Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Graywolf Press, 2014; 169 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
In recent years, Claudia Rankine has transitioned from writing poetry that’s easily identifiable as such to producing works whose very form is open to interpretation. Usually, this leads critics to interpret her work as purposefully disorienting or disarming due to her incorporation of many different art forms. After reading Citizen, Rankine’s latest book, I find it easy to agree with this interpretation even though, upon reflection, it strikes me as a strangely unsatisfying one. Citizen is certainly an amalgam of verse, prose, and images. However, something about the poet’s sense of purpose leaves me with the distinct impression that the sum of Citizen’s parts amount to a form we’re expected to recognize. The disorientation we experience from moment to moment in her work ought to be familiar. Rankine’s use of the second person implies as much (the protagonist is consistently referred to as “you”). More to the point, Rankine’s subject matter remains so consistent throughout the book’s various forms, I find it difficult to accept that the disorientation we experience when reading it is anything less than congenital. With Citizen, Rankine is successfully probing the pervasive malignancy of a peculiarly American form of trauma.
If the racial tumult and civil rights successes of the mid-20th century taught us anything, they taught us that American racism is paradoxically at its most vulnerable when it’s expressed most furiously. This is why acts of civil disobedience of that era were usually designed to bring racist fervor to a boil. While the boiling over of racism in our country did shame us into enacting some important reforms, it also left us with a fetid mess that’s been running down society in felt but mostly unseen places ever since. This is the mess that traumatizes and disorients us. Rankine uses it to unite Citizen’s disparate elements even though she seems to know that we barely have the stomach for it. In one of the book’s early moments, the narrator alerts readers to the fact that “puke runs down your blouse.” The protagonist is reacting to an encounter with “the wrong words” as one would to the taste of “a bad egg.” The mess is collecting within Rankine’s unnamed citizen even as her body rejects it. The narrator assures her: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s / buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
Much of Citizen reads like free verse, and there are many brief scenes featuring characters who find themselves, perhaps unexpectedly, in messy encounters. This often happens when a character who ought to know better (say, a therapist who “specializes in trauma counseling,” or a “woman with multiple degrees”) obliviously says something racially insensitive, betrays an embarrassing racial prejudice, or simply diminishes the protagonist by association when giving an opinion on affirmative action or noting that certain jokes just aren’t funny if they’re told “out in public where black people could hear.” These stanzas are ambiguous without being ambivalent, arguably matching the current state of our national discussion of racism. We agree on how to feel about the problem but we crucially disagree about its manifestations.
Rankine isn’t afraid to leave ambiguity behind. Whole sections of Citizen open up into intriguing social commentary on the plight of identified individuals like Serena Williams, Mark Duggan, Trayvon Martin and others. Sometimes, this commentary comes in straightforward prose paragraphs. Rankine cites James Baldwin and Judith Butler almost as if she were writing an academic essay. She means to be persuasive, but I would caution readers who expect Citizen to be capable of shaking them out of their preconceived notions, especially when it comes to high profile cases of unarmed black men being killed either by police or fellow civilians. I’m not so certain that this book will do that. The book’s persuasiveness comes from Rankine’s ability to demonstrate the many ways that racism has made us literally sick. She notes that Sherman James developed the term “John Henryism” to describe the costly coping strategy associated with the belief that it’s possible to achieve oneself out of from under the pressures of racism. Readers may go into Rankine’s book thinking such a thing to be absurd but the citizen that she describes throughout her lyric, the one she refers to consistently as “you,” definitely suffers from an acute case.