Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, (2014; Penguin, 2015), 166pp, £9.99. ISBN 9780141981772.

Reviewed by Paul McMenemy

[Originally published in LP8, March 2016]

This is how The Guardian reported the announcement of last year’s Forward Prize shortlist:

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, an exploration of everyday racism through lyric essays, scraps of film script and photography, might look far more like prose than the traditional definition of poetry, but the innovative work from the acclaimed American writer has made it onto the shortlist for one of the UK’s top poetry prizes, the Forward.[1]

This is the first paragraph of the article, which – to reiterate – was the newspaper’s only coverage of the shortlist announcement.

Well, okay, we know that the mainstream press doesn’t do poetry very well – the article goes on to note that Citizen “eschews the likes of iambic pentameter and rhyme” – so perhaps we can let the peculiarity of that opening statement go. But then, in paragraph 7 (of nine initial paragraphs solely dedicated to Citizen – the four other shortlistees get two short paragraphs between them), we get this statement by poet and Forward judge Carrie Etter:

People who insist that poetry is only poetry if it’s in lines are missing out. As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readers’ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object to its inclusion on the list. So be it.

I’ll be honest, at the time I was only half paying attention – I hadn’t read Citizen or any of Rankine’s previous work – so I was a bit perplexed. We’ve had prose poetry in English for hundreds of years – even to someone who apparently thinks iambic pentameter and other terms they vaguely remember from A-level English are commonplace in modern poetry, this should not entirely be news. But for a poet to feel the need to justify the work’s shortlisting, obviously something else was going on. It was only after I read Citizen that I realised what.

Since then, an awful lot has been written about Citizen and all sorts of interesting comments have slithered into the light from people who might be expected to know better.[2] All I really want to say about this here is: if there is a question in your mind over whether this is poetry or not, I think I can help you out. Citizen is poetry because the person who wrote it says so. I believe this is the only useful definition of poetry and it is a definition I will defend at length, if necessary. But not here, for reasons which will become clear.

“Lyric essay” is a good term, as Citizen subtly develops an argument over seven sections. The first gropes towards a statement of the problem:

[…] a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.

So now we will talk about the prose, because it is the main tool through which these various sections are differentiated. Much of the prose is not prose-poetry prose; some of it is not even the sort of prose called poetic by novel-reviewers short of anything else to say (the literary equivalent of a film critic remarking upon cinematography). But before we go any further, I am going to quote another part of Citizen – the opening paragraph – because the previous quote, and some I will use further on in talking about the argument of Citizen, might reinforce an impression I suspect many people who have not read the book might have of it. That it is dry, academic… prosey.

When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.

A poem is written as it is written because it could not be written any other way. Rankine uses the dry, academic tone – when she does – for a reason. But she also uses it more seldom than it first appears. That first paragraph – quite poet-y enough for most tastes, I should think – leads into a reminiscence of a white girl asking to copy Rankine’s work at school:

You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.

The prose runs from lyrical to intimate to academic, but retains an internal consistency, just as anyone’s inner monologue might. We do not talk – even to ourselves – all in one register.

After setting up its hypothesis, Citizen’s second section provides a case study, using a discursion on the uses of anger in art as a jumping off point to discuss the career of Serena Williams, taking an uncharacteristic and apparently disproportionate outburst on court (“Oh my God, she’s gone crazy, you say to no one.”) and contextualising it within a narrative of continually attempted erasure and othering.

Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context—randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out “I swear to God!” is to be called insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship.

The third section continues the record of microaggressions begun in Section I but changes the emphasis somewhat – erasure is only one part of the intent:

Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.

Section IV details the physical and psychological effect of this constant stress:

To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets.

Section V – also introspective in tone – looks at emerging from this depression to address the world:

Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out—

To know what you’ll sound like is worth noting—

The penultimate section – the most immediate of the book – acts on this intent, engaging with more obvious examples of racism from recent history through a series of scripts for video art collaborations with John Lucas (the whole work is interspersed with images, which vary from being genuinely integral to the text, to merely illustrative, to superfluous), beginning with a grimly appropriate variation on erasure poetry in which quotes taken from people in New Orleans during news coverage of Hurricane Katrina present a collage of neglect in which the disaster is only an unusually visible moment.

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come.

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted. As if then and now were not the same moment.

He said, I don’t know what the water wanted.

There follow responses to various instances of racially motivated violence and injustice including a passage titled Stop-and-Frisk:

And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

The final substantial part of this section tells the story of Rankine, with an uncomfortable echo of Rosa Parks, taking a free seat on a train beside a black man, the seat first being refused by a standing white woman. This might seem out of place compared to the infamous events detailed in the preceding parts of the section, and especially compared to what comes directly after – a list of names of murdered black Americans – but the relevance becomes clearer in the section’s closing epigram:

because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying

The prejudice which leads the woman to reject the train seat is of the same kind that leads to police shootings. This is the pivotal moment of Citizen – the mostly unintentional, often unconscious microaggressions detailed in the earlier sections are shown to be different only in scale to the incidents more widely recognized as injustices by mainstream (white) society which make up most of Section VI.

The only reason that big, visible wounds like Katrina or Ferguson or the 2011 riots occur is because the everyday papercuts detailed throughout Citizen pass without comment. The concluding section makes this clear:

Who shouted, you? You

shouted you, you the murmur in the air, you sometimes sounding like you, you sometimes saying you,

go nowhere,

be no one but you first—

Nobody notices, only you’ve known,

you’re not sick, not crazy,

not angry, not sad—

It’s just this, you’re injured.

This realisation has been discomfiting for some readers, and the way Citizen is written has added to their discomfort. Nearly all of Citizen is written in the second person, which here plays two main roles. On the one hand it performs its own traditional role, suggesting the reader is being directly addressed, implying an intimacy between writer and reader but also emphasising like a prodding finger each casual cruelty detailed in the text. More interestingly – and this is its main function here – it performs its modern function of standing in for the third person pronoun “one”. But there is a difference between “you” in this context and “one”: “you” feels far more inclusive – it assumes commonality of experience in a way in which “one” does not. It is the “you” of observational comedy and the casual anecdote: “You know when you…”

And this is the thing which I think has made some readers suspicious of – even hostile towards – Citizen. Because they are not the “you” being addressed, either directly or implicitly: the make-up of print poetry consumers in the US and UK being what it is, statistically you – the reader – are not “you”. These things have not happened to you – you may sympathise, you may empathise, you may write overlong reviews in obscure literary periodicals, but you cannot experience this thing directly.

Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect—context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends.”

Through this device Rankine manages to give the white reader a little taste of being one of “the others” while making it clear that they will never fully understand what this means. I am not at all suggesting this was her primary motive in using the second person; it is, though, an intended side-effect.

I suspect some readers have felt this effect and recoiled – they are not used to experiencing an implied universality which does not apply to them – and this is responsible for quite a lot of the “is this poetry?” talk that has been floating about. The most awful thing about this is that it is exactly the sort of delegitimising act that turns up time and again in Citizen, and the people doing it are just as ignorant of the effects of their actions.

So, to return to where we started: is this poetry? I am not going to answer that, because, as I have said, the author has already done so, and needs nobody else’s imprimatur.

I will, though, posit – as a thought experiment – a scenario in which a white man publishes a book in a similar form and ask you to tell me whether we would still be having this conversation. I would also like to wish you all the best for this year, the 125th anniversary of the death of Arthur Rimbaud.

 

[1] Alison Flood, ‘Citizen: Claudia Rankine’s anti-racist lyric essays up for Forward poetry award’, The Guardian, Monday 8th June 2015 (via thegusrdian.com, accessed 10/02/16).

[2][2] E.g. the incident reported in Adam Fitzgerald, ‘”That’s not poetry; it’s sociology!” – in defence of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen’, The Guardian, Friday 23rd October 2015 (via theguardian.com, accessed 10/02/16), or the anecdote I recently heard of a poet doubting its status due to its lack of “magic”. Perhaps the poet in question would have preferred The Hobbit – some parts of that even rhyme.

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