To this reviewer, it seems like we’re having a bit of a cultural moment, confronting issues of racism and sexism on a national level. In the publishing industry, organizations like VIDA and Cave Canem are making space for diverse voices and calling on more privileged individuals to sit down and listen. This is a good thing for readers whose options are growing as well made and challenging books are brought to the fore.
Back in August I reviewed Jamaal May’s Hum and wrote a little bit about how our reading is almost always affected by the world around us. I finished reading May’s book when protests in Ferguson began and, shortly after reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric the #Pointergate scandal hit and I found myself rereading Rankine’s words in light of yet another story with systemic racism at its core. I’m reading within this cultural moment, which has altered my reading list in profound ways.
Citizen contains a series of vignettes describing, in second person, various microaggressions—subtle, perhaps unintended, displays of power by white people toward people of color.
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.
So begins one such vignette. Another reads, in full:
The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her. Neither you nor your friend bothers to ask who is making her feel uncomfortable.
Rankine pulls news stories into these vignettes as well, referencing Don Imus, who notoriously insulted the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and men (boys in the case of the last two) like James Craig Anderson, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis whose tragic deaths were racially motivated.
This is poetry as documentary, as news story. At worst, poetry like this can feel dated, but Rankine has a knack for highlighting the stories that need to be remembered and turning them on us so that we see them differently. As a white man, the experiences of people of color are and always will be beyond my abilities to understand. Rankine, however, provides a window into a world I have the privilege of knowing nothing about. Rankine puts the reader in the spotlight, making us see these stories anew, as a way to cast these aggressions from her body. It’s a tactic that is potentially triggering to someone who has experienced aggressions like this, but is a way to discomfort the comfortable.
Beyond the content, Citizen is formally compelling as well, though very much in the tradition of American letters, as the subtitle alludes to. Split into seven parts, the book has no table of contents and only a single section features titled pieces. This gives the effect of an extended and single work. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with its long, democratic lines, is a clear precursor, but Rankine’s work exists in the more contemporary space of lyric essay as well. Rankine uses outside text and images to illuminate and complicate, such as the recurring quote from Zora Neale Hurtson, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” This text stands out most as a two-page reproduction of Glen Ligon’s rendering of the quote in black on a white background. Indeed, Hurston’s quote can be considered a sort of theses statement for the whole book.
In what is perhaps the most focused and clear section, Rankine describes another series of microaggressions, these against tennis star Serena Williams. With the passion of a fan, Rankine examines some of the more egregious offences against Williams:
The most notorious of Serena’s detractors takes the form of Marina Alves, the distinguished tennis chair umpire. In 2004 Alves was excused from officiating any more matches on the final day of the US Open after she made five bad calls against Serena in her semifinal matchup against fellow American Jennifer Capriati. The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Comentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening.
Though no one was saying anything explicitly about Serena’s black body, you are not the only viewer who thought it was getting in the way of Alves’s sight line.
Notice that Serena’s detractors take form as a particular person, a shape for these events to exist in. This is the power of literature, to distill a lifetime of small frustrations into one body that will carry and enact those frustrations on the page. The “form” is a way of focusing the reader’s attention on an event and asking the reader, as Rankine writes later in the book, “What do you mean? // Exactly, what do you mean?”
After reading Hum I asked if Poetry Can Save The World or, at the very least, ease your pain when the news of the world becomes too much. I ask both questions again now in the context of Citizen. Reading is an act of empathy, especially if the text you’re reading is in second person, as Citizen is. Can poetry like this save the world?
I’ve been scrubbing many things lately: floors, walls, countertops, more floors. Those of you hosting a Thanksgiving gathering in a few weeks may find yourself doing the same very soon. This week, let’s prepare (and brace) ourselves (and homes) for a good, deep scrub.
Bastienne Schmidt, Untitled, from Home Series. Photograph. www.bastienneschmidt.com
Bo Bartlett, Burning Broom, 2006. Oil on linen. Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, PA. www.bobartlett.com
Laurie Simmons, First Bathroon/Woman Standing, 1978. Photograph. www.lauriesimmons.net
I grew up in the days of the “Land Before Time” and “My Little Pony.” Every kid in my class had either a rubber dinosaur or plastic pony; we imagined pre-historic landscapes and rolling pastures for our anthropomorphized friends to romp and rally. Somehow, even in adulthood, that equine magic lives on. But I’ve never imagined horses the way they are portrayed in this book of poems. Here they are prehistoric in their perfection, decidedly animal, and the landscapes around them are real with poetic prowess.
Bone Map is Sara Eliza Johnson’s debut collection. The book was selected by Martha Collins as a winner of the National Poetry Series 2013 Open Competition. Johnson discusses her thrill and trepidation associated with such an award in this interview with Connotation Press. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Utah.
As with all good books of poems, Bone Map creates a lexicon of image and language; more importantly, however, is that Johnson explores that lexicon to such unrelenting depths, that words like “wolf,” “milk,” and “glisten” may never be the same for her readers. “Märchen” left me shivering long after I’d closed the book. The title is German for “fairy tale” and this poem is a drastic mis-telling of Little Red Riding Hood. It begins:
Lost in the forest one night, we find the body
of a wolf, its throat torn open,
the wound a cupful of rippling
black milk, where maggots curl star-white
in their glistening darkness. [...]
What Johnson reveals through this poem, and others, is an Old World lore—a place of wish-making and ritual—where we are taken to confront love and grief with magic spells and blood at our disposal for making meaning.
Similarly graphic, “The Last Przwalski’s Horse” is gruesome only in its own acuity. Tenderness underlies anatomical destruction, as the body is dismantled, consumed:
He unsheathes his knife
and slices the breast-
bone, up the abdomen,
then splits the pelvis, rolls
organs from the opening:
little planets gone soft
with blood. Cuts away
the glistening red web
of matter around the heart
If there is a mis-step in the work at hand, it may be the occasional eagerness for closure. In “Beekeeping,” the reader lives “At the edge of the valley // wild hyacinths, violet ones,” for most of the poem. Repeated bee stings become a metaphor for love, but the metaphor is made in such a direct way, that it seems to deflate the magical world of all previous stanzas: “This must be / what love is: // a pain so radiant / it cuts through all others.”
My only other question, (and this really is a question for you, dear readers) concerns the use of war as a secondary metaphor for a lovers’ quarrel. In “Deer Rub,” a beautifully executed poem with blood as “berries,” a wartime scene intersects with the primary action of a deer rubbing his antlers after winter.
The rain scratches at the deer’s coat
as if trying to get inside, washes the antlers
of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones
of a saint in the crypt beneath a church
and the end of a century, when the people
have begun to think of the bodies
as truly dead and unraisable,
when children have begun to carry knives
in their pockets. […]
The war diction returns later, just before the poet clinches the poem with a couplet ostensibly iterating the heart of the poem’s matter: “long after this morning / when the country / wakes to another war, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.” I guess what I’m wondering, is whether drawing such a comparison is completely ethical, given the disproportion between a country at war and a relationship gone cold.
Johnson demonstrates ardent formal consideration in poems like “View From the Fence, On Which I Sit and Dangle My Legs.” Here, horses are fully imagined in the scope of their interiority and physical placement, and the internal rhyme offers formal connection between environment and body. Sonically, the poem pours down the page ending, appropriately, with the line, “to laughter: I will follow you down.”
The collection also includes two intertwined series, one of archipelagos which reimagines the sea-voyage of 11th century Irish disciple St. Brendan, and the other, a series of instructions and letters from an ice field. These poems deal with grief and loss more explicitly than earlier poems in the book and ambitiously weave something epic with a decidedly lyric voice.
Johnson’s work is fanciful, bloody, and deliberate. Bone Map may lose you in a forest, ice field, or the sea, but I can promise that you’ll be accompanied in those chilly places by a body, if not alive, then still hot and buzzing.
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