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The Gilded Auction Block; Sometimes I Never Suffered by Shane McCrae - review

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A mixed-race poet raised by white supremacists addresses his country – and his president

Shane McCrae is a mixed-race American poet, who, at the age of three, was taken to Texas by his grandparents – who were white supremacists – away from his black father who had, until then, been bringing him up. It was an unhappy childhood and he stopped paying attention at school until he discovered poetry (responding, as many unhappy teenagers do, to Sylvia Plath’s work). His faith that he would one day become a poet was unswerving – even after dropping out of formal education. And perhaps it was as simple as this: he knew he would become a poet because he was one. Now, he is a teacher at Columbia. That is the potted biography ­– but there is nothing potted about his unusual and unbridled poetry.

Many poems in The Gilded Auction Block address the US directly, alongside its president. The idea is in a great tradition (think of Allen Ginsberg’s America, Danez Smith’s Dear White America or even, in its less embattled way, Walt Whitman’s One Song, America, Before I Go). The collection opens with The President Visits the Storm, demonstrating Trump’s imperviousness towards the victims of Hurricane Harvey. A few pages in, Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump almost does not need the poem to unpack its title. The sense, throughout, is of an America with selective hearing and Trump as a complacently grotesque Goliath, against whom a poet must aim a particularly sharp stone.

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