#176: RAGE, RAGE. In 2014, Claudia Rankine published a remarkable, genre-straddling work, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press). It swept the year’s literary awards and actually broke the surface and got onto the New York Times best-seller list. Its subject, approached in a kaleidoscope of poetry, essay, illustration, graphics and video scripts—a concerted work of art down to John Lucas’s stark design and its sans-serif typeface—was the persistence and ubiquity of racism in American life. What its familiarity and impact meant to African-American readers I will not presume to guess; but off here in the comfy hinterlands of white privilege, I approached it with caution. Racism is a Bad Thing, I knew: how much more did I need to read? But the effectiveness of Citizen is its conveying of the reality and effect of racism in poetic terms: not as an idea or a principle but as scenes, images, metaphors, refrains, down to an almost Rimbaldian language of disassociation: “Sometimes “I” is supposed to hold what isn’t there until it is. Then what is comes apart the closer you are to it.” And yet it includes some quality of essay, of information—we see how exhausting the daily presence of racism is; how insidious those little acts of discretion and holding back; how debilitating the persistence of rage can be. We learn how racism acts and operates, but we learn it by being pushed imaginatively into being on the receiving end. This is how literature works, how poetry works; weeks after having read it, lines and scenes and images keep pricking me, returning unbid. Citizen, as Pound said of poetry, keeps staying news.
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