A FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW
Citizen: an American Lyric
by Claudia Rankine
By MICHELENE WANDOR.
CITIZEN COMES WITH a range of plaudits for being an outstanding collection of Claudia Rankine’s poetry. And yet, it is, strictly speaking, not poetry, even though there are a handful of pages with free verse lines set out on the page, and some inventive uses of spacing. That is not an adverse criticism; rather it is testimony to the fact that Rankine is daring in her challenges to imaginative form – poetry, prose, narrative and the relationship between form and content. This makes it occupy an uneasy position in a literary world which needs labels for its responses – even as the book certainly deserves the praise it has received.
There are seven numbered (and some unnumbered) sections, mainly with prose paragraphs, and some interspersed images, in colour, from art, and also with a black (!) and white (!) photograph of a public lynching. Together these explore what it is to be black in America, chronicling ‘the quotidian struggles against dehumanisation every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color’. Rankine makes no concession to euphemisms or alternatives – no use of ‘person of colour’, for example; she says ‘black’ when that is what she means. Also, in a telling context, she does not fear quoting the ‘n’ word, virtually with a note of defiance in her very use of the term, to show how prejudice and racial hostility are still very much present in many quarters, So even though the language throughout deploys repetition and subtle uses of rhythm (the explicit tropes of poetry) – this is clearly also a polemic.
The ‘lyric’ in the subtitle implies a first-person expressiveness. And, indeed, there is a self weaving through the pages, a self ironically constructed mainly via a second person voice – being a teenager, painful encounters with police, above all, what it is to be black in a world where hostility seems always to be not just round the next corner, but often there, full frontal.
In these moments the poetic resonates with the literary: ‘You said “I” has so much power; it’s insane’. This suggests a question about how identity can be expressed in language, and about how to place the self within stories which move from the subjective to the objective and back again. The ‘you’ and the ‘I’ are the same and different, both resonating within the same self, and within the same narrative. This subtly undermines the notion of the traditional ‘lyric’ expressing just individual emotions.
Not everything is directly about being black. Section 1V evokes the struggle to keep going, through hours and days, with a poetic repetition of ‘sigh’ and ‘sighing’. Here the self sometimes is part of the world (turning on the TV with the sound down) and sometimes not, and the mantra of the sigh is joined by the repetition of the occasional balancing ‘soothe’.
To return to the title. Does Citizen strike a triumphal note? In the text, the notion of the citizen shifts through social and emotional uncertainties. In the subtitle, ‘American’ may refer to specific geographical location, but alongside this, ‘citizen’ and ‘lyric’ are redolent with irony, as they struggle to find a place and space within the ‘American’.
How might this book be summed up? It could be described as a meditation, but given the spiritual connotations these days, that wouldn’t be appropriate. It is too active in its fierce challenges, constantly demanding more, different action. However, the book invites those who are receptive to think about, meditate on matters of race – primarily on what it is to be black in the Western world, and then, by implication, what it is to be white.
This book does not make for comfortable reading; it may be cathartic for some, because of its passion. It may challenge others to think about their own ethnic place in their world. Some may find it too uncomfortable to confront. One reviewer called it ‘an unsettled hybrid’. It is also unsettling. Its hybridity is one of the elements which makes it unsettling – at times content seems elevated over form, but the power of the writing and the mercurial structure mean it must be taken as a serious, contemporary literary and imaginative statement about the experience of race.
Michelene Wandor is a poet, playwright and short story writer. She has also written a critique of Creative Writing — The Author is Not Dead, Merely Somewhere Else: Creative Writing Reconceived (Palgrave).