The Gilded Auction Block

reviewed by Maya Phillips

In his follow-up to the award-winning collection In the Language of My Captor (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), Shane McCrae exposes the hypocrisy and irony beneath the American ideal. Most of the book’s poems are direct addresses to the country that question the inequalities among its citizens, as in the devastating “Purchase,” when the speaker asserts: “America I was born incapable / Of owning what I work for.” In “Forgiveness Grief” the speaker confronts his own history, addressing a grandmother whose racism complicates his feelings of grief about her loss: “Already what would kill you was / There killing you before you did / Those things that strip my memories / Of you of love.” The book takes a curiously abrupt turn in “The Hell Poem,” which recalls Alice Notley in its account of a dreamlike Dantean journey to hell marked by a cussing robot bird, corpses, and a “giant black hundred-legged beetle.” Accompanied by arrestingly grim and Gothic paintings by Christine Sajecki, the long, abstract poem is tinged with an overall sense of vertigo as the speaker faces shifting environments, rife with symbols, that affect him in discomfiting ways: “Suddenly I’m standing in / A room my back against it feels / Like skin a wall but only as long as / It takes for me to realize / I’m standing in a room my back / Against a wall.” Near its end, the book returns to America, this time transformed into a Frankensteinian monster: “I’m made of murderers I’m made / Of nobodies and immigrants and the poor // … the mother’s / liver and her lungs // and the left half of the baby’s face,” prompting us to ask ourselves, Is this the great America I recognize?

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2018.