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Poet Claudia Rankine ruminates on the body politic in 'Citizen'

David L. Ulin
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Claudia Rankine's laugh comes out of the body as an explosion of complex contradictions: mirth, disappointment, irony, dismay. Sitting in her living room in Claremont, where she is a professor at Pomona College, the 51-year-old poet relies on laughter as punctuation, a way to express the physical force, the longing, of a dislocation that can never fully be put into words.

"Here," she says, referring to her fifth book, "Citizen" (Graywolf: 170 pp., $20 paper), which has been longlisted for this year's National Book Award, "there's a way in which I am trying to reflect the kind of ... disruptive history that I feel in the body of black people. I don't think I can speak for all black people, but right now, for example, in this black body, I am waiting for an indictment in Ferguson. And yet, I don't believe the indictment is coming."

Rankine visited Ferguson, Mo., in August, during the early days of the protests; she is now working on a piece about what she saw. The experience, she explains, provoked a physical reaction, not disgust so much as anticipation — or more accurately, anticipation unfulfilled.

"It stays in the body," she observes, describing the sensation. "The body is responding to it and waiting for something to happen that's not happening. In that sense, it leads to a defeating optimism because you still want change, you still want connection, you still understand yourself as an American citizen. You still feel that on some level justice must be around the corner. And yet, you don't believe it. So it's a weird kind of anticipation, like a blues or something, despairing and aspirational at the same time."

This tension, involving race and class and the issue of belonging, occupies the heart of "Citizen," a vivid hybrid of verse, narrative prose and documentary images that reframes, among others, the stories of Trayvon Martin, Mark Duggan and Zinedine Zidane to ruminate on public and private identity.

Rankine, born in Jamaica and raised in Kingston and New York, is blunt and thoughtful, not unlike her work. In conversation, she leans forward, speaking slowly, often pausing to consider the most useful phrase or word. This, we might say, is the poet in her; she was recently elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. At the same time, her writing challenges such expectations, blurring the lines of not only form but also content, requiring us to think of poetry anew.

"Citizen" is a follow-up to "Don't Let Me Be Lonely," the poet's 2004 inquiry into authenticity in a post-9/11 world. The projects work like a pair of bookends, the former turning inward and the latter outward, as if representing two sides of a lacerating blade. They share a subtitle — "An American Lyric," a phrase that for Rankine carries a specific set of meanings: "to pull the lyric back into its realities," she elaborates.

"It always surprises me," she reflects, "when people say that the realm of the lyric is the personal and the personal is not political. I just don't know how we can get to 2014 and say that with a straight face. When you think of a poet like Yeats, how can you say politics is not in the poem? When you think of Milosz, how can you say politics is not in the poem?"

To explore this, "Citizen" opens with a set of second-person observations — which both collapses the space between narrator and reader and keeps us at a distance. For Rankine, this offers a way to highlight the subtle indignities of race in daily life: the man in the checkout line who neglects to see her, the young girl on an airplane who won't sit next to her because she is black.

"When you're writing," she says, "you think: How does intimacy happen in the work? You don't know who your reader is, woman, man, child, black person, Asian, who knows? So I thought it might serve the book best if a reader had to think about where they were positioned each time something happened, to think, 'Where am I relative to this interaction? Where do I stand in this?' I wanted it to happen again and again, and the only construction that allowed it was the second person."

What Rankine's addressing are our preconceptions, which determine how we read the world. Ferguson is a perfect case in point, presented as a set of competing interpretations, when it's more convoluted than that.

"That's why," she notes, "the video of Michael Brown stealing cigarettes is inserted immediately, because the narrative is meant to be directed. And on the other side, the fact that he was going to college. That's the exceptionalist narrative, while the other is the criminal narrative. But the truth is in the middle somewhere. The narrative allows you to stop thinking. And a lot of people are invested in locking it down."

Of course, literature is — or should be — about unlocking such investments; it insists we take a more expansive point of view. For Rankine, that comes back to the relationship of form and function, which in the most exhilarating way imaginable makes reading "Citizen" something of a roller-coaster ride. The second-person sequence segues into a consideration of Serena Williams, who comes to represent, at least in part, the "hyper-visibility" of the black body in public space.

"I think sports," Rankine says, "is one of the places where race plays itself out publicly. Although we pretend it doesn't."

This is perhaps most vividly rendered in her account of Zidane, the French Algerian soccer star who head-butted Italy's Marco Materazzi after an offensive comment during the 2006 World Cup. Rankine takes material developed for a video collaboration with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, to create what reads as an internal monologue. In fact, she is appropriating language (from Shakespeare, James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, as well as Zidane), much as she appropriates images of the confrontation, which are woven into the text.

The result is a mash-up not only of word and image but also of news, mass media, juxtaposed against more personal reference points. This in turn allows Rankine to use poetry as a way to address subjects that are blunt and brutal in a nuanced way.

Where "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" explored the frailty, the limitations, of the individual body, "Citizen" is about the body on a broader level: the body politic, let's say. A lot of this material, Rankine says, "is really unbearable" — particularly our tortured history of race.

"It's astounding," she goes on, "that we still have to negotiate it." But looking away is not an option — and it never was.

"Once I get started on something," she says, "that's all I think about, really. For years. It's years of scanning the landscape, thinking about a dynamic. But not a story; it's not a story. It's a dynamic. It's an experience, it's the way a thing holds itself in your body, it's the irritation of it, it's … I don't have a better word than 'unbearable.' And yet you bear it. And yet you go on. You can't take it, and yet you take it, and you take it, and it comes."

Rankine will be in conversation with Robin Coste Lewis at the ALOUD series at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 23. Information: www.lfla.org/aloud

david.ulin@latimes.com

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