Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine (book review)

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine 

Read this book.

Okay, that's not going to be my entire blog post on this book, but it could be.

Citizen is a book-length poem about racism, both micro- and macro-aggressions, in America. It is written primarily in the second person, and is actually the first book-length work I have read in the second person (No, I haven't read Bright Lights, Big City.) The use of the second person was remarkably compelling to me. I knew it was written in the second person before I picked it up, and was worried it might come across as "gimmicky" to me, or even annoying. It didn't. It was gripping and helped propel me through the narrative.

Until I read Citizen, not only had I never read in the second person, I had also rarely (ever?) read a volume of modern poetry as a coherent entity (of course I have read epic poetry like that — my obsession with The Divine Comedy is a topic for another day!). I have been reading all modern poetry collections as if they were anthologies, dipping in and out, never reading straight through.

Citizen is not meant to be read that way. The work is not clearly separated into different poems with titles that can be easily excerpted (though part of it was published in "Poetry" in March 2014 and can be found here; please, please, at least check this out to see if you could be into the full work), but each section of poetry is set off by whitespace and sometimes imagery.

Rankine has amazing range as a poet. She seems to effortlessly turn from a stream-of-consciousness style (as in the excerpt I linked) to a more abstract style, sort of Jackson Pollock poetry; at times she is working more towards effect than towards meaning. (I am sure there is a name for this style of poetry; can any blog readers out there help me out? Is it just modernism?)

Stylistically, the closest thing to Citizen that I have read is probably Ulysses, which I am reading right now. Both works use dialogue, stream of consciousness, and words-for-their-effects. Both Joyce and Rankine turn almost effortlessly from one voice to another. (Lest my comparison to Ulysses turn you away, I will reassure you that Rankine is much more readable than Joyce. Also, Citizen is only 160 pages long, with fairly large print and pictures. Ulysses, let me assure you, has no pictures.)

Is this my favorite style of writing? No. No, it isn't. But Rankine is so very, very good at it that I actually don't care. In a totally-not-at-all sort of way (they are entirely different poets) my reaction to her reminds me of my reaction to Sylvia Plath: not at all my type of poetry, but omigod you are so good at this. 

I've been reading a lot about racism recently (like lots of people in America right now), and this is hands down the best thing I've read, both in terms of compelling me and in terms of sheer artistic virtuosity.

Read this book.