McCray’s themes in this first poetry collection are desire, identity and memory. He excavates his past and dredges up images and motifs that form a personal mythology. Many of the poems seem autobiographical.
There is a particular focus on the imperfections of the human body: the stump of a father’s amputated leg; “flabby buttocks” and “the bike-tire cap of her nipples” in ‘Peeping Toms’; a Korean comfort woman “reducing men to texture:/the prickly hairs, the moles and bumps,/the scarred trenches along the shoulders.”
In line with this focus on the physical, the collection charts a growth from boyhood to maturity. We see snapshots of the narrator’s relationships first with his parents and then his lovers. There is nothing idealized here, and a hint of adolescent pain and confusion underpins the tone. ‘Night Sweats’ begins, “You sleep as I imagine/a superhero flies:one arm straight/and one leg cocked” and ends, “Your name/should have been Clark.” The lover isn’t Superman, but Superman’s fragile alter-ego.
McCray won the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets for this collection and it’s easy to see why. He doesn’t eschew complexity but his syntax is strikingly clear and there are images which lodge in the reader’s mind and won’t depart. There is also a ringing musicality to these poems – they resonate in the ear. Overall, I thought this a great debut and a welcome addition to the stellar group of African American poets making their way in the world.