A Noncommittal Engagement: Citizen by Claudia Rankine

With the sophistication of its dialectical movement, the gravitas of its ethical appeal, and the mercy of its psychological rigor, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen combines traditional poetic strains in a new way and passes them on to the reader with replenished vitality. The subject matter is explicit, yet the writing possesses a self-containment, whether in verse or in prose. Neither consistent with genre conventions nor independent of them, this book stands out among recent offerings in poetry, art and scholarship.

Rankine’s assessment of the writing of Juliana Spahr might revealingly be applied to her own as well.  In an interview with Poets.org, Rankine writes of Spahr that she admires

her vision – sort of the politics of her work, the connectedness that she advocates in her critical work and that is demonstrated in her creative work[.]

Whatever may be said about an individual poet’s vision, vision itself is a unity of endeavor. When we ask what qualities Rankine has advocated in her own critical work, and how Citizen might be said to demonstrate them – when we ask what her vision is, in other words – the following statement from the same interview seems a fitting reply:

I don’t feel any commitment to any external idea of the truth.  I feel like the making of the thing is the truth, will make its own truth.

For Claudia Rankine, truth is an aesthetic that implies or contains ethics – in short, it is beauty. The poet’s truth consists in the execution of a work of art. As for what kind of truth, what kind of beauty, “the making of the thing” has made, we might adduce the following remark, from the author’s interview in BOMB:

I am not interested in narrative or truth, or truth to power, on a certain level; I am fascinated by affect, by positioning, and by intimacy[.]

As the preoccupations which decide how the poet will perceive her subject matter, these three qualities – affect, positioning, and intimacy – infuse the theme of Citizen with its form, in the same way that, according to the author (again in the BOMB interview), emotion animates the wordless faces of the Rutgers women’s basketball team in a photo taken of them after they were insulted by Don Imus:

Their feelings, as I am reading them, flood their decorum of silence, which is, in part, the subject of Citizen.

A range of emotions insufflates the words with which Citizen is composed, much as a mix of feelings animates the silent decorum of the athletes in the picture. This is important to note, in a way which makes it different from any other work of poetry, in that the author has searched through the available mass of contemporary popular imagery for an analogy to illustrate her work for the general reader – a fact that sets her apart from certain poets, and aligns her with others – and has chosen to state not only that the theme of Citizen is an emotional charge resulting from the everyday struggle to maintain a standard of behavior which she quite rightly calls “decorum” – but also that this social tension is a metaphor for the different sorts of tension involved in writing poetry. The complexity of these considerations liberates us from reading the text according to such timeworn false binaries as Truth and/or Beauty.

If Rankine’s fascinations – affect, positioning and intimacy – are similar in that they all entail a subject-object relation of one kind or another, then we may be forgiven for understanding them as the preoccupations of an engagé sensibility.  By this I mean that, although for the author of Citizen the aesthetic dimension of poetry is of the first importance, Rankine’s is hardly an art made for its own sake, a Parnassian or Hermetic independence; instead we find that her subject matter is explicit on almost every page. Rankine’s published remarks on the politics of other writers would seem to substantiate such a perspective.  In the Poets.org interview, for example, she offers the following view:

I feel very close to Yeats, partly because I think Yeats – even though I don’t agree with his politics – was very interested in the politics of the world he was living in.  He was affected by it; he had to address it.  And that’s something I feel like I understand.  I also feel very moved by the work of Emily Dickinson for the same reason, though the work is very different.

For Rankine, to recognize the condition of poetry is to acknowledge that there are other agencies at work in the universe besides human ones. Citing ecopoetics, again in Poets.org, she explains:

When somebody like Gary Snyder is very interested in engagement with the landscape as it exists rather than in a romantic way, that speaks to me.  That’s a sensibility that I understand.  At a certain level, all poetry seeks something, is looking, is in conversation with something.

A distinguishing feature of Rankine’s art is the conviction, or determination, evinced on every page, that the poem and the nonpoem shall freely share in a singular grand condition of alterity.  The striking thing is not so much that for Rankine poetry registers or addresses an external presence or absence, but that whatever it is that’s out there, it’s paying attention.  The frequency with which a poet addresses this topic may be taken as a reliable measure of his or her engagement.  And what does Citizen concern itself with – what is it, out there, in this author’s imagination?  For an answer, we might turn again to her BOMB interview:

It seems obvious but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws.  Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.

Racism is not only alive and well in the United States, it’s no less pervasive than ever. It doesn’t only rear its ugly head on high, or enact prejudicial policies through institutionalized discrimination, or break out in violence: racism ruins social interactions which seem least susceptible to infection by hostile prejudice, because they’re so ordinary, so mundane.  In a 1977 paper called “An Experiment in Racism,” a group of Harvard University scholars working with Chester M. Pierce laid the foundations for a formal investigation into this subject.  These academics used the term “microaggression” to denote the phenomenon:

The chief vehicles for proracist behaviors are microaggressions.  These are subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are “put-downs” of blacks by offenders.  The offensive mechanisms used against blacks often are innocuous.  The cumulative weight of their neverending burden is the major ingredient of black-white interactions.  This accounts for a near-inevitable perceptual clash between blacks and whites in regard to how a matter is described as well as the emotional charge involved.

What sets microaggressions apart from the normal rudeness with which they are so thinly disguised, is the combination of: first, a sharp, narrow focus (it is made clear during the interactions that there could be no basis for hostility other than color); second, intensity (these behaviors go further, and go on for longer, than common anonymous nastiness does); and finally, a false pretense to ephemerality (these behaviors leave almost no trace which can be addressed, spoken of, named an aggression, in the social sphere of the moment).  The presence of the above qualities makes for an atmosphere of intolerance.  Such aggression is neither passive nor micro, but covert and targeted.  And the upshot of complicity in this modus vivendi, this masquerade – these sullen gestures of contempt, and these stoic gestures of fortitude – is a systematic reinforcement of (or a herdlike conformity to) customary abuses of privilege which create nothing but disenfranchisement, and which we might as well agree to call the new old white supremacism.

Such considerations pose the question whether, historically, to many African-Americans, the struggle for equality has not drawn considerable inspiration from the revolutionary overthrow of oppressive totalitarian regimes in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. One also wonders whether – although such inspiration ultimately often proves to be a metaphorical expression of the spirit of self-determination (perhaps the more powerful for that) – the Black experience in the United States has not also been a postcolonial and nationalist one, in the sense that the concept of a diasporic Black Nation is never far from sight in the mind’s eye. Indeed, to observers who live in other countries, might it not be true that – because of African-Americans’ formative influence both domestic and foreign – the USA is Black? If doubts linger about the relevance of these speculations to a reading of Citizen, the reader is referred to quotations from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth in Section VI devoted to a Situation video script on the 2006 World Cup.

National identity is the traditional domain of epic.  The subtitle “An American Lyric” – also the subtitle of Rankine’s 2004 book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – implies an opus which combines modes of writing that might otherwise be understood as conflicting imperatives, in the sense that a lyric has no nation, and an epic no subjectivity: these two books propose that in American poetry there can be no lyric address without an attempt to characterize the nation using the technology of epic – and vice versa: no poem with epic ambitions will succeed without also ceding place to lyric concentration.  Extensive periods in the history of poetry possess this dual quality as their defining characteristic, the long eighteenth century in England for instance; one thinks also of the Modernists in general and Melvin Tolson in particular, some of whose work is likewise concerned with the forms of popular culture, with national identity, and with self-determination.

It may come as a surprise that the word citizen is used to indicate a condition of the spirit. Once upon a time, during the early phases of centralization in the south of France, the territory beyond the Medieval city wall, the cité or “outskirt,” fell under the city’s jurisdiction, as contracts among urban interests took precedence over the oaths that bound them to feudal lords. When that happened, any and every citydweller, whether within the gates or outside them, came to be called a citoyen or “citizen.” This was a vernacular usage, not an administrative designation. The definition of the possibilities of human nature which developed alongside the terms of community membership captivates the imagination. An image of the city as a dwelling-place for the blest who live in eternal bliss offered a metaphor: a way to consider the form of human qualities, the character of humanity as it appears not only outside of time, but also secularized, profane and humanistic. The concept of citizenship is central to this nascent construct, the human spirit, which in turn is the soil from which our contemporary society has grown. Every waking moment on Earth gives the lie to this ideal, but that is precisely its raison d’être. It should be remembered that this is a philosophical definition, unfixed, always in the process of being revised. Moreover, the body politic is most vulnerable where the names of the human spirit go unspoken or are misapplied or omitted: this is where vagueness and obscurity must grow distinct and clear, if it is not to encroach upon, envelop and overshadow what we have been able, at great cost, to apprehend.

Rankine’s prosy lines don’t plod under the weight of terminology.  The reason why is not far to seek; returning to the BOMB interview once again, we read:

I made a conscious decision to inhabit my own subjectivity in this book in the sense that the middle-class life I live, with my highly educated, professional, and privileged friends, remains as the backdrop for whatever is being foregrounded.  Everyone is having a good time together – doing what they do, buying what they can afford, going where they go – until they are not.  The break in the encounter wouldn’t wound without the good times.

The protagonist of Citizen, “you,” is a product of the conventions of autobiographical fiction. This character’s interactions with the world are empirical and epideictic but also idealistic and forensic. “You” reacts to circumstance in the narrated events with a quiet assertiveness.  The passages describing routine errands or other encounters with strangers conclude when “you” subdues the aggressor, who then resumes a posture of politeness or professionalism, corrected and kept in check if not humbled:

At the end of a brief phone conversation, you tell the manager you are speaking with that you will come by his office to sign the form.  When you arrive and announce yourself, he blurts out, I didn’t know you were black!

I didn’t mean to say that, he then says.

Aloud, you say.

What? he asks.

You didn’t mean to say that aloud.

Your transaction goes swiftly after that.

Other passages depict encounters with friends and colleagues.  These conclude when the protagonist has replied with a courteous but firm challenge, and the outcome of the exchange hangs in suspense, unresolved:

Despite the fact that you have the same sabbatical schedule as everyone else, he says, you are always on sabbatical.  You are friends so you respond, easy.

What do you mean?

Exactly, what do you mean?

Rankine’s vernacular is the expression of a rhetoric that addresses attitudes toward racial difference.

And what of the philosophy that this rhetoric serves? In the essay on Serena Williams in Section II, the conflicts are transposed from the world of interpersonal relations onto the world of imagery manufactured for mass consumption. Here the protagonist reacts to stimuli by way of analysis and critique. The essay observes journalistic, academic and rhetorical conventions (the tropes of reportage, the critical reference to a text, the epideictic address) and applies them to Williams’ performance in the global spectacle of professional tennis. The effect of Rankine’s use of these conventions here, as compared to when she doesn’t use them elsewhere, is that Williams’ interactions with the world of women’s pro tennis become a metaphor for the individual black person’s negotiations with white U.S. society. The crux of this piece comes when Rankine considers Williams’ abandonment of outwardly shown anger – which the essay characterizes as stereotypically black – and her assimilation of ambiguity, a manner which the essay characterizes as stereotypically white. The author draws a few conclusions about the ways in which news outlets pander to racial bias:

Watching this newly contained Serena, you begin to wonder if she finally has given up wanting better from her peers or if she too has come across Hennessey’s Art Thoughtz and is channeling his assertion that the less that is communicated the better. Be ambiguous. This type of ambiguity could also be diagnosed as dissociation and would support Serena’s claim that she has had to split herself off from herself and create different personae.

Now that there is no calling out of injustice, no yelling, no cursing, no finger-wagging or head shaking, the media decides to take up the mantle when on December 12, 2012, two weeks after Serena is named WTA Player of the Year, the Dane Caroline Wozniacki, a former number-one player, imitates Serena by stuffing towels in her top and shorts, all in good fun, at an exhibition match. Racist? CNN wants to know if outrage is the proper response.

The depth and strength of Citizen consists in its adherence to an emotional standard of interconnection among human beings. Sooner or later all adults gain at the very least an awareness of the kind of transformation Williams has gone through – from the specificity of emotionalism to an inscrutable ambiguity – no matter the particulars: and it is from this perspective that anyone at all may expand their understanding by imagining what the particulars mean for another person, in this case a public figure undergoing her difficulties under intense scrutiny. The essay contributes to the genre by citing as a series of video tutorials about contemporary art available on YouTube. This revitalization of the genre, and Rankine’s hybrid genres in general, embody the concerns of the book in that they assert a compatibility of modes to be discovered in the process of writing, rather than as laws to be observed a priori; and this assertion implies that we may find unforeseen possibilities in the world where we live, by discovering new combinations rather than merely going along with custom.

The “you” of Citizen, the protagonist, the unitary self which brings such focused discernment to bear on the subject matter of these pages that it yields a theme – even this perceptive and active presence, authoritative as it is, doesn’t escape the condition of being an object of perception.  In Section VII the text modulates into metafiction, in the following lines:

Anyway, sit down.  Sit here alongside.

Exactly why we survive and can look back with furrowed brow is beyond me.

It is not something to know.

Your ill-spirited, cooked, hell on Main Street, nobody’s here, broken-down, first person could be one of many definitions to pass on.

The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.

Drag that first person out of the social death of history, then we’re kin.

Kin calling out the past like a foreigner with a newly minted “fuck you.”

Maybe you don’t agree.

Maybe you don’t think so.

Maybe you are right, you don’t really have anything to confess.

Why are you standing?

Listen, you, I was creating a life study of a monumental first person, a Brahmin first person.

If you need to feel that way – still you are in here and here is nowhere.

Join me down here in nowhere.

Don’t lean against the wallpaper; sit down and pull together.

This new interrogatory authorial voice shifts its subject matter and its tone, from the lyrical to the philosophical, in the space of a few lines.  “You” is not only anonymous, but also divided from itself:

You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless,

not worth you.

Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.

In the first two line-ends quoted above, the second-person pronoun oscillates, as the reader takes it in and passes to the beginning of the next line, discovering that each “you” is not only the object of the line at whose end it stands but also the subject of a dependent clause in the next line – “You are you even before you / grow into understanding you / are not anyone…” – and all of this takes place (so to speak) within a heightened, yet still comfortably readable, colloquial American English. Then, in the single-spaced lines immediately following this, the polysyllable “nonexistence” emphasizes the preceding passage, by introducing a darker term into the system of paired opposites.  Identity is a construct from which the psychic self stands quite separate, and the above excerpt recapitulates this theme on the grammatical level. Finally Rankine diagnoses the protagonist’s inward separation, a self-division also known as The Human Condition: “It’s just this, you’re injured.” The inward dimension of the protagonist comes to the fore only when “you” becomes the addressee and is considered in relation not to others but to her- or himself.

Citizen alludes to a life devoted to cultural pursuits.  “You” attends a lecture or class session where the human “injury” is revealed as a post-lapsarian condition inflicted by language:

Not long ago you are in a room where someone asks the philosopher Judith Butler what makes language hurtful.  You can feel everyone lean in.  Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she answers.  We suffer from the condition of being addressable.  Our emotional openness, she adds, is carried by our addressability.  Language navigates this.

The inclusion of Judith Butler contributes an explicit feminist current to the text.  Citizen’s protagonist interprets the above remarks as follows:

For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person.  After considering Butler’s remarks, you begin to understand yourself as rendered hypervisible in the face of such language acts.  Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present.  Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back, and, as insane as it is, saying please.

Butler’s remarks, and Rankine’s interpretation of them via a fictional character, resound within a context which can be called classical, in that it doesn’t locate the addressor and addressee inside the contemporary public sphere, with its oversophisticated mechanisms of mass distraction, but instead places the speakers inside an agora where, on a level field, both participants in the conversation possess nothing except their own eloquence with which to represent themselves, the world, and each other.  In this context, Rankine’s quotation from “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin suggests the light by which we might read Citizen for its beauty:

The rebuttal assumes an original form.

This endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful.

The beauty of this rebuttal entitled Citizen consists in its position as the third term of a dialectic.  Affect – the ways in which words are written or spoken and the ways in which actions are carried out – is the subject under consideration, and the tints and shades of intimacy drift across the proceedings.

The physical book of Citizen itself is an art object, gorgeously designed by John Lucas. Images reproduced in full color bleed off the page, opposite blocks of text floating on the negative space of cold white semi-gloss paper. Part exhibition catalogue, part Cultural Studies document, Citizen boasts sans serif type and sumptuous proportions that emphasize the nonfunctional nature of its printed content, an emphasis that is important because it forestalls cooptation. The connection between citizenship and the vernacular is captured in the book’s cover, which shows In the Hood, a 1993 piece by David Hammons consisting of a detached black hoodie hood held open with bent wire threaded through the drawstring holes. Below this we see the title in black, the author’s name in grey, and, also in grey, the subtitle “An American Lyric.” Of the visual images reproduced in the book, Rankine says, again in the BOMB interview:

I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling, and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image, a form where the text’s stated claims and interests would reverberate off the included visuals.

A viewing of the book suggests that the images’ sizing, placement and provenance ramify no less than their appearance, and that therefore they enjoy a status equal to that of the text’s stated claims and interests.  The images strike one as having been selected from an exceptionally large and diverse collection testifying to a deep preoccupation with visual imagery in the full diversity of its forms.  There are archival and documentary photos, art-historical reproductions, news video stills, YouTube screen grabs, sports footage frames arranged sequentially in strips, sculptures, collages, dioramas, and snapshots.  Two-page spreads inserted between sections punctuate the text, and bleeds offset lines of text on the facing page.  John Lucas, the author’s husband, designed and typeset the book and collaborated with her on the Situation videos whose scripts make up Section VI: these audiovisual texts take the imaginary museum to another level, setting up an installation that plays on a loop in dim galleries located just off the page somewhere.  Their combination of visual imagery, music, and voice-overs can only be described as soulful.  This all works with the rest of the text by suggesting an orderly universe in which poetry plays a distinct part. In the realms of the imagination, separate from disorder, this relationship between video, imagery and text – and Citizen as an art form – expresses a clear counternarrative. Such a parity of text, video and image means that in the imagination equality is different from equivalence, and that when different entities are placed on a level it is a pleasure to perceive the distinctions among them.

Today, in our shortsighted and tense moment, Claudia Rankine’s poetry of civic immanence is uniquely equipped to be equal to the Real itself. Finalist for a National Book Award in Poetry, and for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism, Citizen expands what is possible.


Originally from Los Angeles, Erik Noonan attended Hampshire College and the New College of California, where he earned an MA in the Graduate Poetics program, writing a thesis on Paul Blackburn. He is the author of the poetry collections Stances and Haiku d’Etat, and he has translated the contemporary French author Pierre Michon. His writing appears in: The Denver Quarterly, The Invisible Bear, The Small Press Book Review, 32 Poems Magazine, Sensitive Skin Magazine, A Guy Should Know, [sic], Samizdat, The Poetry Super Highway, Life As An, The Chronochle, and Subtletea. Noonan lives with his family in San Francisco.