Breaking form

By Anton Nimblett

Citizen, by Claudia Rankine
(Graywolf Press, ISBN 1555976905, 160 pp)

claudia rankine

Claudia Rankine. Photograph courtesy Graywolf Press

On Saturday, Amber tells you she no longer wants to speak. Not English, not “American,” no language of colonial power. On Monday, you enter the world of Citizen, and soon you believe that Claudia Rankine had a similar conversation with a friend. Or harboured the thought. There is a language revolt afoot in these pages. Rankine meticulously paints a landscape splattered with aggressions (writ small and large), populated by invisible bodies, and framed by consequences resulting from these realities.

Conversation about Citizen begins with “microagressions” — surely this is where your eye first lands. This is where the graduate student who engages you on in a subway car in Brooklyn begins. She’s read the book in class. You are careful to expand the conversation, because this is not where it should end. For example, the first piece in Citizen tells of a twelve-year-old girl at Catholic school. Her classmate says she “smells good and has features more like a white person.” This microaggression is where Citizen opens, but what underlies and allows space for it is invisibility. “The girl sitting in the seat behind asks you to lean to the right during exams,” but Sister Evelyn doesn’t discover the cheating, perhaps because “she never actually saw you sitting there.”

In the second term of Barak Obama’s presidency, in the age of ShondaLand and ubiquitous hip-hop culture, Jamaica-born Professor Rankine, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, argues that black people are invisible? Yes. This is a particular type of invisibility, and Rankine is interested in how it is performed and how it plays out in today’s world.

One girl is not seen fully, is removed from the equation, such that she cannot be involved in cheating. The argument, of course, is not of physical impairment or ignorance of names as they appear atop test papers. Rather, this is beginning to ask about consequence: what else is lost or mangled because of a failure to see?

Building from this episode, Rankine layers instance upon instance, expanding from the personal and private to the publicly displayed, covering the canvas. Young girls and little boys are not seen, adult Algerian footballers playing before millions on a worldwide field are unseen, college professors are unseen by service providers and colleagues and passersby.

A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking . . .Yes, and you want it to stop, you want the child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet, to be brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.

The particular invisibility/hypervisibility Rankine explores is the requirement for your neighbour to call the cops on a babysitter he’s previously met but can recognise only as a threat. You are seen through the contorted lens of an historically tainted imagination. “You begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.”

In Rankine’s process of laying one brushstroke of microaggression over another and beside another, filling the frame, she insists that you engage with it. It’s a preemptive strike towards the inevitable excuses, explanations, dismissals that come so readily in response to a single telling. Repetition, and the expansion from private to public experiences, also serves as a form of documentation and validation of experiences. The repetition is sly exploitation of the very hypervisible/invisible, saying look closer, look, look.

Rankine mulls over several highly publicised sports events (with Serena Williams, the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and an Algerian footballer) where the bright light of international television captures racially situated aggressions. These public performances do the work of solidifying, making real through a poetic archiving that which is often denied.

Yet even this is not enough. So, Rankine enlists you as agent, using the second person in almost every piece. You are cast as the character encountering each aggression. The reprise of you within each scene has the cumulative effect of repositioning the vantage point — with the purpose of engendering change.

Lest you still need to be convinced of the need for change (if perhaps you are comfortable dismissing the private or personal microaggressions, if you can yet ignore the public performances), Rankine draws unmistakable lines connecting invisibility/hypervisibility to microagressions to macroaggressions. As promised by the cover image of a 1993 sculpture by artist David Hammons, a torn black hood — which immediately invokes the specific horror of Trayvon Martin’s final moments, even as it echoes backwards and forwards in time — Rankine addresses the killing of Martin, as well as those of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the responses to Hurricane Katrina. On the surface, Rankine devotes fewer words, less space to these instances. Don’t be misled. Each word on every page engages with these horrors. And what’s more, in crafting works that address these globally publicised events, Rankine transcends the page with audio-visual presentations linked via the Internet. These “Scripts for Situation videos” signify both a break from, and an expansion in, form.

Citizen is not a collection of poems. Everything here is poetic, yes, impressively so, but there is a distancing from form — both the form of the poem, and the form of the poetry collection. There is no table of contents; there are section numbers (I–VII) but scant titles (only in section VI); and line breaks are virtually abandoned. You consider this piece, decide it is not essay, not prose poem. It begins:

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened you are at a loss for words.

That you hear this poem with breaks, that Rankine omits them, is telling. You encounter this within the wider space of form-defying leaps, then insert into the equation Rankine’s use of visual art. Photographs and renderings of paintings, sculpture, and installations are never mere illustrations. They are punctuation, markers, signifiers, dialogue. They are intrinsic to the text. The very lines between text and image blur quite intentionally in Untitled: Four Etchings and in the “Script for Situation video October 10, 2010 / World Cup”. While some poems engage ekphrastically, building and commenting on the visual, others are more collaborative, and defy easy this-before-that readings. This is particularly so with the “Situation” videos, explicitly listed as a “collaboration with John Lucas.”

The body of the book ends with a painting, but is followed by indices — “Images” and “Works Referenced” and then acknowledgements which describe the pieces and “essays and poems,” underlining the intention of form break.

One, or some, of these form breaks would be experiment, perhaps subversion. The aggregate, and the very valid and marvellous uses of them, is a revolt. You may want to call this book collage, perhaps genre-bending. Citizen is in fact a genre-fuck. A more purposeful, fiercer, in-your-face defiance of rules, crafted in service of function. As much a response to the larger public aggressions and horrors as it is to the quiet and personal.

To live through the days sometimes you moan like a deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh . . . you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about.

The form break, the genre-fuck, is only as successful as it functions. One of the simplest and most effective examples is the in memoriam starting on page 134, a list of names that fades into blank space. Leaving room for names unmentioned and names to come.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2015

Anton Nimblett is the author of Sections of an Orange (2009). His fiction and poetry appear in various literary journals. His reviews have appeared previously in The Caribbean Review of Books and sx salon. He is currently at work on a new book, “Something Promised”.