by Bess Cooley, Managing Editor Sycamore Review
Sjohnna McCray’s Rapture reads chronologically—from parents meeting, through to childhood, familial relationships, and, finally, romantic love. The collection is a glimpse into one person’s life thus far—and it’s a stunning glimpse, like living through somebody else, sifting through family history documents and discovering what lies behind them. But McCray imagines this family with tenderness, not mere reporting. This is a new kind of primary source in which McCray explores all kinds of origins: parental, familial, personal.
In this debut collection he takes the family unit further and explores intimacy more generally, and the relationships between people—those who know each other or don’t. “Cinema Vérité” begins with an explanation of the impetus for the poem: “inspired by a 1968 photo in which a power worker is electrocuted while strapped atop a pole.” The poem’s first stanza:
It has nothing to do with desire
although the act of pushing air
from one set of lungs to another
suggests an intimacy between people.
Each of McCray’s poems comes attached to deep personal connection. Reading Rapture is like looking at this photograph through McCray’s gaze, breathing air he’s blown into his readers’ lungs. He cares as much for these images of strangers as for those of his family (a Korean mother and American father who meet during the Vietnam War, in which the father is serving), whom he explores throughout the book. His intense fascination with the people who populate his poems is inescapably clear, and the tenderness with which he describes his father’s bodily imperfections is palpable: “I believe the spine was stolen / right out of my father’s back,” he writes in “Agnostic Front.” And “How to Move” begins:
I cannot look at anything
so black as my father’s leg
or used-to-be-leg below the knee,
now a stump. If a child’s doll lost
its flexible hand, the surface
underneath would be as round
as father’s stump.
But that poem isn’t just about how to move, or about McCray looking at his father’s stump. He brings in colors: “I am thinking of colors / because prosthesis comes in colors.” His father’s prosthetic leg is far lighter than his skin tone. And here, the poet spends a beautiful two stanzas attempting to match the colors:
I am thinking of technicians
with photographs creating
perfect shades of negroness
for limbless negroes, every negro
matched to a swatch or chart with names
like fingernail polish.
It’s like watching one of the most tender moments between father and son, this kind of desire to make the father’s skin tones match;he asks prosthesis technicians to make a leg specifically for his father, to get the color perfectly right. It is less his being protective of the man, and more wanting things to fit for him.
The book fits. It forces readers to look at people the way McCray does. The titular poem ends Rapture: “And still, we refuse to yield // back into being singular.” Sjohnna McCray refuses to yield in this collection. None of his poems, none of the people in them, are singular. They come together into a collective identity that is Rapture.
72 pages, $16.00