Claudia Rankine: “Some years there exists a wanting to escape…”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Citizen won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award in 2014 and took the poetry world by storm. Everyone was, and still is, talking about it. I’ve been wanting to feature it for some time but was challenged by the fact that the book is essentially one long poem and so poses formatting challenges for this column. In his New Yorker review, Dan Chiasson describes Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf 2014) as “a book-length poem about race and the imagination,” noting that “Rankine has called it an attempt to ‘pull the lyric back into its realities.’” For her and many others, these realities include pernicious racism—not just the police brutality making recent headlines, but also the constant, pervasive insults inflicted every day even (or especially) where explicit discrimination has been outlawed. Harvard professor Chester Pierce calls these acts micro-aggressions,” now understood to cause severe emotional injury and even physical illness in a syndrome known as “John-Henryism.” Citizen recounts such incidents experienced by the speaker and others, affronts so casual as to generate a kind of did-that-just-really-happen? incredulity in the moment, but later, they torment and poison the mind. A therapist bars the door when the speaker shows up for an appointment, a colleague complains about the University’s perceived pro-minority hiring practices, and current events daily make new ghosts of murdered young black men. Most often, the incidents are told in the second-person “you,” a point of view that implicates as it includes, and in the present, a tense that conveys immediacy, relevance, and urgency.

Chiasson calls Citizen “a weave of artfully juxtaposed intensities, a quarrel within form about form”—specifically, lyric poetry. [Id.] The quarrel mirrors a struggle in the black psyche between a personal, individual identity housed in the physical body and a broader historical self. It is that second self which challenges the lyric’s traditional territory as exclusively personal and outside the scope of politics. [Id.] Citizen’s monologues are intensely personal and political, capturing what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” “You are you even before you,” Rankine says in today’s excerpt, a Stein-like tautology that isolates at least two separate “yous” within one anima. As today’s excerpt makes painfully clear, peering into the divided self is sometimes difficult, confusing, and circular.

Citizen is a new kind of lyric, one that can capture singular and universal experience, and its structure is likewise a new animal. Part verse, part prose, interwoven with material from postcolonial theory, pop culture, and the news together with artwork and other graphic representations, it creates a collage. Some pages feature rectilinear language blocks that recall the prose poem. Chiasson suggests some alternative, nonliterary  models: “the police log, the journal entry, or—a new form familiar to anybody who visits student unions—the confession board papered with anonymous note cards [Id.].”

Lyric poetry attempts to capture a moment in time rather than a chain of events, the focus less on what happened than on how the speaker perceives what happened, and according to Wikipedia, it “expresses personal emotions or feelings, typically spoken in the first person.” One way Rankine reinvents it is by writing lines that incorporate (or resemble) prose, described above. Another is using a second-person “you” in place of the traditional “I” point of view. Another is her choice of  subject. Generally in lyric poems, we expect the past to return with uncanny intensity to the present, in a way that often effects transformation and makes it new. Rankine’s project, though, is less to make it new than to make her material—the historic black dilemma of soul-killing invisibility and body-threatening hypervisibility—clear, unequivocal, and documented. If anything is new here, it is the reader’s realization that racism is old news or, as one reviewer says, “what passes as news for some (white) readers is simply quotidian lived experience for (black) others.” (Source: “Claudia Rankine’s ‘Citizen,’” by Holly Bass, in The New York Times.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics distinguishes between lyric, narrative, and dramatic forms (some call them “modes” or “subgenres”) of poetry: “Traditionally the lyric expressed personal emotion; the narrative propelled characters through a plot; the dramatic presented an enactment.” [PEP, eds. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, University of Princeton Press, 1993, 304]. All three can overlap in a single poem, and how to characterize a given piece tends to boil down to which one predominates. This week’s excerpt is a lyric, capturing a moment in time that is an amalgam of experience, thought, and memory. Other parts of Citizen feel more narrative, and still others like dramatic scenes. In the end, the book blurs these distinctions and is powerful enough to make me wonder if, or why, they even matter.

Citizen is divided into seven sections with no index or table of contents and without titles to separate and ground individual poems. The effect is “flow,” mimicking lived experience, so that reading Citizen can be like watching a film or live performance. In today’s excerpt, the sense is of listening in on the thoughts and feelings of a speaker deeply wounded by racism and trying to negotiate a way to live. Rankine’s approach—using contemporary, accessible diction in a stream-of-consciousness that, like thought, does not always observe the formal rules of syntax and punctuation—opens a remarkable window onto her speaker’s experience. Her decision to push the boundaries of form may be a strategy for making that experience more accessible for non-black readers:

The challenge of making racism relevant, or even evident, to those who do not bear the brunt of its ill effects is tricky. Rankine brilliantly pushes poetry’s forms to disarm readers and circumvent our carefully constructed defense mechanisms against the hint of possibly being racist ourselves. [Bass, Id.]

Citizen recounts microaggressions and worse experienced by Rankine and her friends, mostly accomplished black professionals and academics, narrators who might be presumed to be free of the disadvantages of race. Rankine exposes the lie, teaching us that no American citizen—black or white—is unaffected by this country’s ingrained and institutional racism. In one interview, she explains how she worked with the anecdotes and experiences that gave rise to Citizen:

They really stand as they were told to me. I chose language and decided not to include certain details, but more or less these are the stories that either I experienced or I was told. And I wanted a feeling of accumulation. I really wanted the moments to add up because they do add up. I wanted to come up with a strategy that would allow these moments to accumulate in the reader’s body in a way that they do accumulate in the body. And the idea that when one reacts, one is not reacting to any one of those moments. You’re reacting to the accumulation of the moments. I wanted the book, as much as the book could do this, to communicate that feeling. The feeling of saturation. Of being full up. I wanted it to be simulacra.” [Meara Sharma interview for Guernica]

That notion of “accumulation” is key. Through reading Citizen, we get an idea not just of what it must be like to be the victim of racism, but also what it’s like to suffer it day in and day out, in a million subtle and not-so-subtle ways, for all the years of your life. And additionally, to carry its genetic and emotional memory in your body.

I am thinking now about the presentation of an experience of pain, as seen in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poem “The Slave Mother,” featured here last week, and the pure expression of pain. Expression of intense emotion is the traditional province of the lyric, and today’s poem is like a cry embodying the pain of racial injustice. Immured in the privilege of my white heritage, I cannot fathom it. But the intensity of this outcry, and its beauty, penetrate me. To feel real empathy—to feel another’s pain as a version of pain in our own bodies—requires a closer connection, and this is what Citizen does: It strips the layers between the reader and the author’s visceral experience of pain. It’s the difference between hearing a story about someone who is injured and actually seeing the blood and hearing the cries.

Diction and syntax are so open that any given line opens into many interpretative possibilities. For example, “Don’t say I if it means so little” in today’s excerpt could be the speaker admonishing herself to eschew, as Citizen does, the first-person pronoun. It could also be the speaker telling personified Black History not to be hypocritical by using a first-person pronoun when its own narrative is one of such utter individual negation. And it could also be a form of direct address, explaining to the reader why Rankine uses “you” for “I.”

In this excerpt (and in all of Citizen), “you” can mean a number of things. It can mean the speaker’s self and also the divided self, the meta-consciousness that allows the speaker to observe herself and to think about herself thinking—examples of the “first-person you,” the speaker using that pronoun the way another poet might use “I.” From Rankine’s interviews, we know that “you” is also used more conventionally to refer to an actual separate, second person (in this case, personified Black History) more proximate to the speaker than a third-person he, she, or they. “You” is an expansive pronoun, especially in Rankine’s hands, and in Citizen it also represents the “universal” you that (like the “collective we”) allows a poet to speak for an entire group of marginalized and oppressed people. Finally, some instances of “you” in today’s excerpt feel like a direct address to me, the reader: injunctions like “Wait,” “Call that,” “Don’t say,” and usages that make me feel called out to—or called out—like the repetitions of “Hey you.” Point of view, it seems, is elastic and malleable, particularly when forged in a consciousness that history has been determined to negate.

This is what Rankine has to say about her decision to write most of Citizen in the second person:

There were a number of things going on. Because some of the situations were mine and some belonged to other people, I didn’t want to own them in the first person, because I didn’t own them, factually.

But that was the least of it. The real issue was, the second person for me disallowed the reader from knowing immediately how to position themselves. I didn’t want to race the individuals. Obviously [the reader] will assume—“She’s black, he must be white,” etc.—but I wanted those assumptions to be made. Because you know, amid this post-racial thing, sometimes I’ll have a student who says, “I don’t really think about race. I don’t see race.” And then I’ll ask, “Well, how do you read this?” And they say, “Oh, that’s a black person, that’s a white person.” So clearly, you’re race-ing these people in order to understand this dynamic. I wanted that positioning to happen for readers.

I also found it funny to think about blackness as the second person. That was just sort of funny. Not the first person, but the second person, the other person [laughs]. [From Guernica]

When asked whether using the first person might have risked allowing white readers to read Citizen as a memoir—that is, a story that happened to someone else that does not involve them— Rankine replied:

Exactly. I felt that the first person would have deactivated the scene. Because I think of the described dynamics as a fluid negotiation. I don’t think these specific interactions can happen to the black or brown body without the white body. And there are ways in which, if you say, “Oh, this happened to me,” then the white body can say, “Well, it happened to her and it has nothing to do with me.” But if it says “you,” that you is an apparent part of the encounter. [Id.]

At its outset, today’s excerpt establishes the first dichotomy of “yous” described above:

Some years there exists a wanting to escape—

you, floating above your certain ache—

still the ache coexists.

Call that the immanent you—

These lines introduce the concept of an “immanent you”—the identity generated by a person’s history, predating them and with them for all their moments on earth. For this speaker, the immanent you is Black History. She bears a double load of pain, her own and that of her forbears, and both are aspects of the identity she calls “you.” The poem continues:

You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless,

not worth you.

“You are you even before you” is another example of a line that yields an abundance of meanings. Read alone, it references the history that predates and determines any person’s life, Black History in this speaker’s life. Reading on, we learn of another, narrower meaning. “You are you even before you  / grow into understanding you” suggests that a person’s identity is formed even before they begin to understand who or what that identity is; one interpretation for me might be that I am who I am (racially privileged) whether or not I am yet “woke” to my own unconscious biases. In the context of this speaker, black Americans are who they are even before they are brought, sometimes forcibly, into an understanding that this country views them as “not anyone, worthless.” The dawning of this realization creates a terrible internal schism, and the lines below capture the paradox of existence and negation:

Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.

The rift is between “I am here-ness” asserting its existence and “nonexistence,” later called the world’s “furious erasure.” Meta-consciousness is the post-modern dilemma, and the feeling of a divided self is, to some extent, arguably universal, but Rankine’s particular point is that people whom history has tried to “erase” are forced to suffer a uniquely fractured identity, a terrible, scarring wound:

You are not sick, you are injured—

you ache for the rest of life.


How to care for the injured body,

the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?

And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?

The first time I read Citizen, I kept putting it down. At some point, though, it occurred to me that some readers never, ever get to put that book down. So, I finished it, read it again, then did some thinking about why I initially found it hard to read. One obvious reason is the book’s painful content, and another is the inescapable awareness of my own complicity in causing that pain; without distancing devices such as stylized poetic form or distancing points of view, the subject matter comes uncomfortably close. Another challenge is what Reginald Shepherd calls “formal difficulty,” where the writer breaks the implied contract with the reader, upsetting their expectations for a given piece of writing. People experiencing formal difficulty may say “I don’t recognize this as a poem” and shut down, in the same way that some viewers cannot see Jackson Pollock paintings as ‘art.’ [“On Difficulty and Poetry” by Reginald Shepherd, The Writer’s Chronicle, May/Summer 2008] When we see the word “lyric,” we expect something tradition has taught us to expect: a short poem with highly condensed language that captures a moment in time, usually accompanied by intense emotion and often with figurative language meant to re-create the sensory experience that sparked the poem. The language of Citizen is condensed and pungent, but the poem is book-length, and instead of capturing a single moment, it captures the million moments of alienation and annihilation that constitute black contemporary experience in America. In the end, it made me think differently about the lyric, as something that can create what Rankine calls “simulacra”—virtual reality simulating actual experience. I finally decided that the real definition of a lyric is just this: a human outcry that resonates in the body of the reader.

The poems in Citizen do not lend themselves to neat encapsulations on a page, and like Whitman, they “contain multitudes”—there is just so, so much here in terms of history and thought and feeling. The form of the work—open, resilient, and spinning one continuous thread—has the tensile strength, and stickiness of an orb weaver’s web. The more we struggle against the material, the more it tightens on and entraps us, reminding me that spider silk is used in the construction of parachutes and bulletproof vests. Maybe like those things, books like Citizen can save us.

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  • Annette Seidenglanz February 24, 2019 at 10:51 am

    It only takes a moment to step outside the comfort of the illusion of security – these poems take you there, easily. But then further to take away black/white and put things right.

  • Annette Seidenglanz February 24, 2019 at 10:51 am

    It only takes a moment to step outside the comfort of the illusion of security – these poems take you there, easily. But then further to take away black/white and put things right.