While there are few things more powerful than verse, it can take a while to discover the perfect poem that strikes straight to the heart of an emotion, a moment or a truth. If this is the case for individual poems, how much rarer is it to come across a whole collection that reaches beyond the traditional, small, poetry-loving readership into the wider world?
I believe ‘Citizen’ by Claudia Rankine to be such a collection, possibly the only one I have ever read, a book that I recommend to all readers, whatever their feelings towards poetry. It’s largely made up of prose poems, so antipathy towards or lack of familiarity with verse is no excuse. Instead of wallowing in similes or sounds, Rankine uses language to strip away the veneer of the tolerant society. It is unusual to find a writer so distrustful of language, and the result is probably the most powerful and damning indictment of contemporary racism that I have ever read.
Written in the second person, ‘Citizen’ describes to ‘you’, the reader, your life as double standards around behaviour and the cumulative affect of insults erode your sense of self. Incidents are narrated in minimal detail: ‘a close friend … would call you be the name of her black housekeeper‘, ‘a woman with multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer.‘ Near the start, a man ‘tells you his dean is making him hire a person of colour when there are so many great writers out there’. It is all genuinely unpleasant reading, a horrific counterpoint the human dignity suggested by the book’s title. A common thread is the impossibility of an appropriate response. An accusation of racism leads to the response ‘Now there you go‘, a boycott is felt to be ‘lacking in “dignity” and “integrity” and demonstrated “only stubbornness and a grudge.”‘ In a society where racism should be a thing of the past, it seems impossible to fight through the accepted narrative and expose its enduring existence. Beyond this, what does it do to an individual, when their basic humanity is so continuously and insidiously undermined?
The book develops, building layer upon layer, from the individual, private indignities discussed above, to the public humiliation doled out to black celebrities. These are joined by the plight of acknowledged yet disturbingly invisible black victims of violence (including a section about Hurricane Katerina: ‘so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black.’). A ‘Citizen’ belongs to a nation or state and, the collection makes clear, cannot exist in isolation. Attempting to do so will only lead to fragmentation of the self. On the other hand, what option is there when everything in the media, from sports to the news, only offers further insults and injustice?
‘Citizen’ has won numerous awards for poetry and I’m writing about it now as I work through the 2015 T S Eliot shortlist, but it is worth noting that it was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. This is not a book that should be limited to poetry lovers, any more than is it a collection that is only relevant to those of a specific skin colour. Combining philosophy with memoir, history and social criticism, anyone suffering from publicly condoned prejudice should read it to learn a vocabulary with which to describe their situation. Anyone who thinks that racism is in the past or who does not feel at risk of insult should read it to understand a silenced majority in the population. ‘Citizen’ is, without a doubt, one of the most significant books to have been published this century; it is essential, and deeply affecting, reading.