Sjohnna McCray’s debut collection, Rapture, celebrates the lives fountaining through a single life and transmutes the eddies of those lives into an aria. Like the blossoms seen falling through a kitchen window in McCray’s poem, “The Pear Tree,” the poems in Rapture helicopter to earth, “suicidal brides plummeting.” These poems skitter on the edge of adoration, limned with want, cankered with loss, honeyed with the sweet fearful immensities of the strange thisness shuttling between the heart and the mind. Many voices vertebrae the poems in this book in registers of devotion, passion, ire, sorrow, and jubilation. McCray draws on the details of his birth: his father was a soldier and his mother was a “comfort woman.” In “Bedtime Story # 1” McCray describes his parents after they had first met: “they could stroll the lane like an ordinary couple:/ the unassuming black and the Korean whore/ in the middle of the Vietnam War.” From these details, McCray explores the complicated notions of Americanness that his life embodies, implies, and challenges: “an extravagance of small pauses,/ / many caesuras.” However, McCray’s work as a whole concerns itself with recreating the infinitesimal moments in a life, situated on the threshold of song, when past, present, and future overlap and we are most ourselves.
McCray’s lines are most themselves when Eros and Thanatos equally inhabit them. In the last lines of the book, McCray redefines “rapture” as the moment before an orgasm, “an old LP, a needle tracing static,/ a record ready to drop.” Meanwhile, outside, walnuts smack on the roof, a cardinal shakes on the line, and “still we refuse to yield/ back into being singular.” For McCray the refusal to be anywhere else but in the posture of eternal embrace constitutes the very groundwork of existence; we are always dying into each other, into our pasts and futures, into our ghosts and regrets. Throughout Rapture, McCray opens a dialogue with his father, whose life and legacy constantly swans into the poems. The poem “Portrait of My Father as a Young Black Man,” for example, reads:
Rage is the language of men,
layers of particulates fused.
Rage is the wine
father pours to the ground
for men whose time has passed. Rage
is gripped in the hands
like the neck of a broom held tight. Rage
gets stuck in the throat, suppressed.
Rage is a promise kept.
Although rage is part of the vocabulary Rapture sorts through, the real language of this poem and every other poem in this book is love. Whether commemorating the lives of his parents, hailing his beloved, burning down the suburbia of his own adolescence, or elegizing the tragic life and death of the poet, Reetika Vazirani, Sjohnna McCray is driven to the page out of love. Rapture is a reminder that we are at our best when we refuse to yield back into being singular, a timely and timeless collection to laud on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2017.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2015 Red Hen Press Poetry Award, the Crab Orchard Review's 2016 Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry, and the 2016 Manchester Poetry Prize,