Why I Write: Because Here Is Nowhere Steady

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is the California Book Club’s April 2023 selection.

claudia rankine
Caleb Lee Adams

I write because the world seems out of order. One reads and reads and the language attaches to some dictionary’s idea of meaning in vague and inexact ways. In the end it all seems to be, as my daughter once said, triage language. Words address proximity to meaning but not the meaning itself. The word “meaning” is inadequate to the scope of experiencing a thing, its activity, its context, its history. A group of Black policemen brutalize a Black man at a traffic stop. Three days later, he dies in the hospital. How does one fully understand the brutality contained in that? How do we approach the meaning of the word “brutality” here? Do inhumanity and self-hatred create a dance as a life slips away?

We live adjacent to expression. The words, like some people, are trying. The stories are trying. The reports attempt to locate. The fictions live close to the nonfiction, but all utterance loses its way. All utterance is wayward. People are fucked-up and liars and cheats and brutal and naïvely sincere or falsely sincere or blatantly insincere or extremist melodramatic narcissists or blind to themselves and others or human. We shovel words toward some approximation of a thought, but the thought is already failing because the reality is already fading or far enough from the mark to make utterance preposterous or an understatement. That’s not what happened. But of course things are happening. Meaning is being made. Lives are lived and lives are lost.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

Everything lives and has lived. All is easily said and then written down in a “creative way.” Even journalism winks at us with its clarity. Here it is. See? But what do we see? The language again fails to reflect because its object is a moving target of a world out of order and on a collision course with itself. With so much writing now there is no longer a sense of a future. What to do when there is nothing to do? We the writers are also out of order, and therefore our words are out of order too.

Poetry lives in the vagaries. It knows the jig is up. It skips around and in between without landing anywhere because here is nowhere steady. The poem makes nothing happen even as it survives, as Auden said, because it is unrealizable and unreliable. It makes no claims of fiction or nonfiction; it exists in the line or in the sentence; it remembers; it forgets; it’s awake; it’s asleep; it dreams. And yet the unsaid gets said somehow in what’s unsaid between the lines. In the realm of feeling, the poem creates a phew or an ouch, a fuck or a shit, a damn or a wow. There is shadowy meaning even in the silences—the white space on the page.

I write because the world seems out of order. It’s deeply personal, this backed-up flood of feeling. I live closely with the I-know-nothing sense of things. Getting rid of the illusion of knowing and replacing it with feeling-what-I’m-seeing helps. I read a César Vallejo poem in translation, so already far from the intended guttural responsive expression communicated through one’s mother tongue and still I couldn’t forget it. With me remained not just the poem but also the world Vallejo was trying to express: “There are blows in life, so powerful … I don’t know!” Then I read a poem by Paul Celan with these lines: “two / mouthfuls of silence.” Yup. This kept happening. Dickinson. Hughes. Toomer. Again and again I found in poems language that expressed the disorder with no ideas of how to triage. Looking back, I see this made some kind of sense in a senseless life.

I write in order not to have to create anything outside our ordinary disorder. I try to write from my position of being fucked-up, destroyed, disheartened, dismantled, disassociated by the disorder and yet here with gratitude and delight in small moments of kindness. The structures of my books are governed not by convention but by an attempt to reflect the disorder. Now that a realized disorder is both the recognized reality and an illusion of order, I try writing inside the buoyancy of my disgust, distrust, despair, and exuberance at being able to feel everything. The writing brings a shape to my disordered feelings. The shape does not create order, it’s just a shape to place experience. It’s “a shape to fill a lack,” to echo Faulkner’s Addie Bundren, before everything returns to its out of order disorder and it is again difficult to write.

Graywolf Press


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Claudia Rankine is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, and a collection of essays.
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