in his eyes I look at Joe daddy Jeff's face he got My daddy's white so I don't get his face

3

My grandfather — although I don't know whether he would have described himself in this way — was a white supremacist. He wouldn't have been ashamed to admit that he believed white people were superior to black people — especially superior to black people in particular — indeed, he happily — or, really, "gleefully" would probably be a better word, since white supremacists don't ever seem happy so much as gleeful — admitted to this belief many times when I was a child. But I suspect he might have thought the phrase "white supremacist" was too fancy for him. He had been, as a child, the younger brother of a much larger boy, and, along with his older brother Thomas, and his younger brother, Raymond — who grew up to become a landlord, who would eventually be shot through the neck by a tenant he had evicted a few days before, and would die in a soft-top convertible, blood spraying from his neck, his head rolling slightly from side to side on his shoulder as he pointed toward a narrow gap between two dumpsters, wordlessly urging his wife, who was already crawling away from the car, to safety — as a child, had lived in poverty, in the wake of the Dust Bowl, in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Because of and despite this, he hated "white trash" almost as much — although the hate was a different kind of hate, a sad duty — as he hated blacks, my father especially.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "In the Language of My Captor"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Shane McCrae.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

His God
Panopticon
Privacy
What Do You Know About Shame
Privacy 2
In the Language
Purgatory: A Memoir / A Son and a Father of Sons
Banjo Yes Receives a Lifetime Achievement Award •Banjo Yes Recalls His First Movies
Banjo Yes Talks About His First White Wife
Banjo Yes Plucks an Apple from a Tree in a Park
Banjo Yes Talks About Motivation
Banjo Yes Asks a Journalist
(hope)(lessness)
Sunlight
Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Visits His Adoptive Parents...
Asked About The Banjo Man and Its Sequels Banjo Yes Tells a Journalist Something...
Still When I Picture It the Face of God Is a White Man's Face
Acknowledgments

What People are Saying About This

Garth Greenwell

“Out of personal history, out of the history of an enduringly fractured nation, and out of the deep history of language, Shane McCrae is writing the most urgent, electric poems of his generation. A collection of love and rage, of vision and brilliant craft, In the Language of My Captoris the book America needs now.”

francine harris

“In this fifth collection, Shane McCrae has created a masterful hybrid that at once revels in the lyric and mocks it for its failures. What good is knowing the language of the oppressor, the jailor,In the Language of My Captorseems to ask, when articulation can’t enact liberation? The voices in this book create a landscape, indeed a village, haunted by abandon, intrusion, imprisonment and determinacy. In the vein of Robert Lowell and in conversation with poets such as Anne Carson and M. NourbeSe Philip, the poems inLanguage explore revelation, through juxtaposed narrative and situation, in a way that has kind of ruined me. The part I can’t quite put into words is how much this book means to me.”

Linda Gregerson

“On the great subject of our era– the history of race in America – add this beautiful book to your list of essential reading. For searing clarity combined with supplest humanity, In the Language of My Captor is second to none. Masterfully weaving the voices of a contemporary narrator, an actor from the so-called golden age of Hollywood, a speaker exhibited behind bars, and the historical figure of “Jim Limber the Adopted Son of Jefferson Davis,” Shane McCrae traces the painful evolution of subjectivity under the sign of racial division. With exquisite moral and musical calibration, he mines the eloquence of unembellished American speech. In addition to their other virtues – and they are legion – these poems afford a master class in the powers of lyric compression.”

From the Publisher

"In this fifth collection, Shane McCrae has created a masterful hybrid that at once revels in the lyric and mocks it for its failures. What good is knowing the language of the oppressor, the jailor, In the Language of My Captor seems to ask, when articulation can't enact liberation? The voices in this book create a landscape, indeed a village, haunted by abandon, intrusion, imprisonment and determinacy. In the vein of Robert Lowell and in conversation with poets such as Anne Carson and M. NourbeSe Philip, the poems in Language explore revelation, through juxtaposed narrative and situation, in a way that has kind of ruined me. The part I can't quite put into words is how much this book means to me."—francine harris

"Out of personal history, out of the history of an enduringly fractured nation, and out of the deep history of language, Shane McCrae is writing the most urgent, electric poems of his generation. A collection of love and rage, of vision and brilliant craft, In the Language of My Captor is the book America needs now.""—Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

"On the great subject of our era – the history of race in America – add this beautiful book to your list of essential reading. For searing clarity combined with supplest humanity, In the Language of My Captor is second to none. Masterfully weaving the voices of a contemporary narrator, an actor from the so-called golden age of Hollywood, a speaker exhibited behind bars, and the historical figure of 'Jim Limber the Adopted Son of Jefferson Davis', Shane McCrae traces the painful evolution of subjectivity under the sign of racial division. With exquisite moral and musical calibration, he mines the eloquence of unembellished American speech. In addition to their other virtues – and they are legion – these poems afford a master class in the powers of lyric compression.""—Linda Gregerson, author of Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976 to 2014

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