The fifth nominated work for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry is Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine. It is as different from the other nominated works as they are from themselves.
Perhaps the most striking difference is that most of the poems in Citizen are prose poems, and they are generally untitled. As such, they assume the character of small stories with large themes – one large theme, actually, better described as one story with running scenes illustrating the theme. And that theme is what it means to be Black in contemporary America.
The poems of Citizen are not easy poems to read. Here’s an example (quotations added for clarity):
“At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form. When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!
I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.
Aloud, you say.
What? he asks.
You didn’t mean to say that aloud.
Your transaction goes swiftly after that.”
Another difference is that Rankine has included illustrations with many of the poems, and they are often as hard to look at as the poems are to read, like tennis player Caroline Wozniacki stuffing towels in her top and shorts to imitate Serena Williams. But look at them you do, and you understand that this is beyond embarrassment; this is about humiliation and degradation.
Anger lives in the poems. And it is a righteous anger.
The poems include scenes of childhood, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the career of Serena Williams, the unthinking statements of everyday social interaction. The more you read, the more you understand that these are memories and recollections, yes, but they are not in the past. These are memories that live in the present. This short prose poem explains that (quotations added for clarity):
“The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?”
These poems startle and confront, from the very first line. They challenge ways of being, thought, interactions between people. And what all of this means in the context of skin color.
You don’t read poetry like Rankine’s and remain unchanged.
Related: Three readings from Citizen by Claudia Rankine
We’ve been discussing the poetry collections nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. First, we covered Jake Adam York’s Abide; then we discussed Christian Wiman’s Once in the West. Last week, we looked at Willie Perdomo’s The Essential Hits of Shorty Bon Bon and Saeed Jones’ Prelude to Bruise. The winner will be announced this Thursday, March 12.
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