ANY POET WILL TELL YOU that it’s often the smallest words that pack the greatest whispers and punch. The word “you” contains volumes of nuance. It hangs commanding, accusative, or adoring. It’s the pointed end of the syntactic stick, drilling the question or demanding an observation.

In Claudia Rankine’s new collection, Citizen, “you” is used to index, with a restraint that almost hums with tension, race, and racism in America. The word rotates from one page to the next, facing inward and sometimes outward. These uses of “you” compass multiple points of reference, at times denoting an internal “you” — the “you” of self-talk and admonition — and at other times, the performing “you,” as if spoken by a stage director guiding an enactment of the social self. The poems embody a pitch-perfect demonstration of the “problem” of black bodies in American social spaces, a house of mirrors and dislocations, erasures and psychic abysses that must be negotiated by black people in an era of “racism without racists.”[1], [2]

Citizen couldn’t be a more timely collection, arriving on the crest of the latest social outrage. Twitter and Facebook brim and amplify posts and pushback on well-publicized assaults, presumptions of guilt, and on-the-spot executions. Social science digs ever deeper, documenting the impact of institutional and systemic racism; no matter the unprecedented fact of Obama’s election, the rules are unevenly applied, and racial disparities widen in health, income, employment, educational attainment, and public safety.[3] Thanks to the recent findings in brain science, now we know: skin color does trigger some people to implicit bias, a bias that operates unchallenged unless otherwise socialized, and that conditions us to see some people as less intelligent, less safe, less capable of feeling pain, less human, less like ourselves.[4] (Walt Whitman notwithstanding.)

The very word “citizen” is a lump in the mouth, harnessed to reinforce boundaries between (or around) “you” and “me” in a country of descendants of “immigrants,” founded on democratic principles and painfully slow to introduce democratic practice, a wealthy country made rapidly prosperous through enslaved and indentured labor, a country that parcels out rights based on “citizenship” but confers them reluctantly and incompletely, and only after a fight, to a group who are among its oldest “citizens.” The United States is all of the above.

That’s a formidable context for Citizen, a book of documentary poetics, enacting scenes from “a theater of awareness” and witness. Subtitled “An American Lyric,” it suggests a continuity of poetic techne (craft) with Rankine’s previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, a meditation on death. Rankine’s poetic project seems to be about the reinvention of lyric poetry, if by lyric poetry we mean song linked to the expression of internal states. In Rankine’s reinvention, the lyric is a kind of philosophical writing in which the subject “theorizes the self”[5] and documents subjectivity at the “moment of crisis.”[6]

Citizen’s exploration of racial subjectivity traverses the philosophical even as it mines the terrain of national news and contemporary events. The prose poems that set hues of “you” also set the frame for “I” when it appears later, and the uses of “she” and “he” that enter the page. As I reread Citizen several times, I realized: every pronoun, whether the pivoting “you” or the “she” or “I” that begins to populate poems and prose sections, draws the reader into a feeling of “auto-implication”[7] where “problems” of difference, blackness, brownness emerge.

The thinking subject in Rankine’s book struggles to own the legitimacy of her own thoughts, the evidence before her of racism’s suppurating and corrosive presence in the ordinary lives of people of color, even as it is denied or diminished. As here:

Your phone rings. Your neighbor tells you he is standing at his window watching a menacing black guy casing both your homes. The guy is walking back and forth talking to himself and seems disturbed.

You tell your neighbor that your friend, whom he has met, is babysitting. He says, no, it’s not him. He’s met your friend and this isn’t that nice young man. Anyway, he wants you to know, he’s called the police.

Your partner calls your friend and asks him if there’s a guy walking back and forth in front of your home. Your friend says that if anyone were outside he would see him because he is standing outside. You hear the sirens through the speakerphone.

And here:

You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

Many of the prose poems, as with the two just cited, are examples of a “breach,” a rupture that blindsides “you.” The rules are suspended and unmoor the presumption of an “us.” A cinematic, out-of-body “you” — camera shot overhead — replaces the “you” in the car, who listens to a throwaway racist comment to which she is not expected to react. The speech act in which the speaker, who has forgotten whom he is speaking to, voices his resentment for having to “hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there” — and with these “innocent” words he shoves “you” out of the moving car.

At times a stick figure, at other times the keen observer collecting evidence of the wrench and violence of everyday racial “micro-aggressions,” “you” is an everyone and a no one, the self under enormous pressure to un-see, un-hear, and un-think in order to get by, get along, get through, and get on with life, with purpose and ambition.

What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them.

It is fascinating to watch the “you” in these prose poems zoom in and out — from the internal “you,” the inquisitorial talk of a slightly decentered subjectivity (“did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth?”), to the disembodied “you” that populates Sections I, III, IV, and VII with, as Rankine says, “the pronoun barely holding the person together.”

Later, Rankine remarks, “You said ‘I’ has so much power; it’s insane.” And again — “Drag that first person out of the social death of history, then we’re kin.”

Also:

The opening between you and you, occupied,
zoned for an encounter,

given the histories of you and you —

And always, who is this you?

And finally, “whose are you?” That colloquial phrase that tags and trees you as familiar, places you in a genealogy of the visible, the legible, trying to find a way into the “I,” that Cartesian empire, and “we” the possibility of being one of the tribe of humanity.

The stories pile up their many iterations in clots. One of the book’s pivot points is an essay about tennis champion Serena Williams. Bookended by citations from performance artist Jayson Musson (a.k.a. Hennessy Youngman) on how to commodify black anger (a one-dimensional account that contrasts with the tone of this collection), the essay recounts Williams’s tumultuous and heroic behavior through the gamut of bad calls, fashion policing, jeering, false fault-finding, and media scrutiny of her athletic performance and her body. Especially her body.

For years you attribute to Serena Williams a kind of resilience appropriate only for those who exist in celluloid. Neither her father nor her mother nor her sister nor Jehovah her God nor NIKE camp could shield her ultimately from people who felt her black body didn’t belong on their court.

Rankine recounts several incidents in which Williams kept her calm, despite manifest injustice, before telling the story of the famous incident at the 2009 US Open when the referee called a minor foot fault on the match point, and Williams melted down — cursed out the judge and conceded the match. By Rankine’s account, the meltdown is not the consequence of this one bad call but of the accumulation of bad calls, bad faith, suspended rules. In such a frame, Rankine asks how the body can handle repeated wounding.

Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness — all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.

Later:

And where is the safest place when that place must be someplace other than in the body?

Rankine inventories the price of getting along, “getting on with it,” the price of getting on with life without stopping for every racist abrasion. We know, she knows, that most blatant, sheet-wearing racism is no longer socially acceptable — but very often, collusion with injustice is simply trying to “get along.” “Come on,” she repeats. “Move on.” “Get over it.” These are the phrases of domination; internalized, they’ve subdued and gained our consent.

Systems of domination affect us not merely in terms of material advantage and disadvantage, but also in terms of the likelihoods of getting things right or wrong, since unfair social privilege reproduces itself in part through people learning to see and feel about the world in ways that accommodate injustice.”

— Charles Mills on “epistemological ignorance.”[8]

Rankine is interested in the ways that people of color can get trapped in a rhetoric of disbelief/ignorance/injustice:

I didn’t know you were black.

I didn’t know black women could get cancer.

Being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work.

As if rage were impenetrable.

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 a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she?

In 2011, at an Associated Writing Programs conference, Rankine reopened the circle of implication — and poked at “epistemological ignorance” — by famously reading a response to Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change,” a poem in which the speaker watches a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” and “that big black girl from Alabama” and roots for the European, for no better reason than wanting “the white girl to come out on top / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.” When Rankine sought discussion about the poem with Hoagland, he said — also famously — that the poem is for “white people.”

In her subsequent essay about her exchange with Hoagland, Rankine challenged writers to discuss how they do or don’t write about race. The results posted on Rankine’s website[9] open a rich vein of discourse, beyond stereotype, and a view of what we don’t even begin to know about what each other thinks or doesn’t think about race — a topic as ubiquitous as the sky.[10]

But Citizen is more than a book about anger or injustice; it is a book of grief, heart-rending grief. In poems for Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan, James Craig Anderson, the Jena Six, and about Hurricane Katrina, poems plain speak the language of bone-sore, sleepless sorrow:

My brother is completed by sky. The sky is his silence. Eventually, he says, it is raining. It is raining down. It was raining. It stopped raining. It is raining down. He won’t hang up. He’s there, he’s there but he’s hung up though he is there. Goodbye, I say. I break the goodbye. I say goodbye before anyone can hang up, don’t hang up. Wait with me. Wait with me though the waiting might be the call of goodbyes.

and

Some years there exists a wanting to escape —
you, floating above your certain ache —

and

to breathe, you have to create a truce.

A truce of pronouns, and permission to want to enter into dialogue or not completely know every — and each — one.

With its adroit compositional moves between image, anecdote, and citation, Rankine’s Citizen challenges conventional — and “experimental” — poetics, opening much needed topographies for dialogue and gathering, newly lit edges of experience. This is something poetry does exceptionally well, perhaps better than the more monied arts, which are constrained to tread the ground of demonstrated salability. Poetry, that curious non-commodity, resists the easy mouthful. In Citizen, the facts tell themselves — almost. Rankine’s keen, curatorial, and compositional hand/mind/heart seriously wants to know something — and recognizes that the something it wants to know may be different from what others think they already know. It pierces the shell we have created around writing race or writing racism, its divorce from reason, its silencing. “You,” the reader, called out as a bystander, are compelled to stand at attention. How lucky I feel to have this book to point you and me to new questions, to leaven our thinking.

¤

[1] Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book by that name is a useful inquiry into this state of affairs.

[2] Ironic, isn’t it, that the recent 2014 National Book Awards, for which Citizen was nominated, but lost to Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, was the stage for the by now familiar performance of “racism without racists” in Daniel Handler’s watermelon inflected introduction of Jacqueline Woodson, the award winner in the young adult category.

[3] “50 Years After the March on Washington, Many Racial Divides Remain,” Andrea Caumont. Pew Research Center. August 2013.

[4] “Race and Cognition. Understanding Implicit Bias.” Kirwan Institute, Ohio State University. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/

[5] I am indebted to many people in this attempt to trace the theoretical implications of Rankine’s poetics — few more perspicuous than comments and articles on subjectivity and aesthetics written by Kyoo Lee, philosopher and feminist writer, and longer conversations with Tonya Foster, poet and scholar.

[6] Claudia Rankine used the term in a talk given at Naropa Summer Writing Program, July 2014.

[7] Kyoo Lee. “Why Asian Female Stereotypes Matter to All: Beyond Black and White, East and West.” Critical Philosophy of Race, Volume 1, Issue 1, 2013.

[8] “Lost in Rawlsland.” The New York Times, November 16, 2014. Charles Mills interview with George Yancy.

[9] http://www.newmediapoets.com/claudia_rankine/open/open.html

[10] “The ‘I’ of I feel becomes the ‘we’ of we must think, however contingent, constrained or contentious such a ‘we’ remains in its solidarity or solitude. Activating such a call for co-feeling, performing this multilingual fugue for quotidian justice, these thinkers are departing from their own respective situations, onto the onto-pology (ontology and topology) of such ‘personal’ problems that outlive and outlast the person, ‘your problem’ that ain’t just your problem, the sort that is to be ascribed, addressed, analyzed collaboratively, to be made a part of the question that needs asking, some part touchingly ‘unasked,’ needing to be unmasked.” — Kyoo Lee

¤

Erica Hunt is a poet, essayist, and author of Local History and Arcade.