Notes toward understanding Claudia Rankine’s imaginative transformation of race in Citizen: An American Lyric

Part One

Some time ago, I came across Helen Vendler’s review of The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry in English [1] in the London Review of Books. [2] In it, Vendler observes that criticism about poetry can easily fall into descriptions of a poet’s life and publications that avoid saying “anything revealing about the many poems belonging to that life.” Vendler then recommends that poetry criticism include three “acts:” 1) identifying theme and imagery; 2) describing form; and importantly, 3) investigating how the poet uses her imagination to transform the topics of her poems. It is the frequent lack of this third act, the analysis of the poet’s imaginative transformation of her subject matter, which Vendler laments in her discussion of the Oxford Companion.

If we embrace Matthew Ghoulish’s proposition [3] that criticism “only consistently changes the critic,” then Vendler’s framework, which offers the opportunity for a richer experience of the text, seems particularly appealing.

Around the same time, I read Timothy Yu’s insightful and provocative reading of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. Dictee was first recommended to me in graduate school. This was in 1997, and I remember how rapturously I took it in. It was the first work of literature I had encountered by a Korean American woman, and Cha’s juxtaposition of autobiographical fragments, photographs, and historical documents was thrilling as I was thinking and working in modes that I considered to be “experimental,” at the time. Dictee is now considered central text in the Asian American canon, but as Yu points out, often remains there, within the marginalized space of Asian American literature, despite its lineage from a broader (white) avant-garde art practice. What I conclude from Yu’s argument is that the attention paid to the most accessible aspects of Dictee – the extent to which it is autobiographical, and embedded within a recognizable narrative of racial and ethnic difference and dislocation – can distract from Cha’s formal innovations, and – as Vendler might suggest – the ways in which Cha’s imagination transforms her subject matter.

It was to these two ideas – Vendler’s and Yu’s – that I found myself returning when considering the discourse around Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

Citizen is composed of seven sections, which vary in length, the shortest of which is nine pages, and the longest is fifty-two. Interspersed throughout are full-color images: photographs, reproductions and details of works of art – sculpture, paintings, other media. Rankine also draws from film and video, and various news media.

It is fitting that reviews of Citizen should discuss the book’s ruminations on racism in America. The use of the second person “you” throughout is also worthy of considerable note, since the relationship of the reader to the speaker is a critical element of Rankine’s project. What is of interest to me is that in many cases, the discussion more or less ends there. While some reviewers make reference to the inclusion of images, the formal choices of delineation, and to the appearance of the text on the page, most do not, focusing instead on the personal, social, and cultural narrative. And while I admit that my survey of what has been written on Citizen to date has not been exhaustive, I have not yet encountered any writing that has deeply considered the juxtapositions of text and image, or looked closely at the places in the book where the text shifts from short prose passages to what might be considered more traditional poetic line breaks, and certainly no discussion of the works of art themselves that are referenced and thereby drawn into the imaginative universe of this rich, inventive, and exhilarating book.

Which leads me back to Vendler and Yu. Vendler asserts that the importance of analyzing “imaginative transumption” is so that “an author’s originality can be at least partially represented.” In the current discourse, Rankine’s imaginative decisions – to include the haunting and perplexing image of sculptor Kate Clark’s Little Girl (2008), a taxidermied infant caribou hide with the face of a human child, or to alter the image of the 1930 photograph, Public Lynching, to include only the bemused, impassive faces of the assembled crowd – have not been explored, examined, and elevated as the choices of a particularly vital artistic imagination.

Section VI of the book consists of a series of what Rankine refers to as “scripts for situation videos.” There are ten: beginning with “August 29, 2005 / Hurricane Katrina,” which is composed solely of quotes collected from CNN, and ending with “February 15, 2014 / The Justice System,” referencing the sentencing of Michael Dunn (life without parole) in the first-degree murder of the unarmed, 17-year-old Jordan Russell Davis. Although it is true that all these are examples of institutional and cultural racism that Rankine is examining, but the way in which she is approaching each incident is what distinguishes her as an artist, and distinguishes this particular work of art. There is rich territory to be explored in these formal choices. It is clear that richness and nuance is lost by focusing nearly exclusively on the themes and imagery of Citizen, and not on Rankine’s imaginative leaps and associations.

As luck would have it, as I was collecting my notes, I came across Cathy Park Hong’s call to action, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” in Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion. [4] In it, she chastises the so-called avant-garde for its “expired snake oil that poetry should be ‘against expression’ and ‘post-identity.’” Hong references Harryette Mullen’s definition of innovation as “explorative and interrogative, an open-ended investigation into the possibilities of language.” This definition seems an apt description of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Centering the dialogue around this book to focus on race and racial identity fails to appreciate and recognize its formal complexity and innovation. While much of the text can be understood in narrative terms, there are what Yu might refer to as “modes of organization” (e.g., the scripts for situation videos, the inclusion of art works, the interweaving of video stills, among others) that require a more rigorous examination. It is not my intent to diminish in any way the power of this book as a meditation on racism in America; I do however wish to elevate its power as an innovative, nuanced, and complicated work of art that demands of its readers new modes of reading and participation.

[1] Hamilton, Ian. The Oxford Companion to 20th-century Poetry in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.

[2] Vendler, Helen. “The Three Acts of Criticism,” London Review of Books (1994): Web.

[3] Ghoulish, Matthew. “The Example of Glass,” 39 Microlectures: In Proximity of Performance. Routledge, 2000. Print.

[4] Hong, Cathy Park. “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde,” Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion (2014): Web.

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