Posted by: Viola | November 16, 2014

“Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine

A Book Review of “Citizen: An American Lyric” by Claudia Rankine

Poetry Book Reviews By Viola Allo

I just finished reading Claudia Rankine’s new book titled Citizen: An American Lyric. And thought I would write a book review for it.

Since I am writing some poems and essays about race, I have been searching for books that deal with race, racism, racial identity and all things race-related, and I want books that examine or explore race poetically. Finding this book has been immensely helpful. I would say it’s the first book that really offers me what I have been searching for.

Rankine’s poetic prose is exactly what I want to be reading right now. It’s what I am hoping to do in my own writing. Each prose poem or poetic essay in this collection delves into the deeply personal ways in which one responds to racism. Racial stereotypes, racial categorizations, and racial invisibility or extreme visibility are themes in the sections of her book. These realities come through in the way the narrator is treated or spoken to or viewed by others. They also come through in the way she feels, sees herself, and struggles to be in her body, as she navigates her daily life. She has to navigate race not just publicly but privately, as well, because when she is alone, she is preoccupied with processing her feelings and connecting to her body (or feeling distanced from it).

I love the physical or corporeal dimension of her work because it reveals the difficulty of separating lived experiences and emotions and memories from the body. We exist in the world by virtue of the fact the we have bodies. We experience the world through the body and the mind. When the bodies we have are in constant question, this is difficult to deal with–physically and mentally. When the bodies and minds we have are frequently criticized, ridiculed, belittled, limited, underestimated, or excluded from participation, this is a huge problem. This is the problem with racism in America. Among its many ills, racism primarily negates black bodies. And black minds.

We see this issue nicely explored in Rankine’s poetic essay about the athleticism of Serena Williams. That someone so gifted and dedicated to her sport should be the victim of racism, on the tennis court and on live TV for the entire world to see, is something we should all reflect on. That Serena’s rage at injustice should be criticized is also a good point to consider. Any human being would be angry if his or her work and accomplishments were openly denied or diminished. It’s only natural for a black woman to express her anger and frustration when her points on the tennis court are denied, when somehow the umpire doesn’t see her score a point or when that umpire chooses to ignore a point scored. Because I do not watch much sports or follow the tennis tournaments and work of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, I really enjoyed Rankine’s essay which was both informative and insightful.

Despite the documenting of the experiences of other blacks, such as Serena Williams, I loved that the personal takes center stage in this work of art. I loved that personal experience comes to the forefront on almost every page in this poetry collection. Even in watching TV, the narrator tells us why she watches what she watches, how it is an escape from racial trauma but also a means of confirming or affirming her experiences and knowledge as a black woman.

The only difficulty I had with this book was the use of the second person for point of view. The YOU in this collection can have the effect of distancing the reader instead of bringing that reader into the wonderful narratives. I understand why this choice makes sense, since YOU is used by the author to compel the reader to imagine being the recipient or victim of such destructive racial prejudice. However, some readers might not be able to relate to this YOU.

I also understand that racial injustice is deeply traumatic, and so the author or narrator, by choosing to use the “YOU” (second person point of view) instead of the “I” (first person point of view), is separating herself from these traumatic experiences. She is doing what she can to illustrate how the pain of racial injustice forces a person to separate or fragment or split, internally in both physical and psychological ways, forming an identity outside herself. This identiy then becomes an observer, who can be more objective and less emotionally traumatized by what the individual is experiencing. The narrator relies on the YOU to create a safe distance from which to examine her racially charged experiences. In doing so, she can reduce the sense of personal rage and anger she feels, or at least give us the impression that she has a grip on her anger. I appreciate this and can fully relate to it.

However, I felt that I would have loved to see the first person narrator in these poems and essays. I would have loved to see the author or narrator fully embody her experiences, no matter how traumatic. Or at least fully embody them on the page. As I read along, I found myself compensating for this and substituting the “I” for the “you” and pretending that the author or narrator was talking very directly about herself. No need to be indirect, just being as straightforward and open about everything she has experienced.

That said, I love this book of poems, and I am now on the lookout for Rankine’s other works of poetry and prose. I highly recommend this book for poets and for anyone interested in race relations and what it means to be black in America and in the world. A courageous and beautifully done book of poetic prose, and one that is very accessible for readers of all levels.


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