‘A New Way of Writing About Race’

John Lucas
Claudia Rankine, New York City, 2014

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen opens:

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.

The reader is forewarned: what follows will explore what happens when the “devices” are switched off, not just the smart phone or the iPad, but techniques of evasion and compromise that let the poet exist in the present. There’s also the suggestion that the repudiated “devices” are poetic, rhetorical tricks that ornament or soften. Accordingly, Rankine’s language is prose, plain, direct, conversational, though simultaneously uncanny and reverberant, continually wrongfooting the reader, swapping referents, mixing the physical and metaphysical at will. (It’s not just “you” “stacked among your pillows” but the past itself.)

Told mostly through a series of “micro-aggressions” (the term coined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe unconscious insults nonblack Americans aim at black people), Citizen is a circuitous and intimate descent into the poet’s past in order to examine race in America. Some of the incidents happen to the poet, some are reports from friends. Rankine writes almost exclusively in the second-person present, a tense that implicates as it includes, endowing events with a sense of immediacy and urgency.

As in her last book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004, with which it shares a subtitle, An American Lyric), Citizen combines commentary, “lyric essays,” reproductions of artworks, frequent quotation from artists and critics (including Frederick Douglass, Chris Marker, Claire Denis, Ralph Ellison, and Frantz Fanon), scripts for films, and an eight-page lined poem (section VII). Rankine’s writing is, to borrow Jack Spicer’s phrase, “a collage of the real,” and doesn’t lend itself easily to short excerpts. The force of her work (and it has plenty) is mostly achieved incrementally, drawing meanings from cumulative patterns, in a tone almost flat, resigned, but punctuated with moments of emotion: rage, exhaustion, disgust. The impression is of an intensely sensitive writer—in both senses—trying to confront the mess of modern America with a clear critique. In a historic first, Citizen was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in both poetry and criticism and on March 12 won the award for poetry.

At the core of Citizen is an “anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.” In “Making Room,” Rankine writes:

On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it….


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