Critical Assessment

“Claudia Rankine’s book may or may not be poetry – the question becomes insignificant as one reads on. Her achievement is to have created a bold work that occupies its own space powerfully, an unsettled hybrid – her writing on the hard shoulder of prose. She eavesdrops on America and a racism that has never gone away. Citizen won the National Book Critics Circle poetry award in the US in recognition, partly, of the shocking truth it tells. Through brief encounters and troubling retellings of recent news, Rankine puts one, as a white reader, on constant alert for any unconscious racism in oneself. . . .

“There is so much anger and anguish here that you wonder how it can be contained. But what is wonderful about Rankine’s writing is that it works like an out-of-body experience: she encounters her subject full-on and rises above it. And she never loses her wide-angle reach. Above all, she shows how racism itself gets relegated. . . . She could not make it plainer: racism is everyone’s problem. Until this is understood, she will be forced to keep writing as she does here: ‘I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending.’ ”

Kate Kellaway, “Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine Review – The Ugly Truth of Racism,” The Guardian, August 30, 2015.

First Excerpt

“The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.

“You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

“You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

“Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.”

41cm1mFX5EL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_Second Excerpt

“ The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

“At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

“It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

“I am so sorry, so, so sorry.”