unspeakable, unresolvable questions — form and function in Rankine’s Citizen

In anticipation of Claudia Rankine’s visit to Concordia University we are featuring writing that responds to Rankine’s works Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. This piece is by Concordia MA student, Chalsley Taylor. Rankine will be giving a public reading at 7pm, March 10, 2017 in the DeSeve Cinema in Concordia’s Library building on de Maisonneuve.

unspeakable, unresolvable questions — form and function in Rankine’s Citizen

By Chalsley Taylor

A body in the world drowns in it—

Hey you—

All our fevered history won’t install insight
won’t turn a body conscious,
won’t make that look
in the eyes say yes, though there is nothing

to solve

even as each moment is an answer

(Citizen, 142)

Citizen bears witness to the lack of resolution in the saga of black oppression & resistance by staging the uninterrupted violence to which black folks are subject (in America, though this violence surely exceeds borders), drawing together past and present iterations of anti-black state violence in a nonlinear fashion. Popularly compartmentalized historical violence is not simply layered upon its contemporary counterparts (whether spectacular or, as is more often the case, quotidian); rather, the two meld together and, at times, even align. This movement occurs between pronouns as well in the lyric—while Rankine most often employs the “You” to signify the speaker, there are moments in which the “You” shifts to another subject.

In these moments there is a distinct slippage between the “you” and the “I” and neither subjectivity can be located beyond doubt. From this we may begin a list of slippages: between past and present, but also between Rankine, Serena Williams, and the “I’s” and the “You’s”.

Oh my God, I didn’t see you.

You must be in a hurry, you offer.

No, no, no, I really didn’t see you. (62)

The speaker alerts us to a  temporal melding, asking, “What else to liken yourself to but an animal, the ruminant kind?” is exemplary (Rankine 60).

ruminant (OSX Dictionary.app)


1. an even-toed ungulate mammal that chews the cud regurgitated from its rumen. The ruminants comprise the cattle, sheep, antelopes, deer, giraffes, and their relatives.

2. a contemplative person; a person given to meditation.

“The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination.” (Wikipedia)

Characterizing the speaking subject as categorically “ruminant” conjures the transatlantic slave trade but also delineates the monotony of anti-black oppression, its banal iterations inscribed and re-inscribed upon the self. Yet still, its double meaning permits the “ruminant” their subjectivity. Moreover, if we consider the Wikipedia definition it seems to imply a coping strategy while also indicting this state by affirming the obligation to digest (process), again and again, what you have already swallowed. It would not be going too far to say rumination (as in rechewing) becomes a dominant modality of the text, one which “doesn’t include acting like…the before isn’t part of the now” (10). This connects to another slippage, one between text and image. Here the lyric form is stretched and pieces of visual art are included. Very early on, we are met with a benign-looking photograph of a suburban street, “JIM CROW RD” (Rankine 6).

Melding, however, is not always made so clear. 

Words work as release–well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture. A pulse in a neck, the shiftiness of the hands, an unconscious blink, the conversations you have with your eyes translate everything and nothing. What will be needed, what goes unfelt, unsaid–what has been duplicated, redacted here, redacted there, altered to hide or disguise–words encoding the bodies they cover. And despite everything the body remains. (69)

This passage holds an ambiguous, undefined object. Upon my first reading, what initially sprung to my mind was the routine appropriation of black culture (accusations of which are so often invalidated by an insistence that black culture is but a self-serving fiction); upon my second turn, I read therein the prison-industrial complex. As amorphous as the references are here–what goes unfelt, unsaid–it well demonstrates a major accomplishment of the text as a whole; here, as elsewhere in the lyric, the mechanics of oppression are distilled to reveal their pervasiveness, their persistence, their infinite applicability. This ambiguity side-steps the potential for didacticism.

The temporal slippage also manifests a rejection of, as previously mentioned, any claims of resolution inserted into narratives of what is known as Black History. In large part, materials on the subject which are promoted/widely circulated during Black History Month (i.e., through corporate media, educational institutions and state apparatuses) present accounts whose narrative rarely lacks a resolute conclusion, “as if then and now were not the same moment” (Rankine 86). Even some current efforts which push back, in part, against sanctioned BHM rituals seem to imply some form of resolution, if only cursorily. (See Jamal Joseph, activist and director of the film Chapter & Verse, talks to Desus and Mero about his early days in the Black Panthers) In this way Citizen refuses state commemoration as described by Achille Mbembe:

… states have sought to ‘civilise’ the ways in which the archive might be consumed, not by attempting to destroy its material substance but through the bias of commemoration. In this framework, the ultimate objective of commemoration is less to remember than to forget. For a memory to exist, there first has to be the temptation to repeat an original act. Commemoration, in contrast, is part of the ritual of forgetting: one bids farewell to the desire or the willingness to repeat something. ‘Learning’ to forget is all the easier if, on the one hand, whatever is to be forgotten passes into folklore (when it is handed over to the people at large), and if, on the other hand, it becomes part of the universe of commodification.

(“The Power of the Archive and Its Limits”, Refiguring the Archive)

This practice of civilizing the archive is evidenced at Arthur Ashe’s appearance in the text, the tennis legend who is (now) remembered as “‘dignified’ and ‘courageous’ in his ability to confront injustice without making a scene,” beloved in his field postmortem (Rankine 35, 31). (And here we may also think of the sanitized nostalgia proliferated following the 2016 death of Muhammad Ali.) Perhaps Citizen rejects its own entombing via this irresolution, if not preventing it. While this rejection does not only manifest in this strategy (the slippery pronouns also work to this end), irresolution appears, to me, the guiding principle: “We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there’s no ending to our story” (Rankine 84).

The Things We Tell Each Other: A Response to Claudia Rankine’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”

In anticipation of Claudia Rankine’s visit to Concordia University this week we will feature writing that responds to Rankine’s works Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine will be giving a public reading at 7pm, March 10, 2017 in the DeSeve Cinema in Concordia’s Library building on de Maisonneuve. Books will be for sale by the Co-op bookstore and Rankine will be available for signing after the reading.

The Things We Tell Each Other: A Response to Claudia Rankine’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”

By Eli Lynch

DontLetMeBeLonelyMy therapist tells me it’s important to understand that something can be more than one thing at a time; multiple truths can exist at the same time.  This is a hard fact I need to learn, and as I reread Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf 2004), I feel Claudia Rankine’s speaker reiterating this to me, “I could choose that […] or rather I could be all that I am – fictional,” (104) and the complexity of being, the choices and the differences, all become part of this fiction. The things we tell each other to feel better or worse.

Z texts me “truths are multipleand sends me a juggling emoji. This reiteration grounds me, reminds me that I’m here, with this book, existing in multiplicities. I start looking for more grounding truths. I start carrying Rankine’s book around, rereading passages whenever I feel sad or lonely or lost, in the metro, at work, during parties.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely feels relevant every time I read it, which speaks to the strength and multiplicity of Rankine’s poems, of her words, of her perspective. In times when the inherent racism and misogyny of the world is becoming more obvious even to people not directly affected, the subtleties of Rankine’s criticisms of class, race, and privilege are  particularly important. When the speaker says, “In third world countries, I have felt overwhelmingly American, calcium-rich, privileged, and white,” Rankine is addressing the privilege money and class afford her. While the idea that a black woman feels white initially confuses, given the historical and ongoing mistreatment of black people around the world, the comparison of the nursing home and the third world country works particularly well. While I could paraphrase Rankine’s words, it is important to share the exact quote. I read these words  to my friend while they bake at a café, on the phone to my best friend, I copy them down for you: 

Here I feel young, lucky, and sad. Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our cultures to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because once it meant something real. It meant dignified, grave; it meant trustworthy, it meant exceptionally bad, deplorable, shameful, it meant massive, weighty, forming a compact body; it meant falling heavily, and it meant of a colour; dark. It meant dark in colour, to darken. It meant me. I felt sad. (108)

The first time I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, I had just made the choice not to  fly to the Middle East (I later rebooked my flight due to convincing on my sister’s part). I had grounded myself here in Montreal, in the appearance of safety. In what appeared to be living. Having meant to fly to Lebanon that day, with a layover in Turkey, I sat staring at my phone in my new and empty apartment, wondering how I might have just missed death.  A couple of hours before I was supposed to fly into Turkey, a bomb went off in the Istanbul Atatürk airport, killing forty-five people. At the time, I didn’t feel much. But later, questioning my continued mourning, my survivor’s guilt started to sink in. This phenomenon happened a lot during 9/11; a documentary was made about people who weren’t on the plane that day, who were supposed to be, who missed their flight, and also missed their death. They felt immense guilt. While initially you may read this and wonder how someone willfeel bad when they have been afforded the chance to live, but imagine the weight of death hanging over you the way it hung over them. The weight of death hung over me, hung over the 9/11 survivors, hangs over Rankine’s speaker throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine’s speaker, addressing the loss around them, seems to feel survivor’s guilt. Maybe this is the speaker’s sadness. And loneliness. However, despite the death permeating through Rankine’s book, the poems are alive, and the feeling one gets when reading them is a moment of alive.


But isn’t being alive just holding on to something that will keep you going and spark some feeling in you, whether you understand it or not? Another way of thinking about being alive is being grounded. When your partner holds your hand while you’re having a panic attack, when you drink water after crying, when your best friend tells you “I am here for you,” when you make a decision that feels right for you. Rankine’s book uses these same grounding methods, the end of the lyric articulating this sentiment. The speakers says, “Here. I am here,” grounding their body in the immediate, an image of a billboard stuck into the ground with the word HERE on it accompanying the text. The speaker continues, “This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive” (130). The lyric is ends saying, despite all of this, despite the fatigue and the loneliness, the hope, the family, despite capitalism and racism, I am here. You are here. “Why are we here if not for each other” (62).

How Poems Work: “Enough” by Suzanne Buffam

From The Irrationalist.


I am wearing dark glasses inside the house
To match my dark mood.


I have left all the sugar out of the pie.
My rage is a kind of domestic rage.


I learned it from my mother
Who learned it from her mother before her


And so on.
Surely the Greeks had a word for this.


Now surely the Germans do.
The more words a person knows


To describe her private sufferings
The more distantly she can perceive them.


I repeat the names of all the cities I’ve known
And watch an ant drag its crooked shadow home.


What does it mean to love the life we’ve been given?
To act well the part that’s been cast for us?


Wind. Light. Fire. Time.
A train whistles through the far hills.


One day I plan to be riding it.


*** TONIGHT *** Join Suzanne Buffam, Damian Rogers, & Sarah Burgoyne
Thursday, November 3, at 7:30 PM, Grey Nuns Building M100, 1175 Rue St. Mathieu


“Enough” is a commentary on gender roles and tradition. In the poem, the narrator folds the sheets, pulls taught the blankets, leaves the milk out to curdle, forgets to smile. “Enough” is a portrait of domestic discontentment, an exercise in disillusionment. The narrator is bitter. She does not put sugar in the pie. She is not allowing her pain to become sweetened, more palatable for you—though her “rage is a kind of domestic rage.” Her rage is quiet, calculated. It cannot be consuming or destructive. This is how she communicates the apathy she endures. The way of life she speaks to is one of tradition, one of femininity, the kind that the narrator explains: “I learned… from my mother / Who learned it from her mother / And so on.” It is natural, like subconscious action, but as insidious as subconscious action, too.


In the eighth and ninth lines, Buffam brings Greek and German language into the poem. She does not know the word for what she is feeling, but she dreams of learning that it exists in another language. Perhaps it is too painful to know a word for it in English. How freeing it must feel to know that there is so much to discover, but how stifling it must feel to be trapped in inaccessibility, in inexperience. “The more words a person knows / To describe her private sufferings / The more distantly she can perceive them.” The more that one learns, the smaller the world becomes, and one can observe things with a certain degree of detachment, including their own woes of internal toil. The narrator struggles with this. She busies herself with small things, like recounting what she knows and where she has been. Does her life have value when she is fulfilling a role “that’s been cast for [her],” rather than a role of her own choosing? Is it enough?


“Enough” challenges the ideology that existence enough should be satisfying. That the values that are projected upon people based on their circumstances should decide their life for them. That domestic life should be enough. By the concluding line, it is revealed that perhaps the poem is not asking for this empty lifestyle to be enough. Rather, the title suggests that the narrator has had enough of it. She is ready to make her own choices. Buffam knows the narrator is watching herself as if she is in a surreal situation that has somehow happened, that perhaps the narrator did not agree to, that the narrator feels trapped and subdued in. The poem comes to an end as the narrator comes to terms with the action that she must take in order to fulfill herself. Bitter from beginning to end, it emerges as an aimless complaint and concludes as a personal call to action. Buffam breaks the pattern of couplets. She leaves the final, rebellious line alone on the landscape of the poem.


How Poems Work courtesy of Ally Turner.