Long ago in Internet Time (which moves much faster than Everyday Life Time) I sent an email where I recommended this prose poem by Claudia Rankine. The poem was an excerpt of a book, Citizen, which is my pick for favorite book of poetry I read in 2014. I have been telling many people in my life, loudly and at great length, to read this book. I brought it home to North Carolina with me for Christmas and left it around for both my parents to read. I put it on the top of Nick's book-reading stack and pestered him until we could discuss it. It articulates what oppression feels like in the body, in lived time, harrowingly and often beautifully.
Reading this interview with Claudia Rankine while waiting in the TSA line to fly to North Carolina, I thought this about Citizen's subtitle, "An American Lyric": an American lyric can't be purely lyrical, it must be hybrid and broken and angry, because America is. This thought did not prepare me for how emotionally jarring it would be to read Citizen cover to cover in an airport lounge.
I keep thinking about short little moments from the book: the very beginning, sleepless and remembering, "You smell good." I keep thinking about wearing dark glasses inside the house: “they soothe, soothe sight, soothe you.” I think a lot about this:
You take in things you don’t want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus. Hold up, did you just hear, did you just say, did you just see, did you just do that? Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.
But the ultimate piece I keep thinking about from Citizen is the "you" inside it. There's a play of rhetoric: you understand the narrator to be saying "you" to mean "I." Instead of the “lyric I” that has a long history in poetic theory, we get a lyric you. There's a complicity to this. You are responsible. And you are the person who is slighted when a colleague says that she didn't know black women got cancer, or that your author photo looks angry. Did you just hear, did you just say, did you just do that?
You are real; you take up as much space as I do. Reading Citizen makes you see people not as populations, a very abstract word I sometimes see in my work days: you see these lyric yous as the product of their experiences, no longer abstract or elsewhere. You see how those experiences are layered on them: not just through their lives, but through their families, through shared cultural experience, through historical memory. And the poem is the lens of all this experience. The poem strips away the everyday layers of abstraction you put between yourself and the world in order to live in it, then reconstructs them differently.
Another bit of Citizen I wrote down in my notebook, because I saw myself in it: "You are sitting around, publicly listening..." I am a vampire of experiences in my poems, harvesting little scraps of what people say on the bus or the street or in the coffee shop and building worlds around them. Public listening, with its scrappy overheard quality, is woven throughout The Pedestrians, another book of poems I enjoyed a great deal last year. In that book Rachel Zucker has several different poems called "real poem" (all the titles are set in lower case like that). Here's one, called “real poem (happiness)”:
We’re all fucked up because in English
the phrase “to make someone happy”
suggests that’s possible.