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‘The Full Force of Your American Positioning’

Hugh Foley

Citizen

Claudia Rankine
Citizen: An American Lyric
Penguin
£9.99
176 Pages
ISBN: 9780141981772

 

because white men can’t
police their imaginations
black men are dying

These words, from Jamaican-born, American poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, which won the Forward Prize for Poetry on 28 September, may in time become regularly detached from their larger context, as William Carlos Williams’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ has been taken from Spring and All. If this happens, it will be not simply because of the truth of the statement—just as it is somewhat more banally true that much does depend on a red wheelbarrow—but because in these lines one can see a new, or previously unrecognised, poetic being articulated. Obviously, the bitterness in ‘to police the imagination’ resonates with everyone in sympathy with the book’s anger at structural racism. But the words cut more deeply than irony. The concept of policing the imagination overturns a view of the imagination as a universe of freedom; indeed, we might see it instead as a realm dominated by tyrannous images, the monsters that haunt policemen with itchy trigger fingers.

Citizen is written in a series of prose paragraphs, interspersed with more ‘lyrical’, lineated moments, and an essay on Serena Williams. It extends the flexible form of Rankine’s previous book, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, beyond the first person. The recurrent form is the incident, often a ‘microagression‘, that happens to you, and which speaks to the experience of being black in contemporary America. As one reads on, these experiences make clear that the subject demanding policing is not free to dream, but is instead the conduit for a history of distorting representations. This is perhaps why Citizen‘s second person address, putting you in the book’s positions, seems to me to be a reminder or performance of Althusser’s idea of ‘interpellation‘. The classic example of interpellation is being addressed as “hey you” by the Police; in responding to the ‘you’, you take on the role assigned. This seems to be one argument of Citizen: Who is better placed to recognise interpellation by the “hey you” of the police than African-Americans? In this respect, the imagination needs policing of a very specific kind, a curtailing of freedoms which are only ever ideology. Citizen, in the name of racial justice, cancels the distinction between the world of images and the world we call reality, because those who find themselves on the wrong side of the police’s “hey you”, who feel what the book calls ‘the full force of your American positioning’, know that the distinction was always illusory.

Citizen is also, then, in tune with those generations who have found themselves on the internet. Here, speech and images are emphatically actions, made things in a real world, not a ghostly one, and an ethics and a poetics built on any such division will likely come to seem naïve. Already this can be seen in poets embracing the discourses of social justice as it exists on the internet— itself in many ways a renaissance of the theory of the last quarter of the twentieth century, grounded, however, outside the academy, in people’s experience. People’s lives haven’t become texts as much as text has become life, a life in which the experience of injustice is intimately linked to unjust representation.

Rankine does not simply portray that representative injustice; she instead offers a recognition of the opportunities for solidarity within a world impinged upon by appearances. She shows the small, real freedoms in accepting the porousness of a border that other, more privileged, poets might want to keep closed. In one of the most poignant passages, you sit, defiantly, symbolically, next to a man whom the other commuters are avoiding because he is black:

From across the aisle tracks room harbor world a woman asks a man in the rows ahead if he would mind switching seats. She wishes to sit with her daughter or son. You hear but you don’t hear. You can’t see.

It’s then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you’ll tell them we are traveling as a family.

Citizen’s U.K recognition is at the crest of several waves. Perhaps one consequence, coming only a year after Kei Miller became the first black poet to win the Forward Prize, will be that people turn to many of Britain’s great younger poets of colour, such as those whose writing has been supported by the excellent Complete Works project. The Complete Works was founded because less than 1% of poetry published in 2007 by major U.K presses was by people of colour. Already this has paid dividends. One of the Complete Works poets, Warsan Shire, was a Forward judge this year, while the winner of the best first collection prize, Mona Arshi, was supported by the project too, as was one of the other first collection nominees, the brilliant Sarah Howe. Beyond, or rather, alongside that project, and alongside the clear need for more diversity in the world of British poetry, Citizen reminds us that we cannot pretend our imaginations are simply free when they depend upon so much.

Hugh Foley is reading for a DPhil in English at Exeter College, Oxford.