quinta-feira, 23 de outubro de 2014
A poet examines race in America.
By Dan Chiasson
The poet Claudia Rankine’s new volume, her fifth, is “Citizen: An American Lyric” (Graywolf), a book-length poem about race and the imagination. Rankine has called it an attempt to “pull the lyric back into its realities.” Those realities include the acts of everyday racism—remarks, glances, implied judgments—that flourish in an environment where more explicit acts of discrimination have been outlawed. “Citizen,” which has been short-listed for the National Book Award, suggests that a contemporary “American lyric” is a weave of artfully juxtaposed intensities, a quarrel within form about form. Like Rankine’s last book, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely” (2004), which shares its subtitle, “Citizen” is part documentary, part lyric procedural, submitting to its painstaking frame-by-frame analysis everything from J. M. W. Turner’s painting “The Slave Ship” to Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt during the 2006 World Cup final. The extensive list of works that Rankine has drawn on, ranging from James Baldwin to Homi Bhabha to Robert Lowell, makes “Citizen” (like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a clear antecedent) one of those American art works that equip us to do without it. It teaches us to “no longer take things at second and third hand,” as Whitman wrote, to “listen to all sides and filter them from your self.”
Rankine was born in Jamaica and grew up in Kingston and New York. She is fifty-one and teaches at Pomona College. From the start, her work has troubled the distinction between what, in “Citizen,” she calls the “self self” and the “historical self,” challenging our sense of the lyric’s natural territory as the exclusively personal, outside the scope of politics. “Citizen” begins by recounting, in the second person, a string of racist incidents experienced by Rankine and friends of hers, the kind of insidious did-that-really-just-happen affronts that startle in the moment and later expand, poisonously, in the mind. A friend jokingly calls you a “nappy-headed ho” when you show up late to a date; a stranger wonders why you care that “he has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers”; standing outside a conference room before a meeting, one of your colleagues tells another that “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” Such exempla end after the initial shock of confrontation, leaving it to the poet to channel the daunted response, the choked comeback.
The rectilinear language blocks that make up much of “Citizen” suggest the prose poem, that hand-me-down from the French Symbolists. But another model for these entries is, I suspect, non-literary: the police log, the journal entry, or—a new form familiar to anybody who visits student unions—the confession board papered with anonymous note cards. Rankine’s prose representations often border on pro se representation, the action of defending oneself in a court of law. We innately distrust this kind of self-defense, but historically it has been the only form available to African-Americans, as Rankine knows. Both sides of the prosecutorial exchange are embodied in Rankine’s style, the self split between the “you” that recounts the instances of humiliation it has endured and the “I,” implicit in the voice addressing it, that puts it on the stand:
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? Who said that? She said what? What did he just do? Did she really just say that? He said what? What did she do? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? Do you remember when you sighed?
The inside of a person is finite; if it fills up with these kinds of questions, there is no room for the kinds of material—the moods, the ups and downs of the heart—that are also the domain of lyric poetry. In “Citizen,” the tank into which past moments empty has started to back up and overflow. This is a problem for the person just trying to get things done, but it is a special kind of problem, and an especially profound one, for a lyric poet, who got into this business partly to talk about rain, trees, moons, skies, dejection, and joy.
“Citizen” opens with a powering-down of all the “devices”—the buzzing phones and glaring screens that distract the self from its own scrutiny—to buy some bandwidth for reflection:
When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows. Usually you are nestled under blankets and the house is empty. Sometimes the moon is missing and beyond the windows the low, gray ceiling seems approachable. Its dark light dims in degrees depending on the density of clouds and you fall back into that which gets reconstructed as metaphor.
This is pre-everything, the deepest pocket of childhood, where clouds, moons, and houses keep us company. When we reconstruct memories as metaphors, we fill in all the meanings assigned to them later in life by suffering—by what Wordsworth, in a very different context, called the “sober colouring” of human feeling. The first time around, you’re busy dealing with the girl in Catholic school with “waist-length brown hair” who asks to cheat off your exams, and the clueless nun who never notices. In retrospect, the whole exchange is racial, laying down the tracks for later degradations:
You never really speak except for the time she makes her request and later when she tells you you smell good and have features more like a white person. You assume she thinks she is thanking you for letting her cheat and feels better cheating from an almost white person.
“Citizen” is about the grownup ways in which this childhood scene gets replayed, the white cheat always backed by white institutions. It is an especially vital book for this moment in time. While the book was in press, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri; as I write this, hundreds of people are marching in protest there, engaging in civil disobedience and offering themselves up for arrest. The book’s cover, an image of a black hood suspended in white space, seems to be a direct reference to Trayvon Martin’s death, but the image is of a work from 1993, two years after Rodney King was beaten senseless by members of the L.A.P.D. It’s called “In the Hood,” and it suggests that racism passes freely among homonyms: the white imagination readily turns hoods into hoods. The image also makes you think of the hoods in fairy tales and illustrated books, part of the regalia of childhood. But its white backdrop recalls the haunting quotation from Zora Neale Hurston that keeps cropping up in “Citizen”: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” The hood becomes an executioner’s headdress, too.
The book explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected, and the emotional costs for the artist who cries foul. “Post-racial” America is like Elsinore, in “Hamlet,” celebrating its renewal as a way of covering up its crimes. If you dissent, refusing to cast off your “nighted colour,” you’re thought of as surly, or crazy, by those who can’t, or won’t, see the way that race is forced upon the ordinary day: going to a restaurant, travelling for work, meeting a real-estate agent, fighting a headache, switching on some tennis. If you can’t pass from one activity to the next without having your existence undermined, something is rotten in these white institutions, which regularly remind you that your very presence within them is a sign of their enlightenment:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there . . . .
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
Rankine’s use of multiple negatives works here, as often in this book, to re-create the bizarro crisis of figuring out how to parse a moment that should never have occurred, a response that “doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable.” The moment defies reason and thwarts syntax, reason’s trusted viceroy. Generally, in lyric poems, we expect the past to return with uncanny vividness in the changed context of the present. You could argue that poetry is precisely about this return of the past, its many formal technologies—rhyme, meter, repeated verse and stanza forms—designed to make such recurrences possible and meaningful. In “Citizen,” the past has never receded in the first place. The needle is stuck, so the tune is lost.
“Citizen” conducts its business, often, with melancholy, but also with wit and a sharable incredulity that sends you running to YouTube. These kinds of errands into the culture could not have been performed before the Internet, which provides, for all of us, the ultimate instant replay. Rankine includes a long meditation on Serena Williams, the tennis star: like Rankine, a black woman playing what many still insist on thinking of as a white man’s game. What gives these passages such power is a fan’s zeal, which, among many other things, reminds us of what a magnificent athlete is in our midst. Rankine watches tennis with the sound off, she tells us, to soothe herself: “a clean displacement,” she writes, “of effort, will, and disappointment.” You could say the same of poetry, and there is something special about tennis, as poets have noticed, that feels poetic—the marked rectangle within which all the action happens, the quick back and forth of the ball like a line breaking and returning to the left-hand margin.
We understand the stakes when, in prose subdued to let the facts speak for themselves, Rankine reminds us how, for decades, the Williams sisters’ athletic dominance has been construed as trauma. In 2004, “the distinguished tennis chair umpire” Mariana Alves gave the U.S. Open semifinal away to Jennifer Capriati, making five outrageous calls in a row. Capriati and Alves looked as though they were in cahoots:
The serves and returns Alves called out were landing, stunningly unreturned by Capriati, inside the lines, no discerning eyesight needed. Commentators, spectators, television viewers, line judges, everyone could see the balls were good, everyone, apparently, except Alves. No one could understand what was happening. Serena, in her denim skirt, black sneaker boots, and dark mascara, began wagging her finger and saying, “no, no, no,” as if by negating the moment she could propel us back into a legible world.
You can see the footage for yourself, remembering what Whitman said about not taking things at second or third hand. It’s the white girl and the nun all over again. A poet wants to say more than “no, no, no” all the time, but in the great poems we often find this conflict between song and reprimand, beauty and exposé.
“To breathe,” Rankine writes, “you have to create a truce—a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.” The realization at the end of this book sits heavily upon the heart: “This is how you are a citizen,” Rankine writes. “Come on. Let it go. Move on.” As Rankine’s brilliant, disabusing work, always aware of its ironies, reminds us, “moving on” is not synonymous with “leaving behind.” ♦
Dan Chiasson has been contributing poems to the magazine since 2000 and reviews since 2007. He teaches at Wellesley College.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 20:27