After finishing the collection Rapture by Sjohnna McCray, I was surprised to learn that this is his first collection. So many social, political, and historical issues are beautifully tackled in Rapture. Centered around the Vietnam War, this collection of poems introduces us to the speakers’ parents, who form an unlikely relationship during the war. Written in a chronological structure, Rapture follows the parent’s eventual migration to Cincinnati, Ohio, and the speaker’s childhood and adulthood. Through this, topics of race, sexuality, immigration, and family are addressed.
The stunning portrayal of the parent’s relationship in Rapture is best shown through the poem “Bedtime Story #1.” In this poem, the father is telling the speaker a story about how he met the speakers’ mother. McCray writes, “they could stroll the lane like an ordinary couple: / the unassuming black and the Korean whore / in the middle of the Vietnam War” (lines 21-23). This collection does a great job of giving us a different side of the war. I like this poem because it illustrates this relationship thought unlikely details, such as the “chocolate, / caramel and peanuts” that the father gives to the mother (lines 18-19). It also stunningly addresses the language barrier between the father and the mother, and the writing feels intimate and personal.
Something that really kept me hooked to Rapture was its tendency to cover a wide range of topics. Despite the expansiveness, one thing that really threads Rapture together is McCray’s honest depiction of sexuality. While I thought that Rapture would focus on the Vietnam War, I really loved his characterization of adolescence and boyhood. In the poem “Adolescence” we find our young speaker with his cousins, peeking at an unknown woman. The boys refer to her body with crude terms, such as “pussy” and “cunt” (line 22) but by the end of the poem, the speaker acknowledges that “Her body refuses the terms, / the slang-by-number words, // we try to assign her body” (lines 28-30). Throughout Rapture, the speaker is candid with his representation of sexuality, and the body is depicted in many poems, no matter what the subject.
While Rapture is not organized in sections, it does take place over a series of life events. We meet the parents during the Vietnam War, then later after they’ve moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and then we follow the speaker into adulthood. One of the poems, titled “Postcard: Turning Station” is written in the mother’s voice, while the poem “The Savages in the Suburbs” documents the 1978 Cincinnati blizzard, and the Korean mothers’ attempt at learning new English words through her son. The poems in Rapture take on many different forms, and McCray does a great job of varying the poems both in style and subject.
Buy Rapture here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Graywolf Press: “Graywolf Press is a leading independent publisher committed to the discovery and energetic publication of contemporary American and international literature. We champion outstanding writers at all stages of their careers to ensure that diverse voices can be heard in a crowded marketplace.”*
(photo of Rapture courtesy of Graywolf Press)