I’m not entirely sure why I’ve never reviewed Citizen. It’s been on my living room bookshelf for years. Recently, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and many people making a concerted effort to read more books by Black authors, I’ve seen this title popping up in many a recommended reading list. And for good reason, for this little poetry book packs a whopping punch – not surprisingly, given its author is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and Chancellor to the Academy of Poets, with multiple, lauded, book awards to her name.
Since I’ve seen this book popping up a lot, I thought I’d offer a quick glimpse into its content and style. I would describe this style of poetry as content above form. Much of the book is structured in paragraphs resembling prose as much as lyric. This is not a rhyming, rhythmic metric, found in so much of the poetry world. It’s closer to spoken word rather than measured verse. This form compliments authorial voice, and the book reads in a way that is deeply personal, bold, and conversational.
It starts by highlighting numerous racist microaggressions experienced by the author:
“When a woman you work with calls you by the name of another woman you work with, it is too much of a cliché not to laugh out loud with the friend beside you who says, oh no she didn’t. Still, in the end, so what, who cares? She had a fifty-fifty chance of getting it right”.
Moments like this one are presented, one after another, for at least the first half of the book; an sustained recording of incidents that underscore racist assumptions and prejudice. The second half of the book contains poems largely memorial in nature. This half of the book is slightly more measured than the first half. Interestingly, this section of the book includes ten “scripts for situation”, which are companion videos that can be found on Claudia Rankine’s website. They are meant to be watched before reading the poems proceeding them, and I must confess that I did not watch the videos. Likely, watching them would have enhanced my reading experience, though I was able to enjoy the poems on their own.
Despite skipping the videos, I think their inclusion is fascinating. Claudia Rankine has written a book of poetry that is an art installation of sorts. The book extends beyond the page to an online forum of video shorts. Additionally, the poems in the book are interspersed with pictures and graphics, as if the reader is being led through an art gallery in between poems. To appreciate the full extent of Claudia Rankine’s artistic expression, the reader must consume several elements both on and off the page. In this way, Citizen is not simply a book of poetry – it is a multi-media work of art. Though the poems themselves are powerful enough by their own merits.