The Animal Too Big to Kill

by Stephen Burt

At once a defiant Christian meditation, “trying to say / Something about     money to God”; a lacerating memorial to his mother; and a sharply observed, self-accusing verse memoir about growing up multiracial in working-class Texas, McCrae’s fourth collection is as disarmingly original as his first three—and just as unlike them as they were unlike one another. Given how different they were (one a sonnet sequence about his autism-spectrum son, another a slave narrative) that’s saying a lot. And McCrae says a lot, beginning with his titles: “I Know It’s Hard for You to Believe You Still Benefit from Slavery,” for example, and “Empathy Erases the Heart.” Midway through, in a long poem made up of raw, choppy quatrains, somebody wakes up from a dream and remembers feeling “the / Worst kind of terri- / fied he has ever / Felt.” The dreamer could be Christ (McCrae calls the poem “The Seven Last Words of Christ”) but really it’s the poet himself, anticipating the mental and physical decline of his mother, whose “house starts / Filling with garbage // Because she can’t / Clean it any- / more.” The poem becomes a tearful reversed pietà, the son taking the mother down from her cross. That work provides the collection’s anchor; readers may end up quoting, instead, poems about “Growing up black white trash / In Texas Round Rock Texas,” where the young McCrae imagined “Black like what bad guys wear / The black like what you’re not and what you are.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2015.