Words to Fill in for a Lack of Words

How the hell am I supposed to review Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric? Like everything I’ve read or seen by her, I can’t; I simply can’t do anything but sit there in awe. The closest I can come to articulating anything useful is to note that, just after the final narrator claimed she didn’t know how to end what she was doing (or rather, end the situation that had created and was creating the very need for this volume to be written), I finished her book– and had to write, “NICE,” meaning something closer to a marvel-saturated “DAMN.”

Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

From Abremmer, on Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know how Rankine does what she does– but it’s not even worth admitting I’m envious, because that’s got to be just a given for anyone who reads or sees her work, and is such a useless complaint when faced with unquestionable artistry– and urgently relevant artistry at that– that maybe the best response is simply to stand in sheer gratitude to the phenomenon that she is.

Incidentally, I went to a lecture and reading Rankine gave not too long ago, for which people lined up over an hour in advance (for a poet!). At some point during one of the narrated videos she played, I noticed an inordinate amount of sniffling– and looked around to realize that I and everyone around me were crying.

And here’s the great and terrible fact about that response: it’s still not enough. Because the force of her presentation unavoidably magnifies the force of the situations/realities/tragedies she describes, something has to be done. There you are, faced with your own complicity and responsibility, and the unshakable demand– on behalf of others (and) inseparable from yourself– that you damn well better go forth in real solidarity.



  1. birds fly

    She certainly doesn’t pull any punches. I saw her speak at a local college and it was intense, especially since it had only been about 9 months since Freddie Gray’s death and Baltimore still felt raw. During the Q&A, a woman in front of me stood up and made what sounded like a veiled racist comment, though somewhat indirect and garbled (I can’t even remember the exact nature of it now). The auditorium was packed, but suddenly deathly silent. Rankine responded with grace, but I think even she was caught off guard. It just underscored the fact that even when presented with the blunt truth, there will always be some people who refuse to accept it.


    • Special K

      I considered writing her a letter of thanks, for being there, writing, etc., etc., and may still do it– but she seemed so fantastically grand-dame (in the best of ways) intimidating, that I fear I’d only appear to be groveling or unctuous in some way. Maybe silent appreciation in her presence, and evangelization to others in her absence, is the best way to go.


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