Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, book review: Grimly compelling read

This prose poem outlining racism in US society suggests there may be no way back or forward
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The Independent Culture

'Citizen' is about the desolation created by internalised racist assumptions – the careless word, the telling error, the failure to see clearly or to admit to what is the case. It is also about the violent continuity between the lynchings of the past and the current readiness of the police to kill black men. Read it once and you will probably want to read it again. If anything the situation looks grimmer and more shaming the second time. Robert Lowell prayed "for the grace of accuracy", but here enlightenment has to be its own bitter reward.

In one episode, the black narrator goes for an appointment with a trauma therapist. The garden gate she has been instructed to use is locked, and she rings the front doorbell. The therapist answers the door and, "as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or German shepherd has gained the power of speech, screams: 'Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard!'" Realising the narrator is a new patient, the woman is mortified, but it seems too late.

"Too late" is the subtext of much of the book. The thoughtless comment and the demented misconception – "I didn't know black women could get cancer" – suggest there may be no way back or forward, no consolation to derive. Where Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney after the Charleston massacre saw a longer purpose at work through the murders, and emphasised the strength of forgiving, Rankine works forensically: this is what happens; this is how it feels; this is what it means.

Rankine's use of the second person rather than the traditional lyric "I" is powerfully effective in recreating alienation both in the episodes themselves and from the generalised, undifferentiated identity (the erasure) which racism seeks to enforce on those to whom it is applied.

This "American Lyric" implicitly wonders whether the Republic really can, like Whitman, the first great American poet, "contain multitudes". The signs are bad, and until people can be got to read them properly, matters will not improve.

Rankine draws on both her own and others' experience – often that of the intelligentsia – to show prejudice working all the way up the economic ladder. For the white woman who tells the black "you" over lunch that affirmative action has damaged her white son's college prospects, "you" are made an "exception" to blackness by virtue of the conversation taking place at all. The effect is to erase "you" entirely.

An essay-length piece on Serena Williams depicts two episodes – a semi-final at the 2004 American Open against Jennifer Capriati (and the umpire Mariana Alves) and in the 2009 semi-final against Kim Clijsters. In the first case a series of clearly erroneous out-calls, and in the second an erroneous foot-fault called by a line-judge provoked Williams to voice her anger, the second time with a memorable threat: "I swear to God I'm going to take this f**king ball and shove it down your f**king throat." The facts were clear, but that was not the problem. When Williams did a celebratory dance she was told she looked like a gangster, and accused of lacking "class" – an accusation also shamefully directed on Facebook at the Obamas' daughters by a Republican official who saw the root of the problem in their parents' alleged lack of the same nebulous attribute. The public prominence of black people remains, mostly in secret, an affront to many who consider themselves intelligent adults. America, like Europe, needs to grow up, but can it?

The power of Citizen is such that questions of literary form tend to be set aside. It's described as a prose poem, but it's not quite what Rimbaud or Francis Ponge might have understood by that. Where Symbolist and Modernist prose poems often exhibit an almost-intolerable density of suggestion, Rankine works by impeccable timing within the paragraph, with an even tone enforcing an implacable verbal economy and exactitude. This is what it's like, she says. It's hard to disagree.