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Book Review: 'Citizen: An American Lyric'


Move over, ethereal poetry. Make room for a collection from Claudia Rankine titled "Citizen: An American Lyric." Rankine is Jamaican-born, raised both there and in New York. Her book was a finalist for the National Book Award. And while Rankine did not win last night, our reviewer Tess Taylor says, this powerful collection is the perfect book to appreciate the racial dynamics at play today.

TESS TAYLOR, BYLINE: In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and Ferguson, many Americans called for conversations on race or white privilege or posted grief to Facebook or vented it to friends. Yet, our charged experiences of race often begin in the unconscious, in the imagination, in the body's averted gazes, tangled words, fumbled intentions. In "Citizen: An American Lyric," Claudia Rankine reads these unsettling moments closely, using them to tell readers about living in a raced body, about living in blackness and also about living in whiteness.

Rankine's lyrics don't look like poems. They're more like parables. They zoom in on micro-dynamics, speech acts, misunderstandings. In Rankine's world, a child can be knocked down on the subway by what she calls a person who has never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself. Rankine's meditations go wide to Serena Williams, Trayvon Martin, Judith Butler. But they also sink down, and they trace how the odd force that is race also emerges as grief, as longing, as trauma.

Rankine shows how dynamics of racial selves are not isolated or even present tense, but also communal, unconscious, historical. This is how you are a citizen, she writes. Come on. Let it go. Move on. These poems contained in this lyric wish - that somehow, even through the racism within and around us, we each stay awake to ourselves and one another. Rankine says, all our fevered history won't instill insight, won't turn a body conscious, won't make that look in the eyes say yes. But she also challenges us all when she writes each moment is an answer.

BLOCK: The book is "Citizen: An American Lyric" by Claudia Rankine. Tess Taylor had our review. She teaches poetry at Whittier College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tess Taylor
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