Citizen is an excoriating collection of verse about modern racism. It was a New York Times bestseller and carted off a trunkful of prestigious honours, including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection in the UK. Poetry, too often associated with apolitical understatement, was suddenly slap bang in the middle of America’s national discussion of race. The book gave voice to many of the infractions against African Americans at a time when news about multiple killings of unarmed black men by the police was spreading across the internet. As outrage at racial injustice reached fever pitch and a new platform arose through the #BlackLivesMatter protest, Citizen eloquently, movingly and imaginatively captured the zeitgeist.
Subtitled An American Lyric, Citizen has a stylistic precursor in Rankine’s 2004 volume, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, now receiving its first publication in the UK. The two works share a preoccupation with trauma and the American psyche. They mix prose poetry with the lyric essay and are based in part on testimonies in real-life interviews, ventriloquised into the first person. The form is bold, experimental and fragmented.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a strange and engrossing meditation on illness, mortality, depression, fear, injustice and – overwhelmingly – loneliness. A girl first encounters death when her father’s mother dies: he never speaks of it. A man has Alzheimer’s and scrawls on his chalkboard, “This is the most miserable of my life.” He realises his memory is shot and it will only get worse. A woman who has cancer knows she will die within five years: “Cancer slowly settled in her body and lived off it until it, her body, became useless to itself.” Unable to sleep, the speaker of another poem notices that antidepressants are more heavily advertised on television in the middle of the night (an insight into the cunning of corporate greed). Endnotes, a device of the lyric essay, expand on some of the factual data presented. Through them we discover that up to 55 per cent of liver failures are caused by chemicals in drugs, prescription or otherwise.
References to popular culture are ever present here. The orgiastic final shoot-outs in spaghetti westerns, Rankine argues, release us from “the American fantasy that we will survive no matter what”. Enigmatic and perplexing, her insights challenge our easy certainties.
Notorious instances of police brutality against black men in the 1990s are also in the mix: the sodomising of Abner Louima with a broom handle while in custody and the murder of Ahmed Amadou Diallo, unarmed, who was sprayed with 41 bullets by four policemen in the vestibule to his apartment. Is it excessive to feel the pain of these events “to the point of being bent over each time”? Rankine’s call finds a response in her fellow poet Myung Mi Kim, who says “the poem is really a responsibility to everyone in a social space”. The speaker feels reassured that it is OK “to have to hold the pain, and then to translate it here. She [Kim] did say, in so many words, that what alerts, alters.”
Yasser Arafat, the death of Saddam Hussein, the multinational pharma wars against South African-manufactured HIV antiretrovirals, all are turned over on these pages for intellectual inquiry, as is the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Rankine writes that it “stole from us our willingness to be complex”. Then, because she is complex, she wonders if “we were never complex” in the first place.
Each chapter of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is prefaced by a photograph of the static screen of a television set, through which the reader enters a dreamy state of beautifully written melancholia peopled with fractured lives. Rankine transports us into a tactile, twilight world of the insomniac speaker who is hypersensitive to the pain she encounters, processes and tries to comprehend. Ultimately this work asks us to consider the relationship between personal, national and geopolitical disturbances, and their isolating, depressive effect on the American soul.
Citizen is as eclectic as Don’t Let Me Be Lonely but more of an emotional roller coaster, focusing intensely on manifestations of racism. Rankine opens with a series of second-person pieces on micro-aggressions that “send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs”. Her use of “you” migrates the reader into the shoes of the person enduring these quotidian slights. You are the woman whose white friend phones the police because he thinks your black babysitter is a burglar – and it is your small son who is knocked over by a man in the subway, who does not stop to help him back on to his feet. A man “who did not see him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself”.
The book pushes Rankine’s experiment further with a scorching lyric essay on Serena Williams. It is a painstaking, step-by-step account of some of the egregious acts of racism and unfairness Williams has endured. The perpetrators include umpires, sports commentators and Piers Morgan, who, in an interview after her 2012 Olympic victory, told her she looked like a gangster. Or the Danish tennis champ Caroline Wozniacki, who caricatured Williams on court in 2012 by padding out her breasts and shorts with towels. Rankine suggests that Williams, for all her accomplishments, cannot be shielded “from people who felt her black body didn’t belong in their court”.
She also turns her gaze on Trayvon Martin, whose death sparked US protests nationwide, and Mark Duggan, whose death by police shooting sparked the 2011 riots in England. In a devastating haiku, she states:
because white men can’t
police their imagination
black men are dying
Born in a black-majority country (Jamaica) and having had a college education in America, where she has lived ever since, Rankine invites us to reframe, reconstitute and rephrase the experience of being a black person in a white-majority country. As citizens, we are all involved in society’s indignities and injustices, whether as perpetrator or bystander, consciously or unthinkingly.
Rankine is an outstanding writer who manipulates nuances of language and form to open up new meanings. Her intimate poems sound like someone whispering in your ear – too close, but you cannot and do not want to escape, even when it hurts. She challenges our perceptions, and forces us to reconsider our thoughts, words and actions. Her poetry has the power to transform.
Bernardine Evaristo’s most recent book is a novel, “Mr Loverman” (Hamish Hamilton)
Citizen: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is published by Penguin (176pp, £9.99)
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is published by Penguin 176pp, £9.99
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again