CITIZEN: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine

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.

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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.

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HOLD YOUR OWN by Kate Tempest

I first encountered London-based musician and writer Kate Tempest showcased on an episode of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” podcast. Her song “The Beigeness” became part of my regular rotation, especially when I needed some extra motivation. When I encountered her poetry book Hold Your Own at random in a bookstore, I was delightfully surprised. I knew that within its pages I would find Tempest’s completely original voice, filled with memorable phrases and a distinct sense of rhythm. I was right about this, but I hadn’t anticipated how deeply thoughtful this work would be. It’s an intelligent and sharp examination of some of the most pertinent political issues of our day.

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In Hold Your Own, Tempest explores issues of gender, identity, and the strain that society’s expectations put on our humanity. She explores these issues through the framework of the literary figure of Tiresias, a prophet who lived as both a man and a woman. Tempest uses his legend to organize her poems into a narrative, from “Childhood” to “Womanhood” to “Manhood” to “Blind Profit” (an intentional play on words). Throughout, Tempest engages with the myth of Tiresias cleverly, blurring the distinctions between directly telling his story and bringing him into our own society. Tiresias’s performances of gender are at once personal and universal, and his story becomes a playground for Tempest to explore the way we understand gender.

Something I loved about this book is the way it focuses on a variety of gender presentations. Tempest explores the fragility and nuance of masculinity as well as femininity, showcasing how the characters in her poems don’t seem to fit neatly into any box.  Both genders that Tiresias inhabits come with joys and inhibitions, and his fluid journey between them allows Tempest to highlight the discomfort of trying to fit gender expectations. Tempest also uses Tiresias’s role as a prophet to make larger commentary on political issues, including poverty, capitalism, war, and climate change. Her commentary is sharp, relevant, and important.

As someone who’s listened to Tempest perform her music and poetry, it was almost impossible for me not to hear these poems in her voice. Her poems perfectly bring her distinctive rhythmic style onto the page. In this way, I think these works would be extremely accessible to poetry novices. Her work has a directness and a musicality that lands so perfectly. If you’re already a fan of Tempest’s music, you will love this collection. If not, I highly recommend getting to know this artist.

SLANT SIX by Erin Belieu

A few months ago, I was lucky enough to hear Erin Belieu speak at the OSU Alumni Writers Extravaganza. She was funny, intelligent, and honest, and I eagerly picked up a copy of her latest book of poetry, Slant Six. While that weekend introduced me to the sharpness and sensibility of Belieu’s voice, this book has completely cemented my fandom. I adored this volume of poetry so much that I didn’t even procrastinate in writing this review after I finished reading; as I write this, the last poem in the book is only moments old in my head. I’m that excited to tell you about it.

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The poems in Slant Six are funny, moving, and so well-observed. That may sound like a strange compliment, but it was the most succinct way I could think of to describe encountering some of the phrases Belieu crafts. Images and feelings appeared before me that, as soon as I saw them, I knew to be so true, but had never felt them articulated so sharply. You know that feeling you get when you’ve finally thought of the word that’s been on your tongue, and it’s like “Yes! That’s it!“? That feeling happened to me again and again while reading this volume, an almost guttural recognition of life’s experiences.

It’s hard to pick a favorite poem; I liked so many of them for so many reasons. Some lean more towards social and political commentary, while others describe human relationships with such original accuracy and truth. The poem “Love Is Not An Emergency” (which was originally published and still available on Slate’s website) felt particularly pointed, placed before me with intention and necessity. Some poems helped me look toward the future, and others reminded me of home and childhood. One that really surprised me was “Field;” it started as, what seemed to me, a lovely but honest look at the way humans and nature can interact, and both the acceptance and indifference of nature towards the human character. But then, suddenly, in a way that almost had me gasp as I read, it became something else. I don’t even want to write it here to spoil it; you can click on the link if you’d like and see what it ends up meaning to you.

I think this book can speak to you whether you’re a fan of poetry or whether poetry intimidates you. The poems are accessible and clear, which is not to say that they’re easy or simple. In fact, at times Belieu seems to be engaging with the stereotype of poetry that seems to use language to obfuscate rather than clarify (add poetry itself to the list of what gets satirized in this book). Belieu’s poems, instead, are endlessly clarifying. At times they taught me something, and at times they equipped me with words for something I feel I’ve always known. I’m sure I will be revisiting this book many, many times.

 

LIFE ON MARS by Tracy K. Smith

I am always thrilled when science and art (particularly writing) can come together in one beautiful project. It’s one of the reasons why I love Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series so much (and why some of my favorite moments from The West Wing involve impassioned, poetic speeches about the space program). It’s also why I was immediately drawn to Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, Life on Mars, published by Graywolf Press. Smith navigates the space between–or perhaps within and among–art and science expertly, crafting what has become possibly my favorite book of poetry.

Life on MarsThe main endeavor of this book is to serve as an elegy for Smith’s late father, and in this aim, it confronts a myriad of uncertainties with the concrete, scientific realities of our world. (Also, a warning: this review is about to address some hard topics.) Smith seems to be using scientific symbols and objects to address the idea of mortality, a concept that is both the most certain and uncertain part of our existence. As such, this book plays with an interesting paradox, creating an idea of a God (of sorts–I would call this book more “spiritual” than “religious”) that exists within the scientific universe, rather than opposed to it. This book seems to be constantly playing with paradoxes. It often juxtaposes images of Earth (ice, stones, the ocean) with those of outer space, but it also links them together within its metaphors. It gives a similar paradoxical treatment of the body, examining it as both an earthly tether and its own universe.

Despite the heavy topics of this collection, it never veers too far into melancholy. It uses the uncertainty of the afterlife, combined with the wonders of the universe that we do know about, to create a sense of hope. The poem that could probably serve as the thesis statement of the collection is “The Speed of Belief,” a long poem dedicated to Smith’s father. This poem contains perhaps the central conflict and question of the collection: “My father won’t lie still, though his legs are buried in trousers and socks. / But where does all he knew–and all he must now know–walk?” My favorite poem of the collection, however, is one called “The Universe as Primal Scream.” It starts with something mundane: the speaker awakening to the sounds of her upstairs neighbor’s children crying. Smith takes this basic symbol of want, along with other mundane elements of the speaker’s home, to meditate on the fragile line between daily life and the unknown of where we came from and where we’re headed. As the speaker muses, “I’m ready / To meet what refuses to let us keep anything / For long.”

Life on Mars is full of wonder and sadness, the vastness of the universe and the minutiae of our daily life.  If you’re new to poetry, this is a beautiful introduction. If you’re already a poetry fan, you’ll appreciate Smith’s original use of scientific symbols to confront some of life’s biggest questions. This collection made Tracy K. Smith one of my favorite poets, and I can’t wait to read more of her.