‘Citizen: An American Lyric’ by Claudia Rankine book review

This review was published in June 2016 in the Cuckoo Review here.

 

Before I opened the pages of Claudia Rankine’s new collection Citizen: An American Lyric, I was unsure if I could define the distinction between poetical prose and prosaical poetry. One hundred and sixty pages later, I was no closer.

Citizen is angry, Citizen is boiling, Citizen is crying hard for recognition of the fact that in this so-called ‘post-racist’ world, racism is still out there and cutting into people’s hearts every single day of their lives. But all this surging power is encased in beautiful sections of prose and poetry, which blurs the boundaries between the two formats more than any collection I have read previously.

Above all, Rankine’s collection feels startlingly alive. From describing the casual racism appropriated by people jokingly calling each other a “ho”, to the flagrant, racist discrimination that occurred again, and again, and again, when Serena Williams battled on the tennis court against white competitors – we are alive with Rankine and in the moment, feeling our blood boil just as outrageously as hers.

This isn’t to say that the book is full of expletives, or is overly violent, or aggressive. No, the particular skill of Rankine’s is to convey this anger through the most calm, most impressively precise and delicate use of language. Through the above stories, scripts from a collaboration with John Lucas on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, dotted additions of carefully curated artwork, video stills, and a full pages of heavy, smudged typeface, Rankine discovers an entirely new way to write about race and racism in America today.

Even when supposedly protected, by the word ‘citizen’, Citizen shows that in America today there still exist two very different types of citizen – the white and the black. And even for Rankine, who, through her poetical success, has jumped over the fence into the ‘white’ category, she is exposed to flagrant racism that friends think don’t apply to her. Prejudice exists all the way up the economic ladder, and whatever rung you stand on, this book will open your eyes.

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