Feeling is First: Lessons on Resistance in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen

citizen

Reviewed by Muriel Leung

Body, language, memory, and feeling reverberate through the landscape of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which aptly begins, “When you are alone and too tired…” From the onset, Rankine establishes the racialized body as an avatar marked by fatigue and affective distancing both as an involuntary response to and means of survival in a world flooded with transgressions. The sense of removal that Rankine’s speaker experiences takes place through a range of experiences from microaggressions (being confused for another black colleague at work, a woman drives to the other side of a parking lot after catching the speaker’s eye) to forms of more explicit violence (Jena Six, Trayvon Martin, the racial profiling of black male bodies). In each moment, Rankine examines where the body fails to catch up with language, when language fails to catch up with memory, and how feeling is mediated when these assorted aggressions puncture the world. Citizen is a call for synchronicity of these parts, proving to be especially necessary in the volatility of current debates about race and institutional violence in the U.S.

Through variations of prose and hybrid text and images, Rankine’s poems are equal parts meditation, questioning, and fury. These parts shape the arc of Citizen, moving us from episodic moments of quiet transgressions to historical accounts to the abstract—and necessarily so to order these variations along a spectrum and not hierarchize the events. By establishing the relationship between the daily concerns of navigating the world as a black body to institutions that propagate violence, Rankine reshapes how the majority of this world views racism. She offers that it is neither just isolated instances nor the issue of authority, but rather what permeates through all these moments, erects dangerous silences, and traumatizes. Rankine writes, “The world is wrong” and then takes the reader through the motions of the body experiencing that moment of transgression: “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 culmination of this line of questioning is a bodily response that distances in order to cope; the sigh is a slight gesture that is ultimately insufficient but what must suffice in that particular moment. Of this contention, Rankine writes as well that “to breathe you have to create a truce—/ a truce with the patience of a stethoscope.” The clinical conclusion of these lines suggest that even in moments of supposed reprieve, the efforts to combat transgressions necessitate a distancing of self from situation as a means of survival.

Sleeping Heads (2006), Wangechi Mutu

Sleeping Heads (2006), Wangechi Mutu

Similarly, Rankine’s use of images throughout the text operates as a means of bridging those affective gaps and becomes a different language in conversation with text. From digital media to traditional paintings, Rankine exposes the reader to a wide range of artistic objects to destabilize the trappings of the distinction between high and low forms of art. She features Hennessy Youngman, a satirical art commentator and YouTube personality, in image and textual discussion, alongside contemporary artist, Wangechi Mutu’s mixed media collages, and concludes Citizen with a traditional oil painting by 19th century artist, Joseph Mallord William Turner. These images speak when speech is not enough or is silenced and often invigorates speech in times of silence. For instance, Rankine gives us two versions of Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship (1840). The first is the painting in full view with the ship in the background and a blurred commotion in the waters in the foreground. The following is the painting zoomed into the commotion, revealing fish and the scattered remains of the bodies of slaves thrown overboard a slave ship. This move on Rankine’s part forces the reader to confront the stakes of the assorted violence that takes place throughout Citizen, to recognize that no transgression is truly benign; that we should stare into the face of this terror, be charged with discomfort, and acknowledge racism’s terrible truths.

The Slave Ship (1840), Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Slave Ship (1840), Joseph Mallord William Turner

Citizen is a powerful follow-up to Rankine’s acclaimed Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and continues the earlier text’s conversation on American racial politics with boldness and incredible insight. Rankine demonstrates once again that we have an obligation to language, to respond to violence in order to make oneself visible. “Language navigates this [hurt],” Rankine writes, and it is “Your alertness,/ your openness, your desire to engage actually demand/ your presence, your looking up, your talking back as/ insane as it is, saying please” that makes up our responsibility to each other.

***

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

“A Riot of Surface”: Hannah Brooks-Motl’s The New Years

 

hannahbrooks-motl

Review by Leah Silvieus

Hannah Brooks-Motl’s debut collection of poetry, The New Years, deals with the tension between skating well on surfaces (to borrow a phrase from Emerson, whom Brooks-Motl references frequently throughout the book) and pressing through surface into the meaning-making of memory. Brooks-Motl divides the book into three sections: “Winter Then,” “Properly Speaking” and “Village & Sea.” None of the poems have titles, and the scarcity of end-stops throughout the collection conjures a dreamlike world that drifts from one thought or moment to the next, from seaside hotel to prairie to snowed-in car. The melancholy that suffuses the book is not merely the result of the speaker’s being alone but of acknowledging the distance that the act of remembering necessitates:

We love the new year like an object
Or decide to, filling our hands with the unpleasant snow
To type a thing we must be cold (39)

To remember, in some ways, is to relinquish one’s possession of the past. Allusion is not the original text itself. In fact, allusion emphasizes the reader’s distance from the original. Likewise, memory cannot be the past moment itself. The memories we have today will become ghosts, surface, perhaps even nonsensical:

Ahead of me, there are ghosts
Do I know them
Their names, particular looks, and a certain
Singing nature
It’s possible I have spoken
Nonsense […] (82)

At times, The New Years risks skating away from the reader on its own surfaces. The book generally resists, however, by grounding itself in literary allusion (e.g. “My dear wild boar,” a phrase culled from a letter from Jenny to Karl Marx) and striking images that unite elevated diction with colloquial speech: “What good to speak now to love’s endlessness—like litter over the / prairie.” (74) Perhaps what grounds the book foremost, however, are the candid moments from the speaker’s past that sear through the winding discourse about memory:

The embarrassment once of not knowing what “counterpane” meant
A word a lover used in an email
I wrote back a description of the hotel where I was (14)

Celebrating a new year, in theory, is about specificity: the glowing countdown to the year in Times Square, the televised countdowns of the 100 best music videos of the year, the news highlights. But when viewed in the plural, how quickly the new years blur. What was the top song of 1991? What did the hosts serve at the New Year’s party I attended in 2005? Did I even go to a party that year?  What we remember, we remember in incomplete or sometimes even mistaken glimpses, Brooks-Motl points out. The New Years gains its footing precisely by admitting there is no footing, and in the end, skates away, but not without a haunting final address and inquiry to readers about where we are going, which in some ways, is also a question of where we’ve come from:

The head is your spring and being walked
Through the hills, a black field—
Where is your soft, suburban grotto
To go to, again
Is it handsome (83)

***

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

Episode #108: Sally Wen Mao, author of MAD HONEY SYMPOSIUM

Episode #108!  TBJ contributor, Muriel Leung interviews Sally Wen Mao, author of MAD HONEY SYMPOSIUM!

Sally Mao Bio Photo

Sally Wen Mao is the author of Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books, 2014), which is the winner of the 2012 Kinereth Gensler Award and a Publishers Weekly anticipated pick of spring 2014. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2013 and is published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Third Coast, and West Branch, among others. The recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman, 826 Valencia, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and Saltonstall Arts Colony, she holds an M.F.A. from Cornell University. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Episode #107: Andy Fitch, author of 60 MORNING TALKS, and a review of Matthew Zapruder’s SUN BEAR

Episode #107!  Featuring an interview with Andy Fitch, author of 60 MORNING TALKS, and a review by David Campos of Matthew Zapruder’s SUN BEAR!

Music by El Amparito and Vic Chesnutt (“Flirted With You All My Life.”)

pic-afitch

Andy Fitch

60 morning

Andy Fitch’s most recent book is Sixty Morning Talks. Ugly Duckling soon will release his Sixty Morning Walks and Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has collaborative books forthcoming from 1913 and Subito. He edits Essay Press and teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program.

***

***

sunbear

Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon 2010), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014), as well as a book of prose, Why Poetry, forthcoming from Ecco Press in 2015. He is also co-translator from Romanian, along with historian Radu Ioanid, of Secret Weapon: Selected Late Poems of Eugen Jebeleanu (Coffee House Press, 2007). His poems, essays and translations have appeared in many publications, including Tin House, Paris Review, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Bomb, Slate, Poetry, and The Believer. He has received a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, TX. An Assistant Professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English Department, he is also Editor-at-Large at Wave Books. He lives in Oakland, CA.

Review: Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood

 

Second-CHildhood-175x250

 

Review by Leah Silvieus

Fanny Howe’s latest collection of poems, Second Childhood, refuses to hover ethereally in the heavens and instead trudges through the muck and mud of the world, dreamlike, childlike, and bewildered (to borrow a term from her book of essays, The Wedding Dress). These poems explore the second childhood of aging as a portal to engaging mystically with the world. “Throughout my life I have remained vague and have accepted the humiliation it brought, almost as if stupification were a gift,” Howe writes in the title poem, “I willfully repeat my mistakes over and over and never learn from experience.” Throughout the book the speakers put on their  “second child/hoods” as a monk wears a habit:

 

You might think I am just old but I have finally

decided to make the decision to never grow up, and

remain under my hood.” (“Second Childhood”)

 

Through poems that range from short vignettes to longer, geographically roving meditations, Second Childhood envisions the physical and spiritual worlds as a palimpsest: in each realm’s most profound moments, we see traces of the other.

 

Black winter gardens

engraved at night

keep soft frost

on them to read the veins

of our inner illustrator’s

hand internally light

with infant etching […] (“The Garden”)

 

While the language of Second Childhood is generally spare and quiet, Howe carefully tucks music within the lines, as if encouraging the reader to slow down and look more closely. The assonance and slant rhyme of soft/frost and inner/illustrator’s/internally/light/infant evokes the movement of the spirit inscribing itself on the physical world, like an artist coming to her canvas.

Howe chisels away at romantic notions of mysticism and thus renders her speakers achingly human. They experience moments of transcendence, sure, but they also suffer the tension of being both a physical and spiritual entity, and this conflict generates some of the book’s most poignant moments:

 

[…] shame and loneliness are almost one.

Shame at existing in the first place. Shame at being

visible, taking up space, breathing some of the sky,

sleeping in a whole bed, asking for a share” (“Loneliness”)

 

While this book is sometimes serious in its meditations, it is not without joy. “Figs, bread, pasta, wine and cheese,” Howe writes in “A Vision,” “These are not the subconscious, but necessities.” The gift of aging, of mysticism, and perhaps of being a writer, is being able to perceive both the body and the spirit’s wisdom in each moment:

 

You may be called to a place of banality or genius,

but as long as it is your own happiness that responds to it,

you are available to something inhuman. “A Vision”

 

Second Childhood is less a gift of new insight as it is a gentle welcome to seeing as we have already seen, long ago as children: magic and miracle everywhere, in the wine and the figs, in the winter garden, in the blessedness which is already in us and through us, and everywhere, just waiting to be found.

***

leah1

Leah Silvieus

 

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

Introducing new contributors for The Blood-Jet!

The Blood-Jet Writing Hour is growing!  We’re delighted to introduce our new contributors, Heather Buchanan, David Campos, Muriel Leung, Kenji C. Liu and Leah Silvieus to the podcast and the blog.

Be on the lookout for reviews of Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear, Fanny Howe’s Second Childhood, Karen Tei Yamashita’s Anime Wong and interviews with Sally Wen Mao, Andy Fitch and more!

Please welcome…

HB Goldfish Tea2

Heather Buchanan

Heather Buchanan is the owner of Aquarius Press, now celebrating its 15th year. Willow Books, its literary division, develops, publishes, and promotes writers typically underrepresented in the field; recent collaborations include the publication of Cave Canem XII. A graduate of Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn respectively, Heather has taught Composition, English, African American Literature, and World Literature at several colleges and universities. In addition to teaching, Heather presents on arts and literature at conferences across the country, most recently for the Ragdale Foundation. She has directed many events and conferences, including LitFest Chicago, Midwest Poets & Writers Conference, and the Idlewild Writers Conference. A Poet-in-Residence emeritus for the Detroit Public Library system, Heather also served on the Board of Governors for UM-Dearborn’s College of Arts & Sciences Affiliate and was the COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities. A musician, she is currently working on a World War I centennial book and music project honoring the Harlem Hellfighters. She has been a reviewer for BlogCritics and MyShelf and has blogged for publications such as Poets & Writers.

***

SONY DSC

David Campos

David Campos is the author of the forthcoming FURIOUS DUSK (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015) winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. His poems have been publish in The American Poetry Review, Boxcar Poetry Review, Huizache, Miramar, and Solo Novo among many others. He is the Co-host of the literary radio Pákatelas on KFCF 88.1 FM Fresno where he lives and teaches.

***

Bio Pic

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.

***

KenjiCLiu

Kenji C. Liu

Kenji C. Liu is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey, now in Southern California. His writing and art arises from his work as an activist, educator, artist, and cultural worker. A Pushcart Prize nominee and first runner-up finalist for the Poets & Writers 2013 California Writers Exchange Award, his writing is forthcoming or published in The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, Barrow Street Journal, CURA, The Baltimore Review, RHINO Poetry, and others, including the anthologies Dismantle and Orangelandia. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoeswas nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. A three-time VONA alum and recipient of a Djerassi Resident Artist Program fellowship, he is completing a full-length poetry book. He is the poetry editor emeritus of Kartika Review.

***

leah1

Leah Silvieus

Leah Silvieus is a poet and interdisciplinary artist whose work has been featured at the O, Miami Poetry Festival and at the Asian American Women Artists Association in San Francisco. She also has received grants and fellowships from Fulbright, Kundiman, US Poets in Mexico, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. Her writing has been featured in Asian American Poetry & WritingCURAThe Collagist, and diode, among others. Currently, she divides her time between Florida and New York where she works in the yacht hospitality industry. You can visit her at http://leahsilvieus.wordpress.com/

Episode #106: Mari L’Esperance, co-editor of COMING CLOSE: FORTY ESSAYS ON PHILIP LEVINE

Episode #106! Featuring Mari L’Esperance, co-editor of COMING CLOSE: FORTY ESSAYS ON PHILIP LEVINE, and music by El Amparito.

Mari L'Esperance 4.9.14

Born in Kobe, Japan to a Japanese mother and a French Canadian-American father, Mari L’Esperance is the author of The Darkened Temple (awarded a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry and published in September 2008 by the University of Nebraska Press) and an earlier collection Begin Here (awarded a Sarasota Poetry Theatre Press Chapbook Prize). Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, co-edited with Tomás Q. Morín, was published by Prairie Lights Books in May 2013. A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and recipient of awards from the New York Times, New York University, Hedgebrook, and Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, L’Esperance lives in the Los Angeles area.