Citizen: An American Lyric
In Claudia Rankine’s fifth book of poems, Citizen: An American Lyric, language does not have the last word. Rather, the final gesture belongs to image—first a reproduction of J. M. W. Turner’s bravura seascape The Slave Ship (c. 1840), followed by a detail of a dark-skinned limb thrusting desperately from the waves. Though I had seen these images before, I still found them visually arresting; they pair a dramatic historical representation with a selection from it which insists on the lived reality of people whose names have never been recorded. I have on several occasions used just this pairing (with a different but similar detail) to teach another work of poetry: M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2008 Zong!, a book-length counter-history in verse of the 1781 Zong massacre (a subject more recently approached earlier this year in Amma Asante’s period film Belle). Turner was thinking about the Zong when, seven years after the abolition of slavery, he painted The Slave Ship.
The story is as follows: in the fall of 1781, the slave ship Zong sailed for Jamaica from Africa’s western coast, carrying a cargo of 440 slaves. The ship lost course and began to run low on provisions. Captain Luke Collingwood knew that the voyage’s investors could make a claim under maritime insurance law for “lost property” if the slaves died, so the crew threw overboard 150 Africans who, under the law, could never be identified by name as victims of murder.
Citizen—like Zong!—is revolutionary in both its intention and its formal experimentation. For Philip, this involves ripping the poetic form and breaking down words and phrases into frenzied, overlapping, and grayed-out chunks of language, whipped across the white space of the page like body parts. Rankine, by contrast, uses a clean linearity, with blocks of text that evoke prose poems and, for at least one reviewer, suggest bureaucratic forms, such as the police log. To this reader, however, Rankine’s long narrative lines—especially deployed in description of the poet’s experience of racialized insults and micro-aggressions—read more like jeremiads in their angry lamentation of the moral and social ills that shape our era.
Citizen, which is a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, interrogates the textures of American racism with the same intensity Rankine applied to post-9/11 America in her last book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004). The two works share the subtitle “An American Lyric,” which Rankine recently told the Los Angeles Times is meant “to pull the lyric back into its realities.” Read through this lens, her encounters with the therapist who “mistakes” her for a trespasser and the colleague—“the woman with all the degrees”—who says, “I didn’t know black women could get cancer,” become a fiery, intimate reboot of “the personal is political.” Rankine’s cavalcade of micro-aggressions put the lie to the “micro” and demand that lyric be taken seriously as a sphere for articulating political critique.
The issue of voice is clearly of central importance to Rankine. In a move that suggests a lack of authentic dialogue about race in this country and also seems to invert the moves made by Alice Notley in The Descent of Alette (in which quotation marks are so numerous as to be meaningless or randomized), Citizen is largely devoid of quotation marks. There are, tellingly, scare quotes in one instance near the end of Part I around “the artist” and quotation marks in Part VI around President Obama’s oath of office.
Rankine’s formal experimentation and range of included genres—script, print, photograph, painting, verse, object—bespeaks a desire to unleash her voice in multiple. To exercise voice through a single medium incurs the risk of erasure, a risk called out explicitly early on in the text when Rankine describes the “medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism.” Those afflicted “achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.” The book is less experimental than experiential. It asks the reader to experience—via the prostheses of popular culture, media coverage, art objects, personal experience, and historical documentation—the full scale of wounds inflicted upon black men like Trayvon Martin and Martin Duggan and on Rankine herself, seemingly for existing. For being, as Rob Spillman put it in Guernica, “a creative black person in a white-dominated world.” In ways big and small, it closes in on the reader on all sides, everywhere; the entire book reads like a fortified counter-narrative to the gaslighter, the mansplainer, the post-racial political complex churning out the message that echoes at the beginning and end of Citizen: “Move on. Let it go. Come on.” Lest we mistake the meaning, she reveals how the veneer of performance in the age of Obama can rest on the smallest of words, the prepositional shift.
And what had been:
execute the office of President of the United States…”
execute the office of President to the United States…”
In this constellation, the body is an immutable mechanism of translation, “words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains.” Large or small, words are blades that cut or ropes that bind; they are also the source of Rankine’s power. “Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways in which you are present.” Elsewhere, she quotes Ralph Ellison: “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” In a rejoinder to the racist interpellations—“Hey you”; “Hey boy,”—we, the readers, are in turn suspended between erasure and empowerment. We experience the cognitive dissonance of seeking freedom while being a citizen in name only, of having an identity only in response to being hailed by those who dehumanize us. This suspension keeps us in a fog heightened visually by blank, empty, tethered spaces, text blocks, and a variability of stanzaic approach: couplet, tercet, single-line, paragraph.
Rankine is a poet who has been described by other poets as fearless, “troubling the boundaries between poetry and prose,” as Mark Doty wrote in praise of her 2013 selection as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. As she renders the borders of form unstable, each of the book’s weaknesses is also a strength. It immerses but does not smother: “All living is listening for a throat to open— / The length of its silence shaping lives.” It is elusive but leverages the polyvocal impact of other writers, such as Frantz Fanon and James Baldwin, and artists, including Carrie Mae Weems and photographer and filmmaker John Lucas. Part VI, which features a series of poems “Scripts for Situation Videos” made in collaboration with Lucas, is by far the most vibrant and surprising segment of the volume. The most assured and complex of these—“October 10, 2006 / World Cup”—juxtaposes photo reels of Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt of Italian Marco Materazzi alongside quotes from Maurice Blanchot, accounts of lip readers responding to transcripts, and Zidane’s own recitations of racist slurs levied against him throughout his career.
If Rankine constructs her most effective script from the raw material of Zidane’s anger and its cultural implications, she stages her most haunting tableau in “June 26, 2011 / In Memory of James Craig Anderson”:
Anderson, a plant worker in Jackson, Mississippi, was killed by a gang of white teenagers who ran him over in their Ford F250 screaming “White Power!” This stanza dramatizes the tension and slippage like that between the photograph, in which details document a specific scene, and the silhouette, in which a shape is gestured at but defined only by its outlines. And that’s the point: this scenario, set in 2011, might just as easily be taken from Robert Hayden’s 1950s poem “Night, Death, Mississippi,” the “White robes like moonlight / In the sweetgum dark.” This is still happening. And yet, Rankine reminds us, we are told: “Move on. Let it go. Come on.”
Citizen is fierce in its bid not only to portray fear but also to re-appropriate it in the dual service of political resistance and artistic creativity. That murky distinction is perhaps most tangibly expressed through Rankine’s use of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1928 essay “What It Feels Like to be Colored Me” and Glenn Ligon’s interpretation of it in his 1990 text painting Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background). Fear is the sharp white background. Thinking about Citizen, I am left most in mind of another of Zora Neale Hurston’s statements, from her memoir Dust Tracks on a Road. “Research is formalized curiosity,” Hurston writes, describing her work in anthropology and folklore. “It is poking and prying with a purpose.” As political polemic, Citizen could argue the same for poetry.
Jane Greenway Carr is an ACLS Public Fellow and Contributing Editor at New America. She is the editor of The Brooklyn Quarterly.