Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Claudia Rankine, _Citizen: An American Lyric_

BALDWIN, THOU SHOULDST be living at this hour. But in his absence, it's good to have this, which like Baldwin's essays has an anger so cold you would hesitate to call it anger save that, like dry ice, it burns.

Not that there is an angry word in it, or even anything that looks much like sustained argument. Its rhetorical power lies in its refusal of rhetoric gestures, maybe, a bit like the deadpan anecdote-by-anecdote method of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke. Consider this. Now this. And this. All the argument lies in the withholding of argumentation, which somehow multiplies its force.

There are risks to timeliness (discussed 3/16/2013), but since most of this book must have been written before Michael Brown and Eric Garner were shot, its timeliness feels more like prescience, like the Zagajewski poem that ran on the last page of the New Yorker the issue after 9/11--actually composed before the event, but somehow eerily, proleptically attuned to what had not yet happened.

Except that the pockets of racism that even a well-established poet on a progressive-minded campus will keep encountering had been happening all along, I guess, had never stopped happening, "post-racial" though we supposedly were. The allusion to Trayvon Martin in the image on the book's cover (a hoodie's detached and empty hood) reminds you that the "post-racial" idea was already pretty much exploded before the summer of 2014.

I've been asking myself why Rankine called the book "lyric," so far without success. It would take a very ambitious composer to set it to music--Anthony Braxton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, say. The text is hybrid, some poetry, some prose, some documentation, some quotations (including Baldwin); if there were a word for the kind of texts John D'Agata collected in The Next American Essay, it would be one of those.

It's the form of thing, I suspect, something in the subtlety of its arrangement, that leads me to think it will be read long after its peculiarly grim moment of autumn 2014 is over.

That and the irony that so painful a book is, as an object, so beautiful--the design, by John Lucas, is a page-to-page astonishment. Hats off to him, and to Graywolf Press, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the College of St. Benedict for ponying up to support this kind of work.

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