On Shane McCrae’s “Hex”

        On February 15, 2021, 27 years and 1 day after Bark Psychosis released Hex in the UK, Shane tweets about Navigator’s Nostalgie, a sound which exists in the same breath as Bark Psychosis, “It sounds as empty as music can sound a[nd] still be called rock, and sometimes emptier than that.” [1]

        I wanted to look at this particular kind of emptiness as it occurs in McCrae’s recent poem “Hex,” [2] named after the Bark Psychosis album perhaps, or not only that album, but also named with its metrical construction in mind. Holding off on the Post-Rock and poetical lineages, I will begin in the middle, where the emptiness of this music is figured as an abundance of middles. McCrae writes,

Across the ice, in the midst of which, the gaze, the ice

Infinite, has no midst, no middle, but is made

Of middles echoing,     in the midst of the gaze, the moment

Through which, the visionary moment, we will leave

Our bodies, gazing, or at least our minds, for once

Won’t trouble what we see, such peace accomplished, we

Have known our peace accomplished     on the drive to the lake

And by the time we reach the lake, we’ve turned around

Already, in our minds, such peace accomplished and

Retreated from, except we park, except we gaze

At the white expanse, and sigh,

calling to mind a small set of Romantic tendencies such as in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” which ends in an emptiness of silence, or the missed climax (another middle) of Wordsworth’s “Prelude” where there is a turning back onto the unacknowledged summit of the Alps. Though what might distinguish McCrae’s lake from these Romantic missed connections is that the lake and its infinity manifest as a material impasse both physically and textually insofar as it already has turned the mind from “troubl[ing] what we see.” We might then say that McCrae’s lake is like neither an event of psychological impasse as in Shelley, nor of physiological exaltation in the openness of misrecognition as in Wordsworth, but rather is a mood of exhausted peace where a depressive overwhelm of the senses allows for the retreat of the soul to some peaceful, sighing non-space. This non-space, however, is not an end.

        A crucial mark of this difference is in the way the lake arrives in the text out of the analysis of the history of Post-Rock. We could think of the drive to the lake as tracking through the discography of that genre, and through McCrae’s listing out of those bands, the poem becomes a music video about listening to the history of a genre unfold, each “new music” drowning the last one out. The new is only the new insofar as it drowns out its history! McCrae’s poem instead becomes the drowning of that maneuver by recovering and listing out its instances up until the very moment it submerges its perspective beneath the frozen lake,

hills unfurl beneath him to the hills

Beneath the surface of Lake Erie and the ice

Above the hills     that seems to constitute the lake

From somewhere other than the lake, to be a picture

Of a dead lake, the surface of the thing a picture

Of something else.

This drowning of the perspective in describing the hills on the bottom of the lake will soon reverse into what I am lazily calling the empty mood, where the other side of the drowning is a kind of peace-void. I write lazily because there is in fact nothing more I could write about this gaze-without-vision, without disrupting it, except to call it into this commentary as mood! Akin to the historical drowning of the new music, the picture of the dead lake seems to obscure, through empty mood, not only its history but its very constitution. In McCrae’s “A Thousand Pictures” [3] there are two similar encounters and further analyses of the life and death of the picture:

A picture says a picture    is only a picture of

Not what the picture is    a picture of

But what it’s for a

picture is a picture

of the future


A picture says

your life has no beginning

A thousand pictures say your life

Will end a thousand times

The picture obscures its own present constitution, paying close attention to McCrae’s verbiage we could even say the picture poeticizes this disruption, for the sake of its pluperfect or future-oriented death compulsion. If McCrae’s picture is not about a past, then is it a gesture towards the future nostalgia of the present? Earlier in “Hex,” McCrae extends this figure of the picture to become a generic kernel for understanding art, writing,

The dead old art will suffer further life if new

Artists of irresistible ability

Work to extend it,    though such artists must not seek

To extend the     dead old art, or they will fail, but must

Make only what they must    make, and if it aligns

With the dead, the dead will live again in what they make.

By manifesting the “picture legacy” of art through a listing out of the history of Post-Rock, McCrae arrives at distinction which attempts to dislodge the nostalgic impulse, in favor of a dismissal of “further life.” At this point, the tweet quoted at the introduction might give a way of parsing the dead art, if the dead art is itself empty then to renew or to make new music, the artist must make it even emptier. Perhaps one can hear here the possible other side of depressive emptiness as a kind of historical kenosis.

            Perhaps then McCrae is aligning with a different Romantic, in some ways continuing Keats’ trajectory in problematizing the nostalgic relapse in his unfinished ending to “Hyperion,” specifically when the new god Apollo will “die into life.” Instead of rebirthing itself through nostalgia, the dead art must die more, and the new music must be about that, or more specifically must be the sound of that dying.

            McCrae himself will split this recuperative tendency of artistic production into a more conventionally conservative desire for a “past” system or picture’s return on the one hand and a submission to the empty mood’s auto-productive potential on the other.

And those who scream they want you back have never seen you

And wouldn’t recognize you if you came,     and those

Who lie face down on the floor in the chamber see the floor

Only. The woman     on the other side of the door

Wide-eyed and bleeding, sees no metaphors. O music

Where have you fled? O music, who will make you new

In this rhyme-drowned ending, we might say that two forms of visual obscurity or death are contrasted. The screams of those who scream are deadened by their own dead wishes, while the dying woman, in already possessing a deadened sense of metaphor, is in fact the least dead, or “wide-eyed.” Within the rhyme, “floor” is remixed as “door.” The abrupt surface of the end becomes an opening through sound, and yet this rhyme trail takes a final oblique step to “no metaphors,” cutting the sense of freedom in the metaphor off at the waist. The opening created by the shift from floor to door is no longer a metaphorical or symbolic shift but a purely sonic one. This rhyme, then, gives a kind of metaphor without metaphor, the pure sonic connection driving something beyond meaning, a glimpse into the material drowning of language not unlike the pull into the infinite middles of the lake earlier. Though this glimpse of the real is immediately severed by a more general death cry for music.

          The emptiness(es) which cracks through McCrae’s “Hex” performs an ever-deafening song about song which simultaneously makes new music, or any music for that matter, relapsive and impossible while also revealing that the most beautiful music possible is omnipresent. We find it written out for us, what we’re hearing everywhere is the empty music of the mourning of music, “nowhere no guitars. But space and stillness where / Guitars would be.”


[1] Shane McCrae, “It Sounds as Empty as Music Can Sound a Still Be Called Rock, and Sometimes Emptier than That. Often I Love Desolate Things.” Twitter. February 15, 2021. https://twitter.com/akasomeguy/status/1361394139586310155.

[2] Shane McCrae, “Hex.” Conjunctions. November 1, 2021. http://www.conjunctions.com/online/article/shane-mccrae-01-11-2021.

[3] Shane McCrae, “A Thousand Pictures.” Court Green, December 13, 2019. https://courtgreen.net/issue-16/shane-mccrae.

Anastasios Karnazes is a doctoral student at SUNY Albany and has a chapbook coming to The Song Cave.