Review: Rapture: Poems – Sjohnna McCray

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Paperback, 72 pages
Published April 5th 2016 by Graywolf Press
Source: Raincoast Books

Sjohnna McCray’s father was an American soldier deployed to Korea where he met McCray’s Korean mother. In this volume of poetry, Rapture, McCray deals with the complicated nature of his identity, his parents, his lover, and all the beautiful and ugly things that make up life.

McCray’s turn of phrase is often brilliant and startling at the same time. I am not sure how other people review poetry but I have decided that I will go at it directly before I say anything about the collection as a whole.

In the first poem “Father & Son by the Window”, a son bathes his infirm father and the thick love he feels for his father is undercut with a sorrow at the knowledge of an ending. This verse that describes his dad’s memory is just so beautiful:

His memory flickers on–

a light from a porch nearby.

The imagery in these verses is unexpected and precisely because it is unexpected, there’s a rush of pleasure when you undress the words and figure out what they mean. A sad meaning but beautiful nonetheless. And then there’s this excerpt from “On the Cutting Room Floor” that makes my heart fluttwe:

1968: heat like a long whistle, dry leaves scratching the curb, flip-flops sticking to swollen feet, the soft thump of plums falling to grass. It was a graveyard without bodies, each man arriving in the form of a letter.

McCray’s poetry is sometimes musing, sometimes fierce but at all times it is emotionally authentic. In “Father as Jellyfish” a father muses about his baby son:

My son shivers in the babble of dreams.
For now, he only knows a few things:

rough beard, blankets, and breasts. He grips
the world in his hands. Soon enough,

he’ll spend words the way nouveaux riches
burn money–with haste and an impracticality

for fashion.

One of the strongest poems in the collection is “Portrait of my Father as a Young Black Man” which asserts:

“Rage is the language of men,”

and ends with:

“Rage is a promise kept.”

Rapture will mean different things to different readers. That is the nature of all literature but especially, in my opinion, poetry. McCray’s imagery is subtle and his poetry is often surprising by the emotions it evokes in the reader. Well okay, this reader was often surprised. While the poet is present very much in his poems, McCray’s poetry has enough heart and enough room for the reader to come and experience the emotions, the imagery, and the art without feeling distanced from the work.

If poetry is your thing, give Rapture a try. McCray’s life is colourful and layered and his reflections on it are beautiful.