Mother Tongue

Valerie Duff-Strautmann
| Reviews


In the Language of My Captor by Shane McCrae (Wesleyan University Press, 2017).
As I read Shane McCrae’s In the Language of My Captor, I thought of the Romanian poet Paul Celan writing in German, his first tongue but also the language of the Nazi system responsible for the death of his parents and his two years of imprisonment in a forced labor camp. Both writers are immersed in and transformative of racial/ethnic trauma and history. McCrae experiments within his language, as Celan did, with the designation of the line break, prose poems, and personae (McCrae adopts the voices of persecuted and enslaved individuals). The use of white space, breath, and repetitions recalls some of Celan’s maneuvers in his post-Holocaust poems.
In McCrae’s collection, he recounts and reworks his upbringing—child of a white mother and black father, raised by white supremacist grandparents—a personal history that he weaves into a highly structured four-part frame. Yet he keeps the retellings fluid, moving from one technique and focus to another in an attempt to take back language or show the lies it often presents as truth.
The dichotomies in McCrae’s poem “Sunlight,” the story of rape and miscegenation on a plantation, brought to mind Celan’s Margarete/Shulamith in “Death Fugue.” Unlike Celan’s stark split, however, McCrae’s poem documents a Tiresias-Lazarus-like synthesis of skin color: “I’ve been in a white man’s / Skin in my body / and I have returned to tell you.” It is a poem about property and passing (as a white person), questioning what race is, and what our history of white people owning black people means:


And I felt pale inside
But never white inside   or/Inside
I felt   /Colored inside but colored white Like I   was truly white
The color white and
The master and his family

Were clear as glass / The clear
bright white not white of
Sunlight on glass

That’s what they meant when they said white
I / Didn’t feel white like that


The poem explores what it means to be white/nonwhite from someone categorized as “colored.” It also probes a division between inside and outside, both on a personal level (intern-al/external experience) and in terms of the white master’s house (inside the house/outside of the house). The poem’s speaker, a girl, is sent out of the house when the white adolescent sons begin to want her sexually, and the idea of “white” is revisited:


I spent four years in the fields
It was worse than you might care to think it was
But then one   day it was a / Hot day I saw the strangest thing I caught a glimpse of my / Face
in still water in a bowl I saw the
Older boy’s face I almost   jumped


Later in the poem, escaping to the north by train, she looks up, like the white passengers, instead of looking down as the slaves do, and describes what she sees in the air: “I know it was lint / but it looked like worms / flying in the light.” That light, for the “I,” is infused with survivor’s guilt and sadness and the decay of all skin, a sense of the world’s corruption that is partly based on her own experience of having been raped.

Valerie Duff-Strautmann is the poetry editor at Salamander. Her poems have appeared recently in POETRY, The Common, and The Cortland Review. She was the 2015 Poetry Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston.

Knowing the Terrain
My Father’s Teeth