The Many Hundreds of the Scent: Poems
“McCrae shows us how we need new music and new ears and eyes.”
As the whole world asked, “Can anyone explain this strange feeling,” a poet raised his hand.
Shane McCrae is considered one of the most powerful voices in poetry today. As an award-winning poet and author, he has published more than a dozen poetry collections. His latest, The Many Hundreds of the Scent, follows the launch of a new memoir, Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping, published by Simon & Schuster earlier this year.
The poetry collection also contains references to McCrae’s actual kidnapping by his maternal grandparents, which he explores in the new memoir. The book begins with an epigraph taken from a poem by the English Romantic poet John Clare. McCrae emerges from a foreshadowing, “That rocked thee like a cradle to thy root” with poems branching into themes of family, race, and identity.
From the very first word of the book, the poet entreats the reader. “Friend,” he begins, “I have turned the brambles back . . .” and as in a Grimm’s fairy tale, the poet opens a clearing, bringing into view all that was previously hidden. In the narrative throughout the poet is often present, appearing in childhood or as a father himself caught in the act of parenting.
McCrae creates a personal mythology on par with that of the Greeks, casting Achilles, Hector, Paris, Helen (and others) in battle scenes that begin to feel oddly and eerily domestic. This theme evolves into home as country—inhospitable, and deadly especially if you are American and Black.
In writing that “All comfort is decay” and “One’s opportunities to be unhappy are / One’s singlemost inheritance,” McCrae’s outlook is bleak. How can it not be, given a narrative tipping into recent history, fresh as the January 6 United States Capitol Attack and the persistent reports of Black men and women being killed in the streets? These poems with spare punctuation move quickly, barely slowing down for a closer look at injustice. Even the strangest details, a cartoon turkey leg or a glass-winged gerbil fly on by in a flash.
But this is a poet who is comfortable with the absurd, and presents it as stark reality, solid as a ladder hoisted from the underground by construction workers at night. In “Your Black Child” McCrae asks America—"how are you alive / When your black child is dead.”
I tell myself America she was
Your life. I tell myself you knew she was
Because I have to love you still, since you
Are still alive and it’s a day since you
Killed her— because I am your black child
I raise my hands from the keys slowly because I am your black child
As is true for poetry, people often turn to music in order to cope. McCrae’s poetry actively listens and responds to music. It’s a score, really. The poems reference art and artists responding to McCrae’s refrain: “One’s opportunities to be unhappy are / Unlimited.” Proof is the pandemic, the “raw world” the windowless rooms in towers we have built hoping to reach forgiveness. McCrae laments: “Oh music / who will you make new?”
But what is a fitting soundtrack to an actual dystopia? Stare at the book’s cover while listening to “Dust Bowl” by Mogwai, one of the bands mentioned in “Hex,” one of McCrae’s longer poems, and that universal strange feeling fuses one’s identity to the times we’re living in. The impulse is to return to the beginning, the cleared path and “hundreds of the scent of oranges you’ve tasted / Newborn each time you tasted it . . .”
As speedy as some of McCrae’s poems are, others are in slow-motion matrix style, distorting time. In the book’s closing, the poet requires only seven lines of impeccable action to choreograph the stories of a rising number of dead. There is no comfort to be taken here. However, if fate is simply playing itself out there may still be hope for a reckoning. Patriots and poets alike have known what it is to be voiceless, though McCrae maintains the difference between the two.
It may seem obvious that injustice leads to unhappiness and a little less obvious that unhappiness is a privilege for anyone who survives injustice—who are not forced to assume the position, who are not flowers on a tree destined to become “strange fruit.” Those who are most vulnerable still have to consider all the ways they can be taken. It’s as clear as the footage from a bodycam.
As a Black American, McCrae seems to have moved past hope for a wake-up call. “But maybe the end of the world is ending,” he writes. “Maybe soon one will be in small ways sad again.” When this is the best-case scenario, we know we’re in trouble. McCrae shows us how we need new music and new ears and eyes. All the better if we are to live among the “many hundreds” who are following a different tune.