It’s another day, and there has been another black man killed by police officers. I did not intend for this review to coincide with Alton Sterling’s death, but here we are. Here I am hoping that literature can do something.
Citizen: An American Lyric is an award-winning book of poetry by Claudia Rankine that grapples with the experience of being black in America. Both in content and in form, this book defies boundaries. Rankine reaches into memory, criticism, popular culture, and history to navigate the day-to-day realities of inhabiting a black body, realities that, it seems, are always surrounded by these contexts. The subject matter ranges from micro-aggressions to historical violence, and Rankine uses poetry, artwork, and essays to move through these layers, making this book as multi-textual as it is multi-dimensional. The book is both thorough and deeply, achingly specific as the narrator of the poems reflects on what she experiences both in the news and in daily life. It’s eye-opening, sobering, and essential.
Rankine’s poems are often unsettlingly intimate. Through many of them, she explores micro-aggressions, little moments in the daily life of the poem’s subject that add up, in the course of each turned page, to a hostile world: small instances of great violence, that probably went unnoticed by most observers. Rankine further emphasizes the intimacy of these moments by speaking in the second person. This rude comment, this condescending argument, this shove on the subway, is continuously directed at you, the reader. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s meant to be. It forces the reader to imagine navigating situations like this day after day, and it becomes exhausting not only in its pointed aggression but in its sheer volume. For readers like me, who do not experience this daily, it’s disturbing and enlightening. For other readers, it must be all too familiar.
Rankine also writes about broader culture and history. One essay/poem explores the coverage of Serena Williams, the way she is understood as a celebrity and an athlete compared to her peers. Other pieces explore police brutality. Of course, in the book, as in life, the broader subjects are inextricably intertwined with the personal, and the form of the book captures this theme so well. It’s a difficult book to define, to simplify. The images used throughout the book work in this aim, as well. The artwork and photographs found amidst the poems are striking and resonant. Perhaps the most obvious example is the image used on the cover, an art piece which becomes tragically layered in its relevance and importance. At the time of this book’s publication, I saw the cover and immediately assumed it was in reference to Trayvon Martin: actually, the photograph is of an art piece entitled In The Hood by David Hammons, created in 1993. Of all the themes and questions this art piece raises, it has clearly also touched on an image of prejudice and fear that has long been with us, one that remains with us still.
It’s been difficult to write this review, and it was difficult to read this book. I have to hope that by reading and sharing books like this, by trying to learn and understand, we can begin to increase our empathy; I have to hope we can begin to change the narrative found within these pages. Perhaps the most haunting poem of the book begins with a list of names:
“In Memory of Jordan Russel Davis
In Memory of Eric Garner
In Memory of John Crawford
In Memory of Michael Brown […]”
This list, devastatingly, goes on, but halfway through the page the names stop. As the text itself lightens like a wisp of smoke, Rankine has filled the bottom of the poem with ready-made “In Memory” tags; the poem anticipates the next names, just waiting to be written by the next headline.
In Memory of Alton Sterling. May we please, someday, stop filling in this page.