Citizen: An American Lyric
Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015
Therapy is exhausting. Bringing everything that is uppermost out for someone you pay to respond makes you doubly vulnerable — you relive traumas instead of repressing them, and you rely on a guide for empathy and reason as they support your attempt to make sense of what happens to you and how to change it. Not only do you voluntarily re-experience pain, but also your guide may well resemble a source of your traumas:
When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry. (Citizen, 25)
The counselor is a specialist in trauma counseling; the narrator doesn’t specify what sort of trauma she is working through, but the bulk of Claudia Rankine’s fifth book of poetry, Citizen, compiles moments that “send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx.” The second person voice is significant; a black subject speaks to a black reader, with others permitted to listen in on what Rankine overhears a white man say is “like watching a foreign film without translation”—the everyday experiences of black people. If it feels like a category disconnect to try to deal with racism, a systemic failure, with talk therapy, a personal mediation, keep feeling that.
The conflicts Rankine documents include brutal crimes and persistent denials, and if they feel relentless, look at the news. The sixth section of Citizen lists representative events and names: Katrina, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, “Long Form Birth Certificate,” Mark Duggan, Jordan Russell Davis. (Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley — all names we’ve learned since the publication of Citizen.) It is beyond heartless to say this is a lot of grief to process.
Rankine’s fourth book, 2004’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, was a visionary essay on cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, and Bush’s America. Before the ineffectual administrative response to Hurricane Katrina clarified for the entire world that, in Kanye West’s famous phrase, “George Bush does not care about black people,” Rankine wrote of coverage of Bush v. Gore:
All the non-reporting is a distraction from Bush himself, the same Bush who can’t remember if two or three people were convicted for dragging a black man to his death in his home state of Texas.
You don’t remember because you don’t care. Sometimes my mother’s voice swells and fills my forehead. Mostly I resist the flooding, but in Bush’s case I find myself talking to the television screen: You don’t know because you don’t care. (DLMBL, 21)
She anticipated the Obama era and its inevitable disappointments, speaking of:
a deepening personality flaw: IMH, The Inability to Maintain Hope, which translates into no innate trust in the supreme laws that govern us. Cornel West says this is what is wrong with black people today—too nihilistic. Too scarred by hope to hope, too experienced to experience, too close to dead is what I think. (DLMBL, 23)
The narrator of Lonely is an author struggling with depression while working on a book about the liver. Rankine calls attention to this deadpan pun, making it somehow possible to ignore that she is literally — explicitly — talking about feeling more dead than alive. Not as a metaphor or allegory, but as narration, as non-fiction. Given that depression is so horrific and pervasive (and that post-9/11 trauma was so openly and depressingly seized upon as a political opportunity) it’s unsurprising so many readers should find Rankine’s account of it reassuring. It is comforting to imagine some hero could walk that lonesome valley for us all. And yet part of what makes Lonely so appealing, with its interspersed photographs and digressions that feel involuntary and therefore real, is that it’s not redemptive, not hopeful, not disclosive. It calls to mind W.G. Sebald, whose books of similarly cool prose about personal and world-historical traumas also draw the reader in while agreeing to keep distance.
At first glance, the prose in Citizen could pass for that detached style. But there is clearly a desire, a wish at work here — it would be a mistake to call this new book optimistic, but it would also be a mistake not to see, in its narrator’s persistence, a stubborn hope.
In a pre-publication interview with The New Yorker, Rankine explains how the project got started:
I started working on “Citizen” as a way of talking about invisible racism—moments that you experience and that happen really fast. They go by at lightning speed, and you begin to distrust that they even happened, and yet you know that you feel bad somehow. My husband is a great fan, or used to be a great fan, of Tiger Woods, and so I started by watching a lot of golf tournaments. I am a great fan of the Williams sisters, and I would watch tennis. You began to see a lot of little moments, and they would happen, and they would happen, and they would happen, at the U.S. Open and at various other Grand Slams, and I thought, “I’m going to start documenting these.”
And as I began documenting them in Serena Williams’s playing life, I started doing it in my own life. Then I started interviewing people and asking them for stories in their lives. I specifically said, to people I met and to friends, “Tell me a moment when you suddenly found yourself feeling invisible or internally unsettled by something that came down to a moment that you then read as racism, but I want it to happen between you and a friend.” I didn’t really care too much about what people were doing in Ferguson, at this level. I meant in their day-to-day working lives. And then, as people began to tell me stories, I began to see it in my own life, everywhere, happening, and I just started writing them down.
When she works in this vein, assembling these moments with the ever-intensifying one-thing-after-another logic of an Alan Clarke film, the effect is overwhelming and undeniable. Two of the book’s seven sections are entirely in this concrete, empathy-engaging mode, and most of the other sections segue into it; it is the discursive plain style of Lonely turned not to depressive alienation but the self-preservation that is the positive outcome of crying out in pain. In a tradition stretching back through Anglo-American writing to its Shakespearean wellspring, Rankine alternates between tropes of positive light, whiteness, and visibility and negative gloom, darkness, and invisibility, occasionally returning to repeated phrases to emphasize for the reader the weirdness of these encounters:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
To stay alive in these moments of unbelievable conflict, Rankine’s speakers turn the tables with questions: “What did you say?” “There I go?” “What do you mean?” “Exactly, what do you mean?” “What is wrong with you?” “Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that?” “Where were the buses?” “Did you see their faces?” “What feels more than feeling?” “Did you win?” In Rankine’s account, the questions don’t generally succeed in making whites conscious that they are giving offense to other human beings, but they do protect her speakers’ humanity. Under the circumstances, it’s a start.
Rankine is not settling for a start, though. She calls in enough outside material for a graduate seminar — theorists Orlando Patterson and Lauren Berlant, artists Glenn Ligon and Carrie Mae Weems, not to speak of the audiovisual references. Even as she despairs of making any change in the situations she describes, Rankine advertises for films and videos that address her main subject: social death, the constant dehumanization of blacks. The epigraph comes from near the beginning of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. The book is dedicated to the four Akron men who are the subject of her husband John Lucas’s documentary film, The Cooler Bandits; convicted of a series of armed robberies in which no one was injured, they received combined sentences more than 500 years. The first section in the book not in the second person is an account of Hennessy Youngman’s art world satires on youtube. There is a several-page long explication of the video of the headbutt that came at the very end of Zinedine Zidane’s professional career. And the conclusion of the book discusses Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, a film that, like Citizen, attempts to bridge prosaic narrative and lyrical emoting.
It is possible to read Citizen without watching any of these films — the pictures Rankine draws are moving enough on their own — but the films reinforce the points, both general and specific, that the text stakes itself on. Rankine appears to be less interested in creating a definitive artifact than in prompting a conversation that will sustain itself long after the reader has finished her book.
It feels absurd, a category error, to appraise the aesthetics of a book that is explicitly about ethics. To indulge for a moment in the American pathology of caring about prizes at the expense of valuing one’s own judgment, it may be that Citizen has not won all the awards it’s been a finalist for precisely because of this category problem; the National Book Critics Circle has Citizen as a finalist for both criticism and poetry. Appraisal is, however, part of the reviewer’s job. There is a tone change in Citizen, where Rankine shifts back to the mode of her books before Lonely—a lyrical style I have trouble parsing, possibly because the references fall outside of my range of experience, possibly because the shift from the essayistic mode can be bumpy:
Yesterday called to say we were together and you were bloodshot and again the day carried you across a field of hours, deep into dawn, back to now, where you are thankful for
what faces you, the storm, this day’s sigh as the day shifts its leaves, the wind, a prompt against the calm you can’t digest.
Blue ceiling calling a body into the midst of azure, oceanic, as ocean blushes the blues it can’t absorb, reflecting back a day
the day frays, night, not night, this fright passes through the eye crashing into you, is this you? (Citizen, 80)
I’m not moved by “the midst of azure, oceanic, as ocean blushes the blues” but it’s good enough, and besides, it serves a purpose. About 30% of the book is this mode of personal processing of the moments the rest of the book presents, which on my first reading felt considerably too much. I was wrong; these stretches of purely metaphorical affect work do make it easier to keep reading the painful parts. There’s a placeholder quality to these sections, though; I’m not persuaded that the mild dislocations of expected meanings she marshals here make feeling and meaning happen at the level of her prose — “Yesterday” doesn’t usually call anyone, “now” isn’t a place, and the music of “day” “fray” “night” “fright” is halfway to a different kind of suggestiveness than what is evoked by objects passing through eyes and crashing. It’s possible to listen to these passages, and to paraphrase back what appears to be the intention, but I doubt very much that they will be heard as well as when Rankine speaks out.
These painful parts, this speaking out, are what I imagine will continue to draw readers to Citizen long after the award season is forgotten.