‘Citizen’: An Assemblage of Experience

Critic Walton Muyumba examines the depth and techniques of Claudia Rankine’s work leading up to and including Citizen, the April CBC selection.

claudia rankine books

Claudia Rankine’s literary catalog includes a play, The White Card (2019); a work of creative nonfiction, Just Us: An American Conversation (2020); and five inventive, difficult, and surprising collections of poetry: Nothing in Nature Is Private (1994), The End of the Alphabet (1998), Plot (2001), Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), and Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).

The poems in Rankine’s first three collections are lush with playful obfuscation, experimental forms, and fascinating interrogations of domesticity, the female body, motherhood, marriage, and the confluences of all of the above. In “A short narrative of breasts and wombs entitled / Liv Lying on the Floor Looking at . . .,” a 15-part poem from Plot, Rankine’s speaker grapples with these confluences, thinking, “Today I wake, tomorrow I wake, and still this assemblage, its associated distortions, bewilders me.”

As the titles of Plot and The End of the Alphabet suggest, Rankine has long been interested in exploring, in her poetics, the intricacies of narrative and linguistic erosion. One part of Rankine’s inventiveness in her early collections comes from her willingness to disrupt readers’ expectations that poems ought to distill singular experiences into sharp, dramatic realizations and ideations that rise toward universal knowledge. Instead, Rankine has crafted a personal poetics for narrating the “assemblages” that we might call experience or ourselves.

Rankine’s most recent poetry books, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, are both works of collage. They are fundamental texts for understanding American life in the 21st century, the time of our collective terrorization and confrontation with the nation’s traumatic racial histories. Merging the techniques of persona poetry, cultural critique, and performance art, Rankine sets herself the complex task of fitting “language into the shape of usefulness,” to borrow a line from Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.

Though amorphous narrators voice the experimental prose poems contained in the two latter books, each verse is immediate and truth-telling. Both books starkly illuminate the sociopolitical zeitgeist in the United States. While Don’t Let Me Be Lonely—concerned with violence, illness (cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, liver failure, heart disease, PTSD), terrorism, political and corporate malfeasance, loneliness, and the poet Paul Celan—demonstrates beautifully that language must be simultaneously utility and gesture, it is Citizen that has made Rankine one of the most-read and -recognizable poets in American writing today.

Across its seven sections, Citizen presents a tart index of the psychic bruises, compound mental fractures, and fatal physical physical blows that Black Americans absorb while living in a racially hierarchical and segregated, anti-Black society. Rankine weaves her lines around images of artwork by Glenn Ligon, Carrie Mae Weems, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Nick Cave, and Wangechi Mutu, relying on them to amplify and punctuate her meanings.

Rankine knows the African American literary tradition intimately and also has a command of literary theory. Citizen is rife with references, from the late Lauren Berlant’s analyses of affect to Ralph Ellison’s philosophical definition of the blues. Probing the grievous wounds of Black experience, fingering their jagged textures, Rankine arrays a series of disparate stories, scenes, and incidents but without explanatory sinews; she proposes questions that go unanswered in these pages. Though Citizen seems merely iterative, Rankine plays variations on her themes. She makes repetition into method, form, narrative, and music, thus fulfilling poetry’s imperative.

Many critics and readers have resisted calling Citizen poetry, pointing out that Rankine’s typographical arrangements veer from verse forms toward essayistic prose. Though appearing prosaic, note that each clause and each complete sentence is a breath: “That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of / you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part / roughed up, the eyes dripping.” The compound effect of experiencing one’s dehumanization is disorienting and disembodying. Notice the way Rankine has broken these lines, enjambing them precisely. And as Citizen advances, Rankine’s chunks break down into the discernible lineation of verse. Section VII, in fact, opens with a long poem in free verse: “The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much / to you—” is its daunting closing claim.

Citizen’s likely antecedents include hybrid literary works like Lucille Clifton’s Generations (1976), Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1981), and Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Rankine’s book now has its own cousin texts standing powerfully in the world: Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS (2017), Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights: Essays (2019), Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (2020), and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes (2023). Where Citizen leaves off, these unique books advance new formations and in new directions. And yet, those writers remain indebted to Rankine’s striking innovation: her linguistically pleasurable, experimental lyric both repels the killing and lacerating forces of American racism and acts as a balm against the injuries they induce.•

Join us on April 20 at 5 p.m., when Rankine will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest to discuss her landmark book Citizen: An American Lyric. Please visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss the book with your fellow California Book Club members. Register for the Zoom conversation here.

Walton Muyumba is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.
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