As much as I love losing myself in a good story, I have to admit that my favorite books are the ones that send me out of the text and back into the world for further exploration. I read a lot of non-fiction, so I’ve developed the habit of keeping a notebook handy for scribbling down names to Google, URLs to explore, topics to research, and–perhaps inevitably–titles of additional books for the TBR list.
This hardly ever happens with a volume of poetry. Not because poetry doesn’t teach me things, but because the things poetry has to teach are usually personal and private. As I’ve recently learned, however, poetry can also be an interdisciplinary textbook; the class I’m currently taking could be called Civics 101, and the teacher is Claudia Rankine.
Rankine is a poet, playwright, and scholar whose body of work demands not only private introspection, but also your full attention to and engagement with the world around you. Her epic prose poem Citizen, a 2014 National Book Award finalist, is rooted firmly in current events, comparing them to and contrasting them with her own lived experience to create a ruthlessly honest exploration of black American citizenship in the 21st century. And if that were all it did, it would still be an amazing piece of work.
However, the reader is challenged, at just about every turn, to go the extra mile, to look up that unfamiliar YouTube series, to track down the Situation videos (created by Rankine and her husband, photographer John Lucas) mentioned throughout the text. Whose quotation is that? What is this un-captioned photo all about? Who created the artwork featured here? You cannot, in good conscience, not look these things up as you read, and the resource list Rankine provides is only the beginning of inquiry. At least, for me: my own citizenship seemed to be at risk, considering how ignorant I was of some of Rankine’s references.
Educational as they are, however, the seven sections that make up Citizen are hardly didactic in the traditional sense. Straightforward narrations of events are broken up with passages of pure longing, in which the speaker reveals portions of her inner landscape, the one the external world hasn’t been able to touch:
Words work as release–well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in the neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing. What will be needed, what goes unfelt, unsaid–what has been duplicated, redacted here, redacted there, altered to hide or disguise–words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything, the body remains (69).
The language of poetry, Rankine seems to say here, is what makes it possible to be human, to achieve, despite obstacles, full citizenship.
If you’re the kind of reader who would like to try poetry, but is often put off by obtuse language and a lack of connection to reality, Citizen will serve as a breath of exhilarating air. If current events have made you twitchy lately, and you need a literary remedy that is both consolation and call to action, this, too, is your book. And if you’re honor-bound to read all award-nominated books, you should definitely move this poem up on your TBR list. There’s a waiting list at the moment, but if you hurry, you won’t have to wait too long for your choice of print or ebook.