Review by Cassandra da Costa
Claudia Rankine published Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric ten years ago, and this year she’ll come out with her first collection since then, titled Citizen: An American Lyric. Ten years. It seems like the cleanest interval of time; a grand reintroduction to an American treasure. But in reading Rankine, you start to notice how time is not dramatized as much as it is dealt with. In each line, still and patient, charged with careful yet flowing diction, space unravels. The collection is subtitled An American Lyric and turns out to be overwhelmingly that. Depression, age, race, loss, grief, celebrity, genius, memory—these all become part of a fabric that is particularly the poet’s and, as a result, the nation’s. For Rankine, these spaces are personal tragedies as they run parallel and even intersect with public ones.
What struck me as particularly unique about Rankine’s collection is that, ten years on, its specificity retains its power. Its “Americanness” is not diluted into a decade’s worth of overwrought tropes about media and societal breakdown, but stands out as a single gesture. It is Rankine’s America, which, she seems to point out, is ours too. This specificity is primarily due to the emotional openness of the poems. Sentimentality is trumped by a direct gaze. There is a method to the presentation of each thought—the outline of each scenario–yet the art is not deceptive. There is no puzzle to the pain that is revealed to us.
But sadness is real because once it meant something real. It meant dignified, grave; it meant trustworthy; it meant exceptionally bad, deplorable, shameful; it mean massive, weighty, forming a compact body; it meant falling heavily; and it meant of a color: dark. It meant dark in color, to darken. It meant me. I felt sad.
Rankine does not bear her soul, but states it. This is more brave. We feel in these words—specifically, “It meant dark in color, to darken. It meant me.”—an unambiguous claim of identity. This claim is that of darkness: racial darkness, mental darkness, spiritual darkness. The poems are strong because they refuse to see the dark as grim or gothic, but of the relentless every day. In claiming darkness, Rankine is talking about loneliness.
I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect did not exist. The world, like a giant liver, receives everyone and everything, including these words: Is he dead? Is she dead? The words remain an inscription on the surface of my loneliness.
Images are as persistent as lyric in the collection, and appear in the pages. The outline of the human body from the waist up, with a heart, a liver, and a silhouette of the map of America to represent the soul appears twice. A television with a fuzzy screen appears at the beginning of each new section. Photographs, drawings, and diagrams come up as needed. Rankine is not merely telling, but passing. The words are transmitted, “fit […] into the shape of usefulness” or rather, processed by the liver and delivered to the soul. A decade later, we are lonely still. If we don’t face ourselves, the words do.
Born in Jamaica in 1963, Claudia Rankine earned her BA in English from Williams College and her MFA in poetry from Columbia University. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2004); PLOT (Grove Press, 2001); The End of the Alphabet (Grove Press, 1998); and Nothing in Nature is Private (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1995), which received the Cleveland State Poetry Prize. Her honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the National Endowments for the Arts. In 2005, Rankine was awarded the Academy Fellowship for distinguished poetic achievement by the Academy of American Poets. She is currently the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College.