Wednesday, May 6, 2015


I'm not a poetry reader. Mostly because it usually feels like I'm reading a language I don't speak. I don't "get it." But April is National Poetry Month, and thanks to postings by friends last month I was exposed to some work that really hit me where it counts. It got me thinking that with a little effort I could probably find some poetry I might not only wrap my head around, but actually enjoy. I'm pleased to report my experiment was a resounding success and this is the first of several poetry posts to come.

I got another push, unbeknownst to them, from the folks over at The Socratic Salon. The Salon hosts down and dirty book discussions, spoilers and all. It's a fantastic community with intelligent and varied voices and I encourage you to take a look.*

I recently learned one of the upcoming titles to be discussed at the Salon is Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, about which I had heard fabulous things. I believe the messages in Citizen are important for everyone to hear, so I set my anti-verse self to the side and bought a copy. I was blown away. (So yeah, maybe those National Book Award folks know a thing or two.)

Did I "get" all of Citizen? Did I suddenly become a poetry savant? No, and far from it. There were pieces that went flying around the room and never had a chance at even a glancing blow off my head. But the language was still worth taking in. And the pieces that did hit home, those that resonated, wow did they do so with power.

One of the genius elements of Citizen is that the pieces take different forms. Some are what I would categorize as "traditional" poetry for lack of a better word. Short, staccato phrases, weird spacing, the whole nine confusing yards (to me). Some are what I consider short vignettes or anecdotes. Some are more visual, others are what the author calls "video scripts." Whatever you want to call any of them, the point is there's something for every reader. Everyone and anyone can (and should) read Citizen and take something important away.

Citizen is full of narratives of everyday encounters, often slights, intentional or otherwise. Some will shock you, some will surprise, disgust or embarrass you; many will make you wonder "Did I ever do that?" or "Have I made someone feel that way?" In our supposed "post-race" society, these encounters, these moments, big and small, still take place every day, often to the ignorance of those who don't have to experience them.

The messages are on the streets, in the media, at work, at the grocery store, in our sporting arenas and schools. Claudia Rankine gives them a beautiful, yet sorrowful, voice. These microaggressions deserve that voice, deserve to be unearthed and lifted into the light. Citizen should be required reading from middle school on.

The pieces that struck me most deeply were those about invisibility, and there were a lot of them. It was, depressingly, a major theme. There were several lines that almost literally took my air. For example, Rankine mentions the medical term "John Henryism," used to describe people exposed to the stresses of racism.** About them, Rankine writes:

They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure.

Another piece, a Script for Situation video comprised of quotes from CNN includes the following about Hurricane Katrina:

He said, I don't know what the water wanted. It wanted to show you no one would come.

In a revealing section including several pieces about Serena Williams, Rankine discusses the injustices Serena has had to deal with and play through; how they add up and add up until one day she lashes out at something she might have otherwise brushed off:

Yes, and the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes into consciousness -- all the unintimidated, unblinking, and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.
One of the most crushing pieces is on page 134, which you may have already heard about. It is a dedication page of sorts, in the memory of young black men killed violently at the hands of others, often the police. There are now four names on the list in the edition I own, the sixth. The last reads "In memory of Michael Brown."

The rest of the page continues the "In memory" line, followed by blank space, just waiting for the next name. A name we know will come. Names we know already have come several times over since Michael Brown was killed. The opposing page reads:

Because white men can't police their imagination, black men are dying

Citizen is only 160 pages long. It can be read in one sitting. I urge you to read it. For the artistry of the lyric, yes, but also to gain a deeper understanding of what the African American community feels and deals with on a daily basis. So you aren't the next maroon who tells a black woman you didn't know black people could get cancer. So you stop, and see, and think. And perhaps do differently. None of us should be invisible.

(*In fact, they just did a piece about fearing poetry, which was quite timely. Check it out here.)

(** John  Henry was an African American folk hero who worked as a steel-driver. His prowess was measured in a race against a steam-powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory when his heart gave out as a result of his effort.)

NOTE: After I published this piece I noticed that the Salon discussion on Citizen also posted today. I'm sure there are more and better and deeper views being expressed there, please go read that discussion, as I am going to do right now.


Pop Culture Nerd said...

I don't read or get poetry, either, and I'm related to an award-winning poet. But I get your review loud and clear and now will read this book. Thank you.

Can you imagine being a young black man reading this book and wondering if *his* name might end up on p. 134?

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

Your family is so talented. I think you will, like me, find much of Citizen unlike what we think of as "poetry" in the traditional sense. I'd love to talk to you about it if you do read it. It's something that I should read again as well. And no, I can't imagine walking the streets every day, or standing in my own yard, wondering if I was going to be the next name. Seems unreal, but it appears to be our reality.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I did get your meaning, it made sense in the context of our discussion. I think the analogy is pretty apt, that fear of your kids leaving the house due to any direct threat. I like to think I can empathize, but I'm sure even that falls far short of the reality. I was raised to believe law enforcement was there for my protection and for the most part, that is true for me. Hard to imagine the feeling of not only lacking the protection, but having to fear the direct threat. Scary, scary stuff.

Pop Culture Nerd said...

Seriously, why do I even try? Now I see "meeting" where I meant "meaning." Getting off the Internet until I've had more coffee.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I had to laugh when I saw that and was just waiting for the swears to come when you saw it. :)

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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