National Poetry Month: Claudia Rankine and Michael Robbins

My next column for the magazine features a review of Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, so I'll keep my proselytizing short here. Rankine has written several strong collections before, but Citizen (2014) is of an entirely different dimension, especially in terms of formal originality. The book blends poetry, prose, and visual art, all in an attempt to show how race continues to shape and deform the American experiment.

Citizen makes for hard reading in two senses. First, it is difficult like The Waste Land or any other work of experimental literature is difficult. That is to say, our normal ways of reading aren't quite adequate here. And even when you finally feel like you're getting the hang of things, when you have gotten used to one mode of writing (say, Rankine's impressionistic prose poems), Citizen switches things up with fragments of lyric poetry written in free verse or snippets of overheard dialogue.

The book's second kind of difficulty: it shows us things that we'd rather not see or think about, how we as a society talk and imagine "the other"--in this case, brown and black bodies--and how this talking/imagining poisons not just the souls of "the other" but our own souls as well.  Here is a short excerpt from the book:

Some years there exists a wanting to escape—

you, floating above your certain ache—  

still the ache coexists.

Call that the immanent you—

 

You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless,

not worth you.

 

Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.

 

And still this life parts your lids, you see
you seeing your extending hand

as a falling wave—

My second suggested poet, Michael Robbins, appears very different from Rankine on the surface. Where her work often seems to abjure poetic form, maybe even poetry itself, Robbins is committed to the formal constraints of verse. He writes most regularly in tight quatrains or quintets, regularly rhymes in surprising and inventive ways (you can hear the echoes of hip hop in many of his poems), and isn't above writing a sonnet or two. In a recent essay, Robbins, an occasional Commonweal contributor, has described the shifty term "form" as "those features that make a given verbal act shareable." His own work continually shows how poetic language might become shareable through the use of rhyme and meter--techniques that cause the community of readers to read with the same breath and cadence, to experience the same incantatory power of language.

Above all else, Robbins's work is comic: there are many, many lines in both of his collections, Alien Vs. Predator and The Second Sex, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that's a rare feat for a collection of poetry. In "Use Your Illusion," for instance, Robbins urges us to "Put the Christ back in Xbox," a line that I remember every time a war against Christmas is solemnly proclaimed on television and then is followed immediately by ads for Toys R Us. In "The Second Sex," Robbins writes, 

I say the wrong thing. I have OCD.
My obsessive compulsions are disorderly.
I say the wrong thing, did I already say?
I drive my dominatrix away.

The one thing that most clearly connects Rankine and Robbins? Their ability to make us see everyday language in a new light. For Rankine, this most often is the language we use in our encounters with the other; for Robbins, it is the language of American capitalism and patriotism: "Ask not what the Dew can do for you. / Ask about our special rates / for armed services personnel"; "Mistakes were made at Plymouth Rock." In a somewhat paradoxical manner, both poets, to quote Eliot, "purify the language of the tribe": they use the resources of poetry to distill and clarify the impurities of our society's language. 

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Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). He writes Commonweal's "Bookmarks" column.

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