Thoughts: Citizen, An American Lyric

The first half (give or take) of Claudia Rankine’s poetry collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, actually felt to me like a collection of short, flash fiction. It wasn’t until about that midpoint when the full force of Rankine’s work hit me and I suddenly understood what she had been doing. And it was powerful.

This collection hits particularly hard socially, right now, given all that’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it hits hard personally, too, because for weeks on end I’ve been unable to get Trayvon Martin out of my mind. I know we have lost a lot of young black men and women, and a lot of transgender black women. No, we haven’t lost them. They’ve been taken from us. And each and every one deserves justice. But it has been young Trayvon that I think about every day. The tribute Rankine pays him in this collection, the tribute she pays to so many, is hard to describe. It is a visceral experience even more than an emotional one, though of course the two go together. And Rankine’s genius is in the slow building momentum of her work, the kind that meets us where we are at the beginning and builds with us as we take in more, as we press forward despite the discomfort, as we too rage and cry, distraught, in the end. And she ends where perhaps a professor must: with a lesson. 

I think what I found most moving and profound about this work is the way Rankine weaves together the most mundane, seemingly innocuous acts of “everyday” racism with the more noteworthy ones. In the very beginning, for example, she includes alongside one of her poems a simple picture, as if taken glibly from someone’s cell phone camera. The photo shows a beautiful day in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. Near-center in the frame is typical street sign, bright green, at the crossroads of a neighborhood intersection. The sign reads, “Jim Crow Rd.” This is how Rankine works. She finds the most subtle, insidious reminders, the kinds we, most of us, might pass by day in and day out without much thought, and she drags our focus onto it, damning us and damning it together. And we deserve it because we’ve allowed so much to go unnoticed, unattended, uncorrected. 

Later, Rankine explores the more popular arenas, such as the spectacle of sports. Her love for tennis comes through in the way she writes about it, with such passion and such knowledge. But in her love she is forced to expose the deep faults and fatal flaws of a blatantly racist pastime. She takes us into the experiences of the Williams sisters, the mockery, the abuse, the psychological damage they faced for simply existing on the court and for being good. For being better than they should have been in a place where they shouldn’t have been. 

She connects these racist news events and these racist monuments and these racist pastimes with the personal moments of her life. The days at the office, the outings with her friends and colleagues, where even the pleasantries are miscast. She ponders freedom and language, memory and faith, life and death, with such careful precision that one feels the sting of the arrowhead’s penetration before we have even noticed Rankine drawing her bow. It is a difficult read because it is so effective, but it is an important read for the same reason. Rankine exposes us to ourselves.

“Words work as release,” she writes. “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–” (69). Rankine’s cry is somehow beautiful in its heartbreak and its rage.

What is ours? 

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