Incorrect Merciful Impulses by Camille Rankine

Incorrect Merciful ImpulsesIn Incorrect Merciful Impulses, Camille Rankine reaches for her reader with her generous range of poetic forms and her capacity to activate and modulate a series of internal-scapes both varied and honest. In this, Rankine leaves her reader in the midst/mist of a sharable and deeply moving poetic experience that feels personal even as it conjures incarceration and rising sea levels:

where we imagine
tumult just is       it is

the end     we seek
shelter     we are good

citizens     we shut up
our eyes       for so long

we wait and wait
the room grows     smaller

the sea     rises up
to meet us

By dwelling on Rankine’s generosity of form, I hope to articulate what I take to be her interest in leaving behind (or aside) poetry that strives to be the great-obscurator between poet and reader, poem as opaque and indecipherable sphinx; instead, Rankine seeks to offer poetry that is open, honest and multiplicitous in its communications and affectations. If a certain kind of calling-out has political legs, the calling-in of Rankine’s poetry conjures much more, an entire stage filled with and shared among various actors and the possibilities in otherwise-figured leading roles.

What Rankine shares with us, what is transferred between speaker and listener here in her collection of experiential and existential poems, are poems that have a side, a voice, a thread, a logic, a center, but are, none of them, either so steeped in specificity or so heavily conceptual that we are, as readers, left only able to boldly assert on either end of the most difficult of spectrums: the staid and static ends of particular and universal, the one and the all, me and they. The “I” of certain poems, for example functions both to specify and yet stand as trope:

How does it end this way? One bite
invites another. Wound scents the water
and the sharks come. I have been flesh
hungry and at sea. I have come down
kicking. The way sweet sinks
to the bottom. That last draw

In reading Rankine’s work, we can neither say “I see you with perfect clarity” nor “I am left in the dark,” neither “I know exactly what you are saying” nor “I have no idea,” neither “I totally feel you” nor “I feel nothing.” Knowing and feeling are displaced but not lost, decentered but not disappeared. Rankine instead takes up the possibilities of the ebb and flow between part and whole, between ourselves and our others. She speaks but she also amplifies, generating the inclusivity and conjuring those shifting subject positions poetry scripts so well.

Rankine writes a poetry of so many neither/nors that together form a wonderfully dynamic set of utterances, all of which are in some sense articulated under a ban, mapping territory without asserting it, a kind of poetic negative dialectics. There is however also an expression of drive, an aim, a trajectory and an unfolding that touches the beginning and end of this stunning collection of poems: we open with the internalized addressee of Tender, the first poem in the collection, winds its way slowly outward into the bold assertions of shared history in We, the final poem:



Dear glad hands, curbed dog

Dear perfect object

The same night awaits us

Dear put upon

The day unfolds over and begins again

Dear bad animal

Dear caged thing

There was something about you

This series of letter-begins that are also ends, (as “day unfolds over and begins again”), aimed first at glad hands, then perfect object, bad animal and caged thing; by the end of the book, this aiming has gathered force and company, become speech, with the address itself as a kind of action:



have emboldened, been made bold

have been uplifted, held
PUT_CHARACTunder, mourned, been mourned

have been a tale told
PUT_CHARACTand untold

have been a language lost
PUT_CHARACTowning nothing of ourselves

have been a love that dims
PUT_CHARACTthe line drawn between us to remind

have deceived, been taken in

have been destroyed
PUT_CHARACThave been beginning

have been discovery, a new fruit
PUT_CHARACTgrowing ripe within our skins

In Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses, then, the impulse is ultimately facing out, speaking to us and yet by way of us, addressing objects but constituting shared subjects, and the ending, “have been destroyed” is generously followed by a “have been beginning,” allowing us to breathe, to think of beginning, again, even at the end. This movement is repeated throughout, as we cycle through Symptoms and Still Life and The Problem of Death within Life, and finally Lament for the Living, we are stuck surviving our dead. When we encounter Ex Machina, a phrase shorn of its deus and naming a poem that describes our catastrophic predicament, we might think to mourn that loss too, but then we gradually find ourselves in good company, with Rankine to help us tend to our dead as she works exactly to reanimate what we might have thought ought to possess animation on its own: the living.



Lynarra Featherly is an experimental poet with a poet’s interest in critical theory and psychoanalysis. She received her MFA from UW Bothell’s MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, and her writing has appeared in The Conversant and Tupelo Quarterly. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Letter [r] Press, which publishes the journal small po[r]tions, as well as ephemera and chapbooks. Lynarra is currently teaching poetry and poetics at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.