Citizen: An American Lyric

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia Rankineby Claudia Rankine

ISBN 978-1-55597-690-3

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Visually, poet Claudia Rankine’s fifth book, Citizen, is a striking volume, designed by John Lucas and featuring cover art by David Hammons. It is this 1993 piece, entitled “In the Hood,” that made Rankine’s book so instantly recognizable when Johari Osayi Idusuyi read it on camera while sitting in the stands at a Donald Trump rally in Springfield, Illinois. Already a hit in the world of American poetry, Idusuyi’s actions brought the collection to popular attention. This is what prompted me to pick it up when I spotted it on a display at my local library. Though Citizen is only about 170 pages, it has surprising heft, as it is printed on 80# matte coated paper. The stark juxtaposition of the black and white design echoes one of the most haunting lines of the collection: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

The contents of Citizen are a combination of essays, poetry, and scripts for video projects Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. Though it is nice to have the scripts included in the collection for reference, those pieces are really better watched in their visual form, accompanied by Rankine’s smooth, rhythmic reading. All of the poems attempt to capture the experience of race in America today, in various forms. Two of the pieces are poetic essays about race in sports, which Rankine finds interesting because “It’s documented. You have both commentary and action simultaneously and instantaneously. So it’s not just about watching what’s happening, you’re also hearing how it’s being interpreted at the moment that it’s happening.” The shorter pieces are often small, quotidian moments that make a person suddenly aware of race. These poems chronicle an accumulation of small wounds from awkward moments and thoughtlessly spoken words, as Rankine tries to track how these small acts can lead to larger atrocities. To do so, she documented not only her own experiences with race, but stories gathered from twenty-five friends, both black and white. She uses the second person “you” to put the reader right in the middle of these moments as they unfold.

In Citizen, Rankine skillfully captures the racial violence that can appear in language. One of the most memorable lines from the collection is “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Beyond the basic idea it conveys, what captures me here—and brings me back to this line again and again as the essence of the collection—is the choice of two words, “thrown,” and “sharp,” which denote contrast in this context, but also have violent connotations. However, the idea of physical violence is never far away, either. One two page spread hit me like a punch in the gut. On the right-hand page, a haiku on Ferguson reads only “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.” It sits opposite a piece that is also a list, which evolves with each new printing of the book. The first line reads “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis.” In my edition, the tenth printing, the final complete line reads “In Memory of Sandra Bland.” Below it, the words “In Memory” appear ten more times, slowly fading as they approach the bottom of the page, ominously awaiting completion.

Although it is short, it would be a mistake to read Citizen too quickly; you could zip right through it without absorbing it, missing the subtleties. Not being much for more abstract modern poetry, I found the greatest strengths to be in the more concrete pieces, though I could always appreciate Rankine’s play with rhythm and repetition. I also suspect it would amply reward a second reading, as there is undoubtedly much here I have missed.

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Cover image for Ru by Kim Thuy translated by Sheila Fischman You might also like Ru by Kim Thuy

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4 thoughts on “Citizen: An American Lyric

  1. I have to imagine this is a comparison made a lot given the shared topic, but the strength of this collection and its ability to make you think if you slow down and take it in remind me very favorably of Between the World and Me. I was a little reluctant to pick this up because I don’t typically read poetry, but your review has made me think it’s a must read.

    1. I always pick another book as a comparable read at the end of each post, and I actually decided against using Between the World and Me in this case because I figured everyone would have already made the connection! So I chose to highlight a less known work, but they definitely tie together well.

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