Those unfamiliar with the breadth of contemporary poetry may be surprised when they crack the cover of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric. A collage of prose poems, short essays, and images, Citizen often reads more like experimental nonfiction than poetry. None of this is to decry the book’s merits; on the contrary, it is smart, finely crafted, as insightful as it is timely.
Citizen might be best read cover to cover, in one sitting, or as close to one sitting as you can get. I read it this past fall while chants of #BlackLivesMatter echoed (as they continue to echo) around the country. The book’s sections progress like movements in a concerto, or scenes in a play. You might need an intermission, but you wouldn’t leave in the middle and come back to see the second half some other time. Rankine captures the present and past, not to mention the foreseeable future, through vivid descriptions of daily racial microaggressions. These are the “small” moments of life that are not small at all. The book’s cover, which for many immediately signals reference to Trayvon Martin, is a work of art created by David Hammons in 1993, before Martin was even born. From this initial image onward, Rankine invites her readers into a world that many liberal white folks are just now waking up to. The reality, however, is nothing new. It is 2015 and it is 1993 and it is everyday in between. It is, as a colleague said to me recently, “last Tuesday.”
Citizen deserves the praise it has received; Rankine is a brilliant poet, critic, and teacher. And yet, I cannot help but note that the book may feel most groundbreaking to those who have been able to live in blissful ignorance of their own privilege. Rankine’s ability to capture the trauma of racism as it infuses everyday life challenges me, as I consider ways I have no doubt blindly said and done (or at the very least thought) wretched things throughout my life. But even the way I find the book so deeply moving indicates how seldom I am aware of the realities that shape the daily movements of black lives. None of this even begins to touch on the structural racism that creates the uneven playing field upon which these actions unfold. It is both individual and systemic, and I am too often oblivious, simply because I can be.
That Citizen matters, that its success matters, is obvious. To see a book by an African American woman garner such well-deserved praise, nominated for so many awards, gives me hope for the world of literature and beyond, to be sure. But let us not forget how seldom such a thing happens, and let us not labor under the delusion that it is a mere accident that some voices are honored more often than others. In Citizen, what could feel like tired old stories have been reinvented and revealed as something new. Rankine gives us an honest, artfully crafted glimpse into this world, a world many of us inhabit daily without ever seeing it for what it is. She reveals the fractured nature of citizenship in a country that has never truly left Jim Crow behind, but reinvented it in subtle new ways. Rankine asks more of her readers, I think, than mere applause.
As a lyric that speaks truthfully of America’s original sin, Citizen is a call to confession many may be unable to hear amidst the clamour of their own praise.