Poem of the Week | December 05, 2016

This week, we are excited to present a new poem by Shane McCrae. McCrae teaches at Oberlin College and at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program. His most recent books are In the Language of My Captor (forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press in 2017) and The Animal Too Big to Kill (Persea Books, 2015). He has received a Whiting Writer’s Award, a fellowship from the NEA, and a Pushcart Prize.

Author’s note:

I wrote this poem in March of this year, after stumbling across the following tweet by Gregory Cowles, which was itself written in reply to a tweet by Kathryn Schulz about how somebody should write a novel about Jim Limber: “I nominate the poet Shane McCrae to write it.” My first thought was, “There’s no way I could write a novel.” And my second thought was, “Hmm. Maybe I should Wikipedia Jim Limber” (except, you know, I didn’t actually know his name at the time—it hadn’t been mentioned in the Kathryn Schulz tweet).

So I looked Jim Limber up. And even though I already knew he had existed, still I was surprised to discover and read his story. And I wonder whether other countries that have perpetrated enormous atrocities know as little about said atrocities as the United States knows about its participation in the slave trade. Because the fact of Jim Limber would seem to be the sort of fact that would get mentioned in, say, high-school history class discussions of the Civil War. But it doesn’t—at least, not commonly. The thing about the United States is that it could not withstand knowing about the United States.

This poem is from a sequence of poems I wrote for my fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, which Wesleyan University Press will publish in February 2017. While the very basic historical events recounted in these poems did happen, I made up everything the speakers say. I wanted to do my very small part to at least present the fact of Jim Limber.


Jim Limber the Adopted Mulatto Son of Jefferson Davis Met His Adoptive Mother Varina Davis at a Crossroads


Up north it’s midnight in America


Here in America it’s midnight too


Daddy Jeff says he     says it was always two


Americas and he just keeps it law


I don’t know    anything about the law


Except I know what’s true and isn’t true


But sometimes I’ll see Negroes running through


A field in the dark and not say what I saw



When white folks ask     I tell them I was happy


With momma and she didn’t beat me of-


ten till the war got bad     but we was going


North and I didn’t want to go the morning


Momma Varina rescued me     she whups me


Different     like what she wants from it is love