A finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” is audacious in form. But what is perhaps especially striking about the book is that it has achieved something that eludes much modern poetry: urgency.
“Citizen” is both insistently topical, with references toTrayvon Martin and stop-and-frisk police tactics, and concerned with intimate moments when racial impasses spring up between friends and colleagues. Stylistically, it takes readers on a ride over varied terrain, going from verse to prose to visual images by artists likeCarrie Mae Weems and Glenn Ligon, whose work is often grounded in wordplay and social commentary. These deliberate collisions, Ms. Rankine said, help “to create openness and surprises, and to make the world more integrated.”
“Citizen,” whose cover shows a black hoodie against a white background, has attracted praise from publications like The Los Angeles Times and Slate since its release last month. In a review in The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson wrote, “It is an especially vital book for this moment in time.”
This moment is one of heated discourse about race and equality, but she is not writing as an activist, Ms. Rankine said. Her book, she said, is “about our lived lives.”
“A lot of people feel that the realm of poetry and the realm of the lyric is personal feeling and should rise above politics, which, in fact, good poetry has never done,” she said in a recent interview at a hotel in SoHo. “As African-Americans, that’s what’s being played fast and loose with, our citizenship. When you have the Trayvon Martins and the Michael Browns being shot and killed, it’s because, on a certain level, there is a kind of mutability in the understanding of citizenship around the black body.”
Still, she said, her primary subject is not even so much race, but the ways in which we encounter and fail one another.
Ms. Rankine, 51, who teaches poetry and creative writing at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., was in New York for the National Book Awards. At the ceremony on Nov. 19, the poetry prize ended up going to Louise Glück, her former professor at Williams College. Ms. Glück, who won for “Faithful and Virtuous Night,” has championed Ms. Rankine’s work and was an inspiration for her own path, Ms. Rankine said.
Ms. Glück, in a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Mass., a few days after the awards ceremony, recalled Ms. Rankine as “a phenomenal student.”
“She spoke always with such boldness and accuracy and intensity,” Ms. Glück said.
Ms. Rankine said that while she would have liked to have won the award, “I wasn’t waiting to be chosen — you don’t write with the freedom that I do if that’s what is on your mind.”
“Citizen” reflects issues and feelings that have long been on the mind of Ms. Rankine, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and moved with her family to New York when she was 7. Her father found work as a hospital orderly, and her mother as a nurse’s aide.
Bookish as a child, Ms. Rankine earned a literature degree at Williams and went on to get an M.F.A. in poetry from Columbia. She wanted to write poetry, she said, though pursuing it was a leap of faith for someone who grew up with the notion of needing a steady job.
Poetry and teaching paid off, though, and Ms. Rankine said she began to find her voice in her second and third books, “The End of the Alphabet” (1998) and “Plot” (2001), which looked “at the dynamic of words within words, the multiplicity of meanings within words.”
Her experimental, hybrid style emerged with her fourth collection, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” in 2004, a book that also carries the subtitle “An American Lyric” and integrates visual elements.
“Citizen” begins quietly, with descriptions of how encounters between people of different races can turn hurtful or puzzling or disconcerting in the space of a few words. The stories come from her own life and from people in her personal and professional circles.
One cannot forget the times a friend called her by the name of a black housekeeper. Another suffers a lunch companion who complains that because of affirmative action, her son cannot attend the same school that she, her father, her grandfather “and you” all attended. Yet another shows up for her appointment at the house of a specialist in trauma therapy. The therapist opens the door and yells: “Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?”
Ms. Rankine said that “part of documenting the micro-aggressions is to understand where the bigger, scandalous aggressions come from.” So much racism is unconscious and springs from imagined fears, she said. “It has to do with who gets pulled over, who gets locked up. You have to look not directly, but indirectly.”
In an email message, the writer and poet Elizabeth Alexander said she appreciated the way Ms. Rankine “presents these quicksilver, corrosive moments in exquisite miniature.” The poems, Ms. Alexander said, “usually take turns at the end that move us closer to the damage that occurs when actual people are replaced by stereotypical racist images.”
The visual art in “Citizen” — by Ms. Weems, Mr. Ligon, Nick Cave,David Hammons and others — continues and extends the conversation. It includes a well-known photograph of a lynching, from which Ms. Rankine has removed the hanging black bodies, highlighting the excited faces of the white mob. “We need to redirect our gaze” to the white spectators, Ms. Rankine said, to ponder their fascination and their actions.
Some of the words in “Citizen” were written as scripts to accompany videos on topics ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the World Cup, created with her husband, John Lucas, a filmmaker and photographer. They live with their 11-year-old daughter, Ula Lucas, near the San Gabriel Mountains.
“Citizen” does not neglect more poetic expression. “The world is wrong,” Ms. Rankine writes. “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.”
Ms. Rankine said she was hearing from black readers who feel comforted that she understands their exhaustion of being rendered invisible or alien, even when they believe they have forged connections in spite of race. And she is hearing from white readers who say they are more conscious of how their race determines their behavior and controls their imagination.
“As Baldwin put it,” she said, “ ‘Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.’ ”