2016 Reading Challenge · Book Reviews · Conferences

Citizen: An American Lyric

Claudia Rankine’s newest collection of poetry had been flying pretty steadily under my radar. It would pop up on my Facebook feed that it was on the New York Times bestseller list or that it was nominated for a National Book Award, but would drop back down below the surface. None of my friends were reading it, and since no one I knew was talking about it, I wasn’t motivated to read it. When I registered for the AWP conference, I saw that Claudia Rankine was one of the keynote speakers, so I put her on my list and grabbed a copy of Citizen: An American Lyric.

Citizen takes a hard look at racism in America and the ways it manifests itself. Rankine’s main theme throughout the collection is summed up in a note by Zora Neale Hurston—”I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Rankine puts six-line poems on a full, white sheet of paper, letting the reader sit in the white space at the bottom. She integrates images and art into her collection, letting them enhance a poem, further the dialogue, or stand independently.

What made Citizen so memorable for me was how Rankine doesn’t force readers to adopt her opinion. Many of her poems present a scene and let the reader decide how to interpret it. Will the reader be uncomfortable or accept what happened? These scenes are full of complexities and Rankine wants readers to sit in that gray area without making an immediate decision.

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough.

Rankine’s phrasing and imagery are beyond description.

I’m not always the biggest fan of poetry. Ranking’s collection challenged me, moved me, and inspired me. It’s a brilliant collection of poetry, art, essays, and so many other things. I highly recommend picking up a copy somewhere. Expect a long post of me fangirling over her AWP keynote sometime this week.


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