Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press 2014)
In the current instalment of his regular ‘Critic Watch’ feature in Sydney Review of Books, the formidable Ben Hetherington reflects on the state of poetry criticism in Australia. The article, ‘The Poet Tasters‘, is well worth reading, but I mention it here as an occasion to protest my ignorance. Hetherington says that all the reviewers he discusses seem to have taken ‘the same two courses at university: “British and Irish poetry from Wordsworth to Heaney” and “Modern American poetry from Whitman to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’”.’ Well, they have left me in their dust: I hadn’t read Heaney, or Larkin, or Ted Hughes-for-adults, before I started blogging, and I barely know how to pronounce L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (though I do know the meaning of ‘poetaster’, which Hetherington had to google).
One feature of my ignorance is that, deep in my heart, I want poetry to be about something. It’s no disparagement of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen that it definitely satisfies that desire: in a word, it’s about racism. It gets right inside that word and lights it up, makes it ultra-visible, ultra-clear, from death-by-a-thousand-cuts micro-aggressions to brutal murder.
In short pieces – prose poems / flash fictions / case studies – she gives us moments among friends or strangers when racism intrudes, the kind of thing a recent Beyond Blue anti-racism ad called ‘casual racism'; Claudia Rankine is much more incisive with her language than that. These moments are of a kind with the ‘joke’ made by the white MC at last year’s US National Book Awards. Claudia Rankine isn’t interested in stirring up a twitter-storm like the one that followed that remark: she wants something deeper than our outrage or our guilt, she’s trying to understand and invites us to join her.
A friend argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self’. By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest, and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.
That mightn’t look like poetry to you, but, what can I say: don’t let category problems put you off. If poetry is about language at its most intense then this book is the thing.
There’s a brilliant essay on Serena Williams’s moments of rage and exuberance on the tennis court, and a number of pieces about well publicised moments of brutal racism and sometimes violent reactions to it. Some of the latter are labelled as scripts ‘for Situation video[s] created in collaboration with John Lucas’. At least some of these videos are on line and well worth seeking out, but the scripts stand alone as prose poems. The one on Zinedine Zidane’s tragic moment at the 2006 World Cup works well on the page: much of it consists of quotations and here the sources are given as they aren’t in the video; and the pages’ illustrations do at least some of the work of the video. But even on a tiny browser window, the video packs an enormous wallop as Rankine reads the poem while those moments on the football field play out in stop motion over 6 minutes. Here’s a link: ‘October 10, 2006 / World Cup‘. As a public service, here are links to two more: ‘February 26, 2112 / In Memory of Trayvon Martin‘, ‘Stop-and-Frisk‘.
The book makes up for being typeset in an unpleasant sans-serif font on shiny paper by being illustrated by a number of brilliant and brilliantly apposite artworks. It has reached a much wider audience than usual for poetry, with more than 40 000 copies sold (though it’s not so easy to get in Australia – Gleebooks ordered my copy in from the US). It’s in the list of finalists for two of the US National Book Critics Circle Awards – poetry and criticism – the first book to have managed this. There’s coverage of its success on Harriet the Blog.