Well-meaning critics will tell you that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is not didactic, because, as all good aesthetes think they know, “didactic” is the opposite of “poetic.” But instruction’s no less legit an end of poetry than delight, and if the 21st century has (or hasn’t) taught us (but who’s “we”?) anything it’s that race as lived in America is a subject in which whites need perpetual, remedial tutoring.
Throughout her book-length poem, Rankine relates encounters, often collected from acquaintances, of everyday racism, inadvertent or instinctive, as though to demonstrate that the plural of anecdote is experience. Some of these brushes are strictly verbal — I hesitate to say purely verbal, because they illustrate how careless speech becomes a kind of act. But the effect, didactic for sure, instructs through its scrutiny of language, its heightened attention to words and their effects, its poetic strategies.
Rankine also includes two very different lyrical essays on sports that investigate black anger made public in white spaces. She filters Serena Williams’ clashes with U.S. Open umpires through the observations of YouTube monologuist Hennessy Youngman; a montage of disparate quotes silhouette the edges of a perspective on French football star Zinedine Zidane’s notorious 2006 World Cup head butt.
And as Citizen progresses, its language grows more allusive, less transparent, as though recognizing that communicating clearly, prosaically if you like, is an insufficient mode for addressing the range of our young century’s casualties: the Jena Six, Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, Michael Brown. The modern ritual of stop and frisk demands a description that doubles back on itself in frustrated yet incantory repetition or folds inward into intricate metaphor: “Yes officer rolled around on my tongue, which grew out of a bell that could never ring because its emergency was a tolling I was meant to swallow.”
The effects I’ve mentioned, of course, are on a white reader, a limitation of racial subjectivity not lost on Rankine. Citizen is a book of many voices that different readers will not hear similarly, that different readers are made to realize they will not hear similarly. For Rankine, modern racism is never a phenomenon fully explicable to a single person, because the racist is unaware of how her language sounds to the person of color, who in turn can only imagine what even more hateful thoughts must have gone unspoken.
As the poem closes, a speaker returns from a racist snub with tennis racket in hand.
Did you win? he asks.
It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson.