Stephen Burt’s The Poem Is You is, in the author’s words, a “new kind of guide to the profuse, diffuse magnificences of American poetry now.” Running chronologically from a 1981 John Ashbery poem through a Ross Gay piece from just last year, the volume collects sixty poems that together reflect the demographic and stylistic variety of contemporary American poetry, pairing each with an original essay on how and why it works. One of Burt’s selections comes from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a provocative meditation on race that challenged readers at a moment when the precarity of black life in America was laid bare.
This week brought both extraordinary acknowledgment of Rankine’s work by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and awful reminders that that moment of black precocity continues. In recognition of that wrenching concurrence, we offer Burt’s essay on Citizen below. The short excerpt on which Burt focuses, in which a couple goes to a movie, a friend provides childcare, and a neighbor calls the cops, is available online from PEN America.
Likely no book of poetry—no book designated as poetry—in the United States in the twenty-first century has received as much attention, discussion, and debate as Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), from which these paragraphs come. They occupy exactly one page of the meticulously designed book, which includes other anecdotes like this one; sparse pronouncements and queries in verse (“How to care for the injured body, // the kind of body that can’t hold / the content it is living?”); evocative, more conventionally lyrical blocks of prose; essays on racial stereotypes in sports, such as those that vex Serena Williams; and multipage “scripts” for short videos, co-created with Rankine’s husband John Lucas, about instances of deadly racial injustice: Trayvon Martin, Hurricane Katrina, the Jena Six. Printed (like museum catalogues) on glossy, photography-friendly paper, Citizen also incorporates visual elements: a two-page work of graphic art by Glenn Ligon, whose text repeats Zora Neale Hurston’s apothegm “I FEEL MOST COLORED WHEN I AM THROWN AGAINST A SHARP WHITE BACKGROUND”; a color photograph of the 2007 Rutgers University women’s basketball team; J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” (with which the book ends).
These elements—and the near (though not total) absence of self-contained units in verse—trouble the bounds of the category “poetry,” to which its author and publisher say that Citizen belongs. Yet Citizen was a finalist in poetry for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and in Britain the Forward Prize and the T. S. Eliot Prize. The National Book Critics’ Circle nominated the book in two categories, poetry and criticism. Rankine won the Forward Prize, the L. A. Times Prize, and the NBCC award in poetry, as well as the PEN Open Book award and the NAACP’s Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry, as well as several other awards. And very sensibly so, if “poetry” means a text that brings together the many aspects of language in order to explore someone’s, or anyone’s, interior life, to challenge the transparency of common language, and to do something that mere exposition or narrative could never do. Rankine’s wary, exasperated, outraged book, taken all in all, asks (and gives no one answer) how she and other people ought to respond to stereotypes and assumptions around race, the overt violence, the tacit self-regulation, the assumptions and attitudes and awkwardness, from thoughtless snubs to hate crimes, that race and “anti-black racism” (the term Rankine uses in interviews) can produce.
The book appeared at a horrifyingly appropriate moment. Completed after the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer, the book was published just before the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore; the protests in Ferguson; and the sudden national attention, in white-controlled mass media, to black men’s deaths at the hands of police. All the parts of Citizen ask how and whether a black person, or a person whom others identify as black, can live as a citizen, equal to other citizens, protected by custom and law: much of the book explores the common assumption that a black person in a historically white, privileged space—Wimbledon’s tennis courts, or a suburban street—amounts to a dangerous anomaly. That idea helped kill Trayvon Martin. What else does it do to the people who harbor it? What kinds of contradictions, nervous ness, wariness, expectations of anger, passivity, self-defense, or violence does it entail? How often do white people perpetuate racism without realizing it? Can poetry help them realize it? Should this dark-skinned Jamaican American poet care? Can poetic language speak to what Rankine has called her “visceral disappointment ... in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived”?
Citizen raises all those questions at once: it does so with particular elegance in its most self-contained segments, the short prose anecdotes about microaggressions, moments when—so it seems on first reading—the poet has been treated differently and unjustly, or seen someone else treated badly, for reasons of race. But Rankine puts these anecdotes in the second person: only prior knowledge about her can lead us to envision “you” as black, and sometimes that version of “you” would be wrong. It is no accident that these parts of Citizen have no first-person pronoun, only “you” and “he” and “she”: they describe what happens when you do not have an “I” apart from others, when you cannot get wholly outside the way in which other people construct “you” (though who can?). Their constructions depend on what they think they see. And “you,” in the central paragraphs of this four-paragraph anecdote, have nothing to see: you have to rely, unfortunately, on words, which rely in turn on their users’ assumptions. When those assumptions conflict—when you realize that the “menacing black guy ... walking back and forth” is in fact the “nice young man ... standing outside”—the police are already on the scene.
This story of a black man in suburbia becomes a horrible parody of a classic problem for introductory courses in philosophy: are the morning star and the evening star “the same,” since the terms point to the same object, the planet Venus, seen at different times or by different observers? It’s an academic question about the night sky, but it can be a life-or-death question if the subject is a black man on a lawn. “You” could not see him over the phone, but neither could the neighbor who called the police; that neighbor saw “a menacing black man.”
Rankine’s poem shows—among many things—how where you are, where you think you are, and where other people can say that you are affects who you think you are: it is a bitter demonstration of what we might call the social phenomenology of place. To feel at home in your body, confident in your identity, well recognized, you might have to feel literally at home in your home: “bodies are shaped by their dwellings,” writes the philosopher Sara Ahmed, and “the skin of the social might be affected by the comings and goings of different bodies.” The white suburb reveals its residents’ expectations about safety, exclusion, and whiteness—the first, in their minds, depends on the second and third—once a visible black body comes to town.
Why are so few black bodies already in town? The House We Live In could help us answer: the film is the third of three documentaries aired on PBS in 2003, collectively called Race: The Power of an Illusion. Much of The House We Live In tells the story of American residential segregation in the twentieth century, from de jure racial barriers to redlining, white flight, and the modern disparity in wealth between white Anglo and black families, much of which comes, still today, from the worth of their homes. The harm of racism, in the account that the film and the poem presents, is not only harm done on purpose by racists. Injustice is all around us, often without any ill-meaning person or institution we can isolate or subdue. Nor is there any authoritative party who could hear a cri de coeur as if from outside. That absence helps explain Rankine’s spare, grim affect, her absence of detail: she doesn’t need to make this situation vivid for us. We already know, or should know, or should have known.
Rankine’s prose style can approximate the clipped, depressive temperament of certain present-day fiction writers (Lydia Davis, for example), or even the depressive realism, described elsewhere in this book, of Louise Glück. In Rankine’s 2004 prose work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (like Citizen subtitled An American Lyric), the poet diagnosed in herself “a deepening personality flaw: IMH, the inability to maintain hope, which translates into no innate trust in the supreme laws that govern us.” Why would you trust the laws—how could “you” feel like a fully empowered citizen—in the land of Travyon Martin and Freddie Gray?
Rankine’s panoply of short prose and verse forms in Citizen—including this anecdotal second-person form—can feel like ways to get around that “personality flaw,” ways to look outside a frustrated self. They are also ways to depict a systemic problem, one that cannot be presented rightly unless you can somehow see around your one “I.” No more “poetic” poem (Rankine implies), and certainly nothing presented as fiction, would do. Against the power of stereotypes to block out sight, the poet deploys not the counterpressure of any rich, self-consciously poetic image-making language, but a dry style that performs what W. H. Auden maintained ought to be poetry’s only ethical goal: “to disenchant and disintoxicate.”
Here Rankine’s “you” lets you, the reader, ask what you would do, or why you did what you have already done. Why did you feel “responsible” for your neighbor? Why did you tell “your friend” not to talk in the front yard next time? If he should have known that his visibility, as a black man in suburbia, “walking back and forth talking,” would bring the police, shouldn’t you have known that “your neighbor” was talking about your friend? How could you be so insensitive as to give your friend such victim-blaming advice? On the other hand, isn’t it good advice? Surely it’s up to him, not up to “you,” where and when your friend chooses to place a call; but what would you do if you were he?
If you’re not from a group that gets racially profiled—not visibly black, for example—you can never know. Rankine describes on another page a “friend” who “argues that Americans battle between the ‘historical self’ and the ‘self self,’” the former racially marked (“her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self”), the latter somehow free from race. We probably think that other friend is white: why? A person of color would likely know better, would know how hard or how ridiculous it is to imagine that we are not marked by the illusion, or the imaginative construction, called race. “The perception that race is not an active part of existence,” Rankine told an interviewer, “allows people to make the mistakes that they make against each other.” “From that which is systemic we try to detach ourselves,” she wrote in an earlier book-length poem, Plot (2001). “But some of us have drowned and coughed ourselves up.”
If you are used to the idea that you can present yourself however you like, walk wherever you choose, apparently unaffected by race, then you might be white. And if part of being white is not having to think about being white, another part is having your whiteness pointed out through the reactions, the comments, or the mere presence of people who are not white. All of us have been shaped by what we call “race,” but white people—white writers—often don’t know it. “Yes, of course” could be the sound of a white person knowing it.
Except that it isn’t. Rankine distilled the anecdotes in Citizen from stories that she solicited from friends. As she revealed in a radio interview, though, her source for this particular page was herself—this “you” could have been “I.” Her grammatical choices show how the same situations look and feel different to speakers with differing background—different versions of “you,” different values for that variable—even as they ask you to see yourself in her place. Such questions, addressed to readers of many colors, propel her editorial work too. While she was finishing Citizen Rankine coedited an anthology of essays, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind; its introduction, which she cowrote, invites “white artists” to “examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space and lines of power.” Such wishes—she hopes we will see—cannot come true. Both Citizen and The Racial Imaginary reflect, sotto voce, a public dispute in 2011 between Rankine and her former colleague in Houston, the poet Tony Hoagland, about race and racial privilege in one of his poems; the two poets’ “open letters” to each other about that dispute were later posted on the Academy of American Poets website. Some of the sentences there reappear in Citizen, whose anecdotes and verse and photographs, taken together, show how you, or “you,” can’t—alas—get entirely outside the systems by which other people see you.
Citizen in general, and this reflective, narrative page in particular, keep on panning out, breaking the frame, showing how around each domain, each picture, each idea of “you” and “I” there are larger, unacknowledged assumptions and systems in play, and not only about race. It may be that poetry, or poetic language, wants to give us the right to speak “wherever,” to make us heard as if from everywhere and nowhere, as if superior to our mortal, frail, and socially classified bodies. But poetic language (as Rankine’s argument with Hoagland made clear) does not always get what it seems to want, does not always work as a poet intends. And even if we could write or read poetry that way (and it is by no means clear that we can), we cannot speak as if from nowhere, live as if disembodied, from day to day, as we pick up our kids, mow our lawns, or talk on our phones. If your listeners cannot stop seeing you as a “menacing black man,” then everything you say will be connected, willy-nilly, to your blackness, or your manhood, or your potential menace, or the surprising absence of any of those things; nothing you say will not be racially marked. And if that is true for black speakers, for black bodies, why should it not be true for white speakers as well? If you have not seen a picture of me or heard my voice, how do you think I look? Do you think I am white, black, Taiwanese American, or all three? Male or female or both? What if you learned you were wrong?