‘The wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth’.
(Claudia Rankine, Citizen, p 8.)
I have just finished reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. It has left me with a sense of excited disquiet. Putting it on the shelf to rest alongside other books feels an insufficient response. As a white woman, there is a level at which I need just to listen to and absorb its blistering account of a permeating racism. But as a writer I want to engage with the form of Citizen and find my mind revolving on what she has created as well as what it says.
Depending on your view, Citizen is either a combination of lyric essays and poems (and certainly Rankine herself refers to other publications ‘in which poems and essays from this book first appeared’) or it is one extended lyric essay in a number of parts, some of them prose and some of them lineated, but all of them participating in a poetic whole. Excitingly, it has been shortlisted for the UK ‘s Forward Prizes, opening up some important poetic space for that which cannot be contained or expressed by more traditional forms. That possibility makes my heart race. The Forward Prize has called it “a bold challenge to historic definitions of poetic form” and one of the judges, Carrie Etter, herself an inspiring and innovative poet has said, ‘People who insist that poetry is only poetry if it’s in lines are missing out. As Citizen is in prose, I anticipate some readers’ definition of poetry will exclude it, and so some may object to its inclusion on the list… As with prose poetry, the lyric essay expands our awareness of what poetry can be and do, further nuancing our capacities for expression and understanding.’
Some readers may struggle with the idea that Citizen is poetry – despite the fact that the history of poetry is plural and includes prose forms and oral forms that defy categorisation into prose and verse – but for me not only is it poetry but it is a most important kind of poetry. When you read Citizen you find that it engages with a deep sense of injury and unease, explores how the relationship of I to Community, self to body, moment to era has been violently damaged by a pervasive racism. As well as its litany of violent acts, it deals with the displacement and the erasure caused by living with a constant dripfeed of racism, the ultimate penetration of the body by it and the eviction from the home of your own skin. Therefore it calls out for a form that is able somehow NOT to contain but to manage and express the discontinuities it depicts.
Reviewer Nick Laird comments,’At the core of Citizen is an “anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color.” In “Making Room,” Rankine writes:
On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.
The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman’s fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it….’
He finds that, ‘The force of her work…is mostly achieved incrementally, drawing meanings from cumulative patterns’ and he notes, ‘Rankine’s sentences have a great deal of doubling and repetition in them—standing, understand, stand—and the eye is encouraged to skim over the surface, but while the language appears at first direct, colloquial, it’s actually distinctly odd and ramifying’ but he remains not entirely convinced by the form. He seems not to appreciate what to me are some of the most significant strengths of prose poetic forms (in this I include the lyric essay as well as the prose poem). One of the most interesting writers about prose poetic forms, Margaret Murphy, draws on Bakhtin’s notion of ‘heteroglossia’ to argue that prose poetry is a genre that does not separate the speech of the self from the speech outside the self.
Most of those poets and critics who see prose poetry as having a ‘democratic’, ‘utopian’ or ‘subversive’ impulse locate this in its tendency to include multiple, often conflicting discourses. They trace this impulse back to Baudelaire and his use of the form to keep in play the discontinuities of modern consciousness and to allow into poetry a discordant plurality of discourse. But Murphy goes further and argues that prose poetry has an ‘unstable edge’ (Keston Sutherland’s ‘smashable edge’) that does not boundary the speech of the self from the non-self, from external discourse. The latter radically invades the former and ‘without the artifice of verse, the prose poem opens poetry up radically to the heterogeneity of the surrounding discourse.’ (Murphy, M. (1992), A Tradition of Subversion, p.92) Thus, prose poetry is particularly well placed to dramatise the linguistic permeability of the private ‘lyric’ self.
It is this permeability and the constant damage done by the accumulation of language and social encounters – micro-aggressions – that is shown by Citizen to be a profound form of violence alongside the tragedy of shootings and injustices. Therefore, for me, the form of Citizen crucially participates in its meanings and its disquieting, vital impact.
Claudia Rankine (2014) Citizen. An American Lyric.
First published in USA by Greywolf Press, 2014. Penguin, 2015.