By Jon, in Magma 63, of Citizen, the Forward Prize Winner, by Claudia Rankine
"During her stay in London for the 2012 TS Eliot Awards, Sharon Olds was asked by the Guardian what she most wanted from poetry. "I want a poem to be useful", she replied.
Reading these three collections I couldn't help but feel that contemporary American poetry has more of a tendency to lean towards the useful than its British counterpart. All three authors seem determined to focus on a single area of experience and illuminate it for themselves and the reader. They respectively cover sickness, heartsickness, and an ongoing societal sickness - in the form of a ubiquitous everyday racism that - in the view of Claudia Rankine's Forward Prize Winning collection Citizen, An American Lyric - still pervades American life.
Asked on stage at the Forward prize-giving why she herself classes her book, which is something of a hybrid, as poetry, Rankine replied "Poetry is the realm of the emotions." And there is little doubt that most readers will find Citizen an emotionally powerful experience. It shines its intense beam on the often unconscious examples of racism in America that are too slippery to be legislated against - the black woman queueing in the pharmacy unnoticed by the white male customer who walks up to the counter in front of her ("Oh my God, I didn't see you" ... "No, no, no, I really didn't see you"), the black man sitting on the subway next to an empty seat while a white woman strap-hangs rather than take it, the therapist "yelling at the top of her lungs" at the black patient arriving at her front door for a first session that had been scheduled on the telephone "Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?" "...as if a wounded Doberman Pinscher or German Shepard has gained the power of speech".
It takes a writer of Rankine's rare authority to allow the stories to speak for themselves and know their emotional resonance will be cumulative: the language in which many of these narratives are expressed is deceptively simple.
There are other admirable linguistic decisions. Rankine chooses the "you" form, for example, which she claims "started as a kind of joke", but which she retained for both its informal, colloquial qualities and its mischievous implication of the reader, who its forces to wear the protagonists shoes. Then again, sometimes the language is as allusive as its theme, full of contradictions and self-cancelling ideas:
A pulse in the neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing.
your body running off each undesired desired encounter
Call out to them.
I don't see them.
Call out anyway. Indeed, it is not just emotion, but language, that allows Citizen to lay claim to the condition of poetry. Its meanings lie not in words, but between them; its narratives are not black and white, but inhabit the huge grey areas where poetry most happily resides.
In a section dedicated to the memory of Mark Duggan, the 29-year-old Tottenham man shot and killed by the Metropolitan Police in 2011, widely seen as the catalyst of the English riots that year, Ranking quotes James Baldwin's statement that "The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers", adding he "might have been channeling Dostoevsky" who asserted: "we have all the answers. It is the questions we do not know".
By focusing on the answers, Rankine ruthlessly exposes the questions behind them. And this is where Citizen is useful. It makes the unconscious conscious and, as the unconsciously racist therapist mentioned above might tell her patient, that way healing lies. It is heartening to see on the cover of my edition that Citizen is a New York Times bestseller.