Citizen: An American Lyric

I’ve known Claudia Rankine’s name for years but, as a not reader of poetry, it’s always been a sort of back burner name for me. But every once in a while, I do decide to try some poetry (and have enjoyed collections from Joy Harjo and Jericho Brown, though I’d by no means consider myself a genre-convert or knowledgeable poetry reader). A few weeks ago, I checked this this one out to a patron at the library and that sort of inspired me to add myself to the holds list for when they brought it back. And, here we are, with my (maybe third ever?) poetry review.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

There’s not really a “plot summary” or other type of synopsis to give here, like I do with fiction/nonfiction, so I guess I’ll just jump right into the review? This is a fascinating piece of nonfiction, a sort of combination or lyrical essays and more “traditional” poetry, alternating back and forth and sort of interspersed. It is, in that stylistic sense, truly unlike anything else I’ve ever read before. I also have to say that I’m glad I didn’t try to read this earlier. This is the type of poetry that I think is less accessible, or feels less accessible to people; or to not speak for others, this is the type of poetry that intimidates me as a reader. The pieces that leant more towards essay, but with a very rhythmical type writing to it, were fine. I felt like I “got” them. But the parts with a more traditional poetry presentation, short lines and broken sentences and advanced wordplay and aesthetic structure, those parts did make me react like…like I wasn’t smart enough to understand them. (The same goes, for me, very much, for the majority of the art that is interspersed throughout. But the visual dimension was interesting and unique, regardless of my personal “understanding.”) And I had to work hard within myself to read through that feeling, to accept the feeling, the message, behind the words, even if individually I didn’t necessarily follow them all. So, the reason I’m glad I waited to read Rankine, to read a collection like this, is because I needed to be objectively confident enough of myself as a reader to respect that the point is not for me to “get” everything, but to absorb and experience. And that’s growth I needed to make, a reflection on me and not the work itself, so I want to make that clear. But it is what it is, and I feel like it’s important to share, in case you too might be intimidated by poetry. I encourage you to go for it, to just keep reading, to just…sense…this work.

As for the topical aspects, phew. This is a heavy collection. Rankine looks at and dissects lived racism with a hyper focus on lingual aggressions and microaggressions and the reality of living and internalizing them. From sports to media to law enforcement brutality to interpersonal interactions, Rankine’s words illustrate absolutely the individual weight of racism in America – the scars and injury and intergenerational trauma that are inevitable for each Black person in America, and the ways that, as “citizens,” they are forced to suppress reactions to that inescapable and constant burden. The whole volume really centers around this reality, but section vii in particular, highlighting the way our country criminalizes/marginalizes being Black from natural disaster to police brutality to even the places where Black is, outwardly, lauded (sports), is a gut punch of lived racism page after page and was particularly tough to read.

Rankine’s exploration and meditation on the person-less-ness and displacement of living in a situation where you feel, you know, the cumulative of historic and current racism, but must constantly question because of gaslighting about your own experiences, is intense. Although, as I said, there were a number of individual moments where I felt like the content, the details, went over my head, I cannot deny the feelings this collection left me with and that, I believe, is the power in poetry.  

A lot of passages that hit hard while I read this one, so here’s just a couple:

“Perhaps this is how racism feels not matter the context – randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you, and to call this out by calling out ‘I swear to God!’ is to be called insane, crass, crazy.”

“I do not always feel colored. I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background.”

“…just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.”

“Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice.”

“The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.”

“Appetite won’t attach you to anything no matter how depleted you feel.”

“because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying”

“A feeling that feelings might be irrelevant if they point to one’s irrelevance pulls at you.”

“That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping. / That’s the bruise the ice in the heart was meant to ice. / To arrive like this every day for it to be like this to have so many memories and no other memory than these for as long as they can be remembered to remember this.”

3 thoughts on “Citizen: An American Lyric

  1. I’m glad you warned me about the advanced wordplay and stuff. I honestly rarely if ever read traditional poetry, so I think I’ll try something else first before I dive into this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely was intimidated. But I’m also really glad I read it and would encourage people to try it. Just…my advice would be to not get bogged down in the word to word specifics and focus instead on the whole and the messages that way.

      Liked by 1 person

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