Review of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, 2014. 169 pp. $20.00, paper.

Six chapters into her latest book, Claudia Rankine writes, “It is the White Man who creates the black man. But it is the black man who creates…This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.” Beautiful, she writes, and I repeat it to myself. Again. Reading this moment in Rankine’s work, I feel as if I’ve earned something, as if she is finally offering me, the reader, the consolation I’ve hungrily and anxiously been waiting for since the book’s terse epigraph from Sans Soleil: “If they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black.” But full consolation doesn’t ever seem possible or even desirable for the speaker, such as when the “new therapist [who] specializes in trauma counseling” answers her front door and yells at the speaker, “Get away from my house,” and, “What are you doing in my yard?” only to be chastened by the realization that this nonwhite trespasser is actually her new client. In consolatory reply, the therapist utters the ineffectual apology: “I am so sorry, so so sorry” to the silent speaker. Thus ends the first section of Rankine’s book. We realize that consolation never counts in moments when people fail to see you.

What is consolation in these times? What does it mean? Is it even a viable option for those who have been disenfranchised to the point of death and continual dying, to the African American and nonwhite “others” in America who fail to even be recognized as full citizens? Throughout her book, Rankine challenges her audience to recognize the inadequateness and emptiness of our culture’s consolatory moves, drawing attention to the inability of our country to provide solace to a suffering body of disjointed yet persistently entwined citizens. Rankine continues her use of the lyric form from her 2004 collection, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In this new collection she continues to meditate on race, gender, sports, popular culture, celebrity, and the intersections of these cultural forms, to further pursue the limits of poetry in spanning the gap between experience and language, images and words.

Citizen is a text that extends beyond words, to visual language and rhetoric, the way things appear to the artist’s eye, how pictures, modern art, and images work in conjunction with text, verse, and prose—these mediums work together to constitute something beautiful yet brutal. The word as image and the image as word are Rankine’s tools, and she mines both mediums elegantly and resonantly, as a skillful and humane curator of cultural artifacts as diverse as YouTube videos and French art house films. Indeed, Rankine has said in an interview with Lauren Berlant, “The use of images in Citizen is meant in part to destabilize the text so both image and text would always have possibilities, both realized and unimagined by me, beyond my curating powers.” Her choice and arrangement of visuals, then, are never perfunctory, yet they are always doing potentially more than she could imagine. They complement her lyric language, magnifying and highlighting moments where words perhaps don’t suffice. For example, in section six she writes in memory of Trayvon Martin, “Those years of and before me and my brothers…accumulate into the hours / inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope / inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat / sliced through…” This graphic lynching scene finds its complement on the opposite page, with a black and white archival photograph from 1930 depicting a group of white people looking up at a dark, shadowy tree. Only the tree’s trunk is visible within the frame of the shot, leaving it up to the viewer to imagine what the people are looking up at. The photograph is entitled Public Lynching. The title of the image makes it clear what they are looking at, but this photograph, like Rankine’s adjacent poem, refuses to make a spectacle of her citizen’s body.

Formally, Citizen is divided into seven chapters or sections, mirroring the structure of a week and reinforcing the quotidian focus of her poems. Even before these sections begin, however, the book focuses its view on the American justice system. It is dedicated to Donovan Harris, Charles Kelly, Frankie Porter, and Richard Roderick, four African American men from Cleveland, Ohio, sentenced to astonishingly long prison sentences for a non-violent robbery in 1991. Immediately, then, the book begins by raising the issue of the criminalization of marginalized citizens such as these men, attaching real names and people to Rankine’s titular Citizen. Later, in perhaps her most explicit mention of police militancy, she writes, “because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.” On the opposite page the reader is presented with a list of commemorations, vertically cascading down the page in progressively fading black ink: “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis / In Memory of Eric Garner / In Memory of John Crawford / In Memory of Michael Brown / In Memory / In Memory / In Memory / In Memory…” Rankine’s book memorializes these disenfranchised African American men who never got their full rights, the ones guaranteed by citizenship. Or is it that they never had these rights at all? Rankine refuses to be consoled by glossy or politically correct fictions of equality and justice for all, and it is in these moments of defiant anguish and unflinching critique of America’s current race crisis that her book resonates at its loudest.

The “American lyric” portion of her book’s title is expressed through her line break–eschewing poetry and liminal aesthetic modes of prose, personal essay, and cultural criticism, all of which she balances with poise and aplomb. Her prose-like yet persistently lyrical writing is interspersed with paintings, sculptures, art installations, and photographs that illustrate and elaborate on her meditative poetics. Each section seems to flow seamlessly into the next, with the repetitive color (non-color?) scheme of black, white, and [insert primary color] framing each poetic interlude. There are intentional spots of blank space throughout the collection’s pages, with certain visuals occupying only the bottom half of a page, leaving swaths of white space open to reader’s imagination or perhaps reprieve. While each section break could seem coincidental or random, I would argue that Rankine is conscientious in every choice of word, image placement, and page/section break, because by the end of her lurching work, we are left with a strangely unsettling sense of being moved, not by conventional sentiment or standard tragedy, but by the carefully curated artistry of a poet whose pursuit of the now forsaken American promise is as unrelenting as the break of every new day.

The daily thrust of living and the inability to escape the quotidian are the meat for Rankine’s speaker’s appetite, an appetite she describes as not “attach[ing] you to anything no matter how / depleted you feel.” So when she notes, in the penultimate section of her book, that “[t]his endless struggle” to be and become human “contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful,” the readerly payoff is one of paradox, unyielding to the reader’s desire for full catharsis but still productive of some type of bitter release. And maybe that’s all we can hope for, Rankine seems to be saying here: for something beautiful to behold amidst the “undesired desired encounter[s]” of the day-to-day. And maybe the only way to deal with the present is to embrace the tautological but persistently real paradox that “[t]he state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.”

Joey S. Kim is a PhD student in English at The Ohio State University. Her literary interests include British Romantic poetry, gender and sexuality studies, and postcolonial literature. She is particularly interested in the intersections of theories of sexuality and Orientalist literatures. She currently teaches composition and literature courses at OSU and serves on the English department’s Diversity and Inclusion committee as a graduate student representative.