Earlier this year I read and very much enjoyed Claudia Rankine’s book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine is a poet whose poetry is written in prose. It has taken me a while to figure this out and I am not certain why. I am used to seeing a prose poem now and then in a poetry collection but an entire book of prose poetry? It puts me off balance. I think it probably does many people because I remember back in college a favorite professor scoffing at the idea that there could even be such a thing as a prose poem.
In the case of Rankine’s newest book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, one is thrown off balance just looking at the cover: stark white with a black fabric thing of some kind. Looking closely the black fabric thing is the hood part of a hoodie. The hoodie became a national conversation piece when Trayvon Martin was shot and murdered by George Zimmerman in 2012. Once past the unsettling cover, comes the prose poetry illustrated with the occasional photograph or illustration.
The poems are about being black in a racist country. They are all written in second person which I can imagine inspires a community feeling for a black reader. For this white reader the “you” pulled me in and forced me to see the world from a different perspective. Sometimes it was uncomfortable. Most of the time I was sad, heartbroken even, and angry over the injustice:
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something — both as witness and as friend. She is not you; her silence says so.
The racism in the poems is most often of the every day sort, the small things that happen all the time whether on purpose or through ignorance, the kinds of things that a person privileged with white skin never has to think about.
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.
The man doesn’t acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat than you do.
While most of the poems deal with the every day, there are others that take on more publicized racism. I very much liked the series of poems about Serena and Venus Williams, beautiful women (I love their muscles!) and amazing tennis players who have been the victims of racism both on and off the court. There is also a series of poems described as situation scripts for video in collaboration with Rankine’s husband John Lucas. You can see one of these videos, “Stop and Frisk” as well as a video or Rankine reading one of her other poems from Citizen in a PBS article about Rankine and her poetry. Several of the scripts are about the violent deaths of black men, but also about other things like Hurricane Katrina and last summer’s World Cup.
The poems are short and powerful. The writing lyrical and beautiful. This is a timely book. An important book. It is a book I think people of all colors should read, but especially those of us who are white. As a woman I know what it is like to be part of an oppressed group. As a white woman I have privilege that black women do not have. I vaguely know this but haven’t spent much time thinking about it. I haven’t had to, that’s what privilege gets me. But ever since reading Citizen I have been thinking about it. It’s an eye opening book that will be sticking with me for a long time to come.
Every day your mouth opens and receives the kiss the world offers, which seals you shut though you are feeling sick to your stomach about the beginning of the feeling that was born from understanding and now stumbles around in you — the go-along-to-get-along tongue pushing your tongue aside. Yes, and your mouth is full up and the feeling is still tottering —