One Neither One

by Shane McCrae
Octopus Books 2009
Reviewed by Steven Karl


“One of us had to save the other one”

mccrae coverThroughout the years poets have written about identity and its intersection with race. Many volumes of poetry and anthologies seek to demonstrate or recapitulate either the hyphenated-American or immigrant experience. Nella Larsen, who wrote the novels Quicksand and Passing, is perhaps the most famous writer who had attempted to tackle something even more complicated: the “bi-racial”* or multi-ethnic experience.  In 2006 it was reported that there is a minimum of 6.1 million U.S. citizens who identify their ethnicity as bi- or multi, yet comparatively little has been explored in the landscape of poetry.  Shane McCrae’s chapbook, One Neither One, sets out to give a voice to this other other.

McCrae wisely uses surrealism to obtain intensity and reveal poignancy. His chapbook contains seven poems. The first, titled “That’s Entertainment,” deals directly with the concept of white half vs. black half:

White half the white half    mule the black half black   /   But more
pleasing to either eye more hav-
ing neither but the black half eye    more hav-  /  ing neither
which which half

McCrae sets-up a lexical, almost Dr. Suessian employment of language by the sly use of repetition which seeks to both hammer in the words and to force the reader to re-examine each word in relation to the other.  When McCrae writes, “which which,” I think first which white, which black, but then when I reread “which which” it becomes an impatient question or demand.  The following five poems are titled “Mulatto.”  Instead of simply using people, McCrae utilizes the animal image (mule, horse, donkey) in “Mulatto,” thereby achieving the surrealistic trick of making anew a topic which has been a long historical abhorrent in American history and blurring the distinction between animal and human. 

The first “Mulatto” poem begins, “Half-donkey and half-human being    half-horse/”; the second “Mulatto” poem explores the old adage of one drop will do you, “Not even half three-eighths one drop of blood/ Is blood is blood is blood my blood is not/ My mother’s blood my body in her body/”. Anyone who has lived the experience of being bi- or multi-ethnic will easily tell you that the “one drop” does not allow you belong to one side or the other, in fact, this mixed identity often finds you neither accepted by the white or the black community.  The fourth “Mulatto” poem deals with this by recalling an experience where a black girl is being sexualized by white boys—she exists in their eyes not as a black person, but first and foremost as an object of sex:  “The white boys licked her breast    it was a game / It had a name and that is how I knew / It was a game.”  The white boys are in the position of power, so they have the ability to name and then to define the game.  The speaker of the poem decides he wants to be in on the game:

I got in line    and all the white boys saw

There was a nigger in the line    a mule
But none of them could tell    and the one black girl
Called me a nigger made   the white boys laugh
One of us had to save the other one

The last poem in One Neither One is entitled “Ghost,” and it deals with fragmentary ideas of self and memory, that other hiding, ghosting inside and caught in this in-betweeness.  One Neither One excels not only for its subject but also for McCrae’s poetics: his inventive use of line breaks, how he works the space on the page, and the ability to effectively incorporate surrealism.  My only disappointment with this chapbook is that it feels too brief and left me wanting to read more.

* I used “bi-racial” in this review because it is a term common to readers, but decided to put it in quotes since race itself is a construct and politically speaking, some of us chose not to empower the word and its antiquated definition.