I picked up a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric following Simon Armitage’s inaugural lecture here in Oxford towards the end of Michaelmas. He touched upon her writing as he discussed the prominence of poetry in modern life, and to what extent it still holds significance. He questioned whether Rankine’s novel poem can actually be considered poetry, and after reading Citizen one discovers that whether it is or is not really does not matter. Citizen: An American Lyric is a brutal yet honest portrayal of race relations and the racism that exists in our society, which manages to expose these hard cold facts in an imaginative and experimental space.
Rankine occupies this space of her own in her writing, a personal space that is never given to her characters. Her poetry exposes the prejudice that is seen in day-to-day encounters with friends and shop assistants, that exists in news reports and the media, and has an internal impact on the consciousness of character. She handpicks everyday situations and displays the prejudice and racism that permeates these daily encounters: a trip to Starbucks where a group of teenage boys are referred to as ‘niggers’ and a mother’s refusal to let her young daughter sit next to a black woman on a plane journey- ‘I see’ she says, ‘I’ll sit in the middle’. Citizen should be read alongside Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah, another excellent exposure of the life of an individual in American society and the prejudice and casual discrimination her protagonist receives, resonating with that witnessed in Rankine’s writing. In both, the isolation and alienation of the individual at the hands of the dominant US state and changing global society is overt. Rankine blends photography and image with her writing, managing to create a work that is both linguistically and visually experimental. Glen Ligons Four Etchings (1992) is perhaps the most striking of these images. The black etchings of the repeated ‘I Feel Most Coloured When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background’ looks to accentuate the violence these individuals experience and the importance of literature and art in highlighting racial issues. This violence is exposed in power of the spoken word. It can ‘erase you as an individual’ and make a person invisible. It can cause a physical suffering and evoke painful sensations. For Rankine words are violent, they are brutal. Words are a weapon one should be afraid of.
Whether Citizen: An American Lyric can be titled as poetry or not is irrelevant. The exposure of the violent and horrific nature of the society we live in and its attitude towards race, in such an experimental and innovative space on the page through tying in both image and text makes Rankine’s writing a piece of art. Whatever it is, visual image, poetry, or a novel, it is entitled to literary credit.