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”?