The Second Person in Citizen: An American Lyric

January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.

Reading next: Edgar Huntly, or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker, by Charles Brockden Brown.

Citizen seems a more or less unclassifiable piece of literature, as you read it, but its genre is right there in the subtitle: An American Lyric. That’s a choice that points in multiple directions. Most immediately we think of song lyrics.  While much of the book does not strike the reader as lyrical in this way — there are (what look like) paragraphs of prose along with sections that use line breaks we associate more with poetry — it’s a perfectly appropriate association for the kind of multimedia, multivocal, multigenre artwork that Rankine creates here. It also hints at the of-the-moment nature of the subject, of the violence that continues to be inflicted on black bodies, minds, and souls — particularly thanks to the book’s cover design, which pairs the title with artist David Hammons’ piece In the Hood, which immediately brings Trayvon Martin to mind (though its creation predates his murder by 20 years).  Lyric can also refer to a certain clarity, lightness, and moderation in a singing voice; I’m not sure I see that definition applying here, but I’d love to hear from someone with more musical knowledge than I have about it.

Then there’s the other definition, less everyday to us now but perhaps more resonant here, of the millennia-old tradition of lyric poetry which is focused on the direct expression of the poet’s emotions and passions. Not epic, not drama: affect, not action.  And a claim to a particularly American version of that tradition. The two valences of the title and its subtitle come together, in a way, in the work’s most famous passage, which is, I venture, the first iconic poetic verse of this century (at least insofar as we’re separating song lyrics from written poetry):

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black people are dying

That was really the only passage I knew from Citizen before reading it, along with the powerful “In Memory of” page it follows, which includes the names of African Americans killed by police in recent years (sadly updated with new names as the book is reprinted).  So I was surprised to find that most of it is written in the second person, from the point of view of a nameless “You.”

This seems to me a bold, brilliant choice.  The “You” narrator places the reader in an uncanny position. On the one hand, the reader is directly addressed, placed in the position of the subject of the work: the one experiencing the emotions, the reactions to the countless slights and aggressions and accumulation of daily “mistakes” that lead to the sense that “You” are something less than a full citizen of the nation.  On the other, “You” has a peculiar distancing effect. Because we are much more familiar with works in the first or third persons, in which we immerse ourselves in the perspective of an “I” or a “he/she/it” with whom we can identify but who is distinctly not us, the narration introduces a kind of dissonance into the reading.  There’s a numbness to narration by a “You,” a flatness.  A sentence like “You are enraged by what you just experienced!” comes off as cartoonish.  It wouldn’t work (or, rather, it works only in very specific contexts, such as text-based video games, role-playing campaigns, and some children’s books).  Another master of the “You” narrator is Lorrie Moore, and many of her stories have a similar deadpan manner that introduces equal parts comedy and grief.

So much of what Rankine writes about here relates to the lived experience of the ideas of W. E. B. DuBois, Frantz Fanon, and many others, of African-American double and/or dual consciousness: of seeing one’s self through the eyes of the dominant, colonialist society, of the African, European, American parts of one’s heritage and culture leading to a feeling of fragmented identity. (Apologies for this surely gross oversimplification.)  The “You” narrator allows Rankine a particularly powerful tool for expressing her experience across races and genders, and bringing readers into that experience.  How is it received within the body of African-American readers, of African-American women readers? I’m curious.

Postscript: I tend not to read criticism until I’ve written something down, and I came across two wonderful series about Citizen from the L. A. Review of Books after writing this.  All are quite a bit more cogent and fluent discussions of the book than mine and very much worth reading if you’re interested in the book; on the “You” narrator, see especially Evie Shockley’s “Race, Reception, and Claudia Rankine’s ‘American Lyric'” in Symposium Part 1: Roundtable Part 1, Roundtable Part 2, Symposium Part 1, Symposium Part 2.

Sebald’s “Winter Poem”

December 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished: Hard Times.

Now reading: Misfortune, by Wesley Stace; Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, by W. G. Sebald.

I finished Hard Times deeply sad to see it go.  In a lot of ways, it’s the book that best displays the genius of Dickens, by being non-Dickensian: the salient features are there, but in their compressed state it’s hardly the same thing at all.  I was most sad that there wasn’t more of Sleary’s Circus, precisely the kind of secondary feature that Dickens would’ve explored in more depth and delight if this were a longer novel in monthly parts, as he did the Crummles troupe in Nicholas Nickleby, or the entertainers in The Old Curiosity Shop.  

Because it was so short, I’m reading the Victorian pastiche of Wesley Stace’s Misfortune, which is off to a fine start.  We have already had a preternaturally gifted, homeless balladeer named Pharaoh; a foundling; and a haunted “Gothick” manse called Love Hall (inhabited by the Loveall, no s in the plural, thank you very much).  Oh, and there’s a governess-turned-librarian named Anonyma, who is building a fine collection of bibliographical literature in Love Hall’s Octagonal Library.  (This private-librarian-to-the-rich-and-famous gig happens to be my partner’s dream career path for me.)  She’s already explained the making of parchment and the process of manuscript illumination to her young charges much more accurately than you normally see in contemporary novels.  This makes me happy.

Finally, I’m reading Sebald’s poems (translated by Iain Galbraith), which are ambiguous, melancholy, and beautiful.  The short poem below is not as simple as it seems, not as comforting; nothing ever is with Sebald.  He had in mind, I think, Herod’s massacre of innocents, and those Jewish children hidden in Flanders and elsewhere to avoid a much later massacre.  Nevertheless, as we deal with our own massacre of innocents here in the U.S., this poem did present itself as a worthy site for meditation, and a balm.

Winter Poem

The valley resounds
With the sound of the stars
With the vast stillness
Over snow and forest.

The cows are in their byre.
God is in his heaven.
Child Jesus in Flanders.
Believe and be saved.
The Three Wise Men
Are walking the earth.

Ugly, But Not Irrelevant

March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare.

Because I really know very little about this play, I’m feeling my way through it, and it’s interesting to read a play by Shakespeare where my preconceived notions and expectations are so few.  A few notes from the first three acts:

-I’ve never been a person who focused much on the cues to class and status in Elizabethan style, but Shakespeare really uses the transition between verse and prose here to great effect.  There’s a lot of prose, here, in a variety of styles and registers.  The patricians only versify with other patricians, the plebeians only speak prose amongst each other, but it’s really interesting to see how and when Coriolanus employs verse with the commoners he despises, and how the peoples’ tribunes shift between the two forms, consummate politicians speaking in the various registers depending on whether they need to sound like representatives qualified for their roles or sons of the soil.

-It’s always tempting to read Shakespeare as one great big tale, and so I can’t help but notice that this play, in some ways, picks up where King Lear leaves off.  In the last lines of Lear, Edgar exhorts his fellow survivors to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”  And so, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives us a protagonist who does just that.  It just so happens that he’s pretty full of himself, and loathes the common folk, and tells them about it after they’ve been given the power to object to his rise to power.  Oops.

-This is probably the ugliest Shakespeare I’ve read.  The language is not pretty, and the play’s remarkably outward-focused, with very little introspection.  The major metaphorical tropes are cannibalistic, militaristic, and body-political.  It’s not exactly a recipe for a gorgeous play.

-And yet, is this the Shakespeare play most emblematic of the 2000s?  A tragic protagonist, eager for war, sure of the propriety of his ideals and the might of his military, unwilling (or unable?) to examine his own motives, scornful of a populace he’s forced to grovel to if he wants to gain power; a populace, in turn, which gives us very little cause to doubt the protagonist’s assessment of them as a dangerous, disinterested, gullible rabble; a bunch of middle-managing representatives of people and moneyed interests, less interested in the good of the republic than the power to be grabbed and clung to at all costs.  No one to root for, really.  No one rising above their own desires.  Ugly, yes.  Irrelevant, no.  (Just for fun, and so as not to end on such a down beat, my votes for other representative plays of the last 50 years: 1960s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; 1970s, Troilus and Cressida; 1980s, The Tempest; 1990s, Romeo and Juliet.)

Five Favorites, Five Mysteries from Only Revolutions

July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!

Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:

-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray).  The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message.  This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?

-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans.  I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies.  Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).

-HONEY.  I love honey.  When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff.  (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.)  Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love.  Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect.  (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)

-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center.  Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway).  And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.

-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing.  A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss.  Beyond stops we all/ toss.  Because we’re emergent.  Allways divergent./  Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.”  (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)

And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:

-The Creep.  The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him.  The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL.  He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative.  Interesting, but I remain baffled.)

-“Flash, searing lime to wide.”  Wha?  I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page.  But why lime?  Why wide?  And why the lightning/thunder at all?  I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids.  It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.

-The small circles in the corners of a few pages.  These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle.  Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.

-The Leftwrist Twists.  Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact.  Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.

-The marriage and consummation.  Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex.  It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage.  Why is this marriage necessary?  Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what?  I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.

So Many Names, So Few I Know

May 17, 2009 § 1 Comment

Now reading: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.

Jaime warned me that she’d never read a book with more characters than this one.  I’m starting to believe this wasn’t an exaggeration.

The first section of this book is an immersion in Latin American poetry and literary history; for someone like me, with little knowledge about Mexican or Latin American literary history, one of the challenges of this book is trying to sort out the real poets given fictional parts — the ones that are supposed to resonate in one way or another with educated readers — from the “purely” fictional poets, the ones created by Bolaño or at least not known to readers.  Given how much of the book so far is made up of discussions and mentions and critiques of these poets real and imaginary, I am somewhat amazed that an American publisher had the courage to publish this book, to expect us, the notoriously insular and xenophobic (not to mention vanishing and subliterate) American Reading Public, to care about this flood of narrative about Latin American poetry.

And yet the gist of all of these names is fairly clear: this is the diary of a young man, a young Mexican poet, casting off the shackles of academia to read whatever he wants, to try to live the life he thinks a poet should lead, to talk about poetry and receive recommendations for poets to read, poets he thinks he should already know but does not, poets others seem to take for granted as major figures but whom he’s never heard of.  Anyone who’s been in a literature class in college has had this experience, and anyone who’s actually been an English major has had it frequently.

But the names!  My God, the names!  Bolaño reminds me a lot of Melville at times, in his overindulgence in lists and names, although I’m sure Whitman is probably the more logical influence.  The most obvious example is the exegesis delivered by Ernesto San Epifanio in Garcia Madero’s November 22 entry. This section reminds me a lot of the famous “Cetology” chapter of Moby-Dick, which divided whales into groups by size like books.  Here, San Epifanio divides literature into sexuality by its form (novels are hetero, poetry homo), and subdivides poetry into many different subcultures: “faggots, queers, sissies, freaks, butches, fairies, nymphs, and philenes,” according to the intent and the effect of the poetry.  (Whitman, if you’re wondering, is “a faggot poet.”)

Like “Cetology,” it is satirical; both works are attacking pedantry at some level.  In both works you get the sense that the author is very much in on the joke, recognizes the absurdity of these semantic systems they’ve created.  However, I’m not sure to what degree San Epifanio himself takes his labeling system seriously; he may be critiquing the splintering and ghettoization and mindless ideological following of the many schools of poetic practice, or he may be a part of that splintering and ghettoization.  He may not even know about the satirical content of his classification system; as a homosexual in the macho Mexican 1970s, and a founder of the “Homosexual Communist Party of Mexico,” he may just be trying to queer his literary heritage.

Whatever the case may be, this passage points out the excellent, subtle touch Bolaño seemed to have at letting his book work on multiple levels.  It is deceptively simple; it can also be deceptively boring at times.  But there’s always a lot going on, even in lists of names I need to feed to Google for verification of identity.

The Freedom of Constraint

April 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Sharp Teeth.

There was a terrific, seemingly out-of-the blue post on Slate this week by Robert Pinsky, a kind of manifesto on the laziness of complaints on contemporary poetry. I enjoyed it, and his second point was especially appropriate for my current reading. He gives a couple of excellent examples of free-verse poetry.

I am beginning to realize that Sharp Teeth does not belong in this company. I am beginning to wonder if its free verse really is “just prose chopped into lines.”

There are any number of examples I could give. Here’s just one:

They exited the freeway and pulled

into a neighborhood

just east of Huntington Park.

Ray slung the van up a drive and shut off the engine.

He pointed to Frio and Penn and said,

“After you change, hit the back of the house,

and be ready to rush.”

(Sorry, too dense to figure out single spacing right now.)

You see anything poetic there? Anything requiring line breaks besides the clauses of each sentence? Any careful wordplay, alliteration, internal rhyme? I don’t. It’s utilitarian prose. There are some nice flights of fancy in this book, but nothing that couldn’t be contained in prose. Some nice metaphors, turns of phrase, digressions.

I’m having a lot of fun with this book, don’t get me wrong. But what annoys me is that I really could have loved a book that actually was a rigorous piece of poetry about packs of werewolves in L.A. Because there’s a nice tension there, see? The constraint of writing within the urbane, civilized, even antiquated constraints of metric, even rhymed verse could have made an ingenious counterpoint to this book so much about the human and the animal within the human which we all live with. I could even have gone for sections of verse broken up with sections of prose, Shakespeare-style. I’m afraid Barlow wanted this kind of effect, but was either too lazy or too scared to go whole hog. Instead he just broke his sentences up into lines. Too bad, really.

I’m one of those people that thinks what we need in literature (insofar as “we” need anything, overall) is more constraint. I’m an OuLiPo fan, in other words. I adore books written without the use of the letter e. I admire fantastically elaborate linguistic or structural puzzles embedded in novels. I love poetry marrying  torturous demands to gorgeous language.

Shakespeare’s the summit of literature for a reason, right? I mean, mostly because he was a genius, and would have been a genius whenever he lived. But partly, I insist, it’s because he lived at a time that demanded that he place constraints on his passions; that he write his dialogue in iambic pentameter, that he create words to fit that meter, that he structure couplets to end his scenes, that he conform to the rigors of the sonnet and only occasionally take liberties. Shakespeare’s great lines, soliloquies, and speeches would simply not be were it not for his operating within these structures. This is the genius of the OuLiPans. It’s only when we limit the set that things get interesting; structureless freedom in art leads to a multiplicity of tempting, horrible choices (see Art Scene, Contemporary American).

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