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Radical Assemblages: The Poetics and Politics of Going Online

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: A Network-Text

Citizen de Claudia Rankine : un texte-réseau
Michael Hinds


Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) de Claudia Rankine incarne particulièrement bien la menace (ou la promesse) de l’obsolescence du recueil poétique à l’ère du post-capitalisme. Son apparition incongrue lors d’un meeting électoral de Donald Trump dans l’Illinois en 2015 a déclenché un emballement médiatique autour du recueil qui lui ont permis de toucher des réseaux et communautés bien plus vastes que le seul lectorat initialement espéré. Quoi de plus improbable qu’un recueil poétique venant perturber la communication d’une campagne présidentielle ? Pourtant si l’on en croit Franco Berardi (dit Bifo) dans son essai The Uprising: Poetry and Finance (2012), ce rôle d’élément perturbateur est précisément celui de la poésie aujourd’hui.
Mais pour qu’un recueil puisse jouer un tel rôle, encore faut-il qu’une image vienne rejoindre le flux médiatique au point que cet ouvrage n’existe plus simplement à travers ce qui se trouve dans ses pages : la seule chose indispensable à sa circulation deviendrait alors sa couverture. S’il est évident que Rankine nous offre bien plus que cela, l’accueil réservé à Citizen prouve toutefois que le recueil poétique relève désormais autant de l’expérience visuelle que de l’expérience littéraire. Certes, le livre en tant qu’objet jouait déjà un rôle important dans les précédents ouvrages de Rankine, mais ce rôle est à présent prépondérant dans Citizen, où Rankine nous montre à quel point les nouvelles technologies ont bouleversé nos modes de pensée, pour le meilleur mais aussi pour le pire, encourageant notamment les jugements hâtifs et renforçant encore davantage, au lieu de les éradiquer, les réflexes racistes de la culture contemporaine. L’impact de Citizen ne s’explique donc pas uniquement par sa logique littéraire interne. Aux yeux du (télé)spectateur lambda, le recueil existe avant tout à travers l’impact visuel produit par son aspect extérieur ; c’est un objet qui se regarde plus qu’il ne se lit. Reprenant la distinction établie par Paul Mason entre hiérarchie et réseau, cet article s’attache ainsi à démontrer que le recueil poétique, objet traditionnellement hiérarchique, se réinvente désormais en tant que réseau à l’ère du numérique.

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  • 1 Citizen has continued to amass resonance in the years since this essay was first written in 2017, a (...)

1Since its first publication by Graywolf Press in 2014, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric has cleared a remarkable path in terms of acquiring garlands and gongs, making its way onto American poetry booklists and curricula at a dizzying pace.1 It is quite unusual in this age for a poetry book to sell in substantial volume, and to be re-issued by Penguin within a year of its original publication. As writing on Citizen has progressed from the pages of literary reviews into academic criticism, its phenomenal popularity now demands to be acknowledged in any introduction to the work. So even as Stephanie Burt refers to the generic difficulty that the collection presents in its testing of the bounds of what a poem is or is not – as suggest both its subtitle “An American Lyric” and its complex citation of images –, she also frames the book within the context of the prize-hoard it has acquired:

These elements – and the near (though not total) absence of self-contained units in verse – trouble the bounds of the category “poetry,” to which its author and publisher say Citizen belongs. Yet Citizen was a finalist in poetry for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and in Britain the Forward Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. The National Book Critics’ Circle nominated the book in two categories, poetry and criticism. Rankine won the Forward Prize, the L.A. Times Prize, and the NBCC Award in Poetry, as well as the PEN Open Book award and the NAACP’s Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry as well as several other awards. (Burt 2016, 349)

2Citizen is therefore exemplary of the book as a hierarchical object, a thing of intrinsic value to the idea and practice of poetry. Many poetry books are constructed around this principle in the United States, where the book becomes an object necessary to the securing of tenure in a Creative Writing programme (and therefore the generator of an income). Many poetry books need only to be valuable – or indeed read – in this limited sense, winning book awards and peer recognition. Poetry only has to prove to itself that it exists; but Citizen is different, and not only because it effectively rose just about as high as you can climb in that particular hierarchical model with the announcement of the award to Rankine of a MacArthur Genius grant of over 600,000 dollars – the kind of money that suddenly means people outside the field of poetry start taking an interest.

3Citizen is also different because its value is not only intrinsic to the idea of poetry; any discussion of it necessarily involves a commitment to exploring the idea of racial justice, and how Western culture inevitably perpetuates the corruption of that idea. Citizen is a sufficiently bold poetry book to ask us to forget that it is a poetry book (that limitedly hierarchical thing), and to see it instead as an object that is repeatedly querying its own status and significance in the context of the widest possible network of experience. It asks the reader to read, but also to act, to process its complementary web materials (such as those that Rankine has generated in collaboration with John Lucas), and to understand that such experiments are not only poetic but also social. In asking that question about itself as a book, however, it is only a minor shadowing of the major question that the book poses in its title. In brandishing the word Citizen, do we see an admonishment or an exhortation? Aux armes or Aux larmes? Situated between possibility and futility, Citizen might be offering a prototype for how a poetry book might break out of its medium; it also might be no more than a footnote in a highly traumatic historical moment.

Poetry is what Poetry Says It Is

  • 2 Mason argues that “By creating millions of networked people, financially-exploited but with the who (...)

4Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future (2015) has identified the immediate cultural predicament of the globalized world as being defined by the conflict between hierarchies and networks. It is not that one is bad and the other is good, rather that they are forms of social organization which are mutually incompatible. In Mason’s projection2, new social networks have the potential to overrun hierarchies, and our task is to ready ourselves to profit collectively from the crisis.

5This scenario offers a dilemma for poetry; of course, the potentially liberating experience of the network has a poetic appeal of a Utopian kind – the desire for generating imaginative escapes into unprecedented trajectories is fundamental to the art. On the other hand, poetry is also the very model of a hierarchical organization. Raphael’s celebrated depiction in the Vatican of the classical Parnassus presents us with Apollo at the peak, then the retinue of muses, supported by canonical poets who themselves look down at those less well-off than themselves, with Sappho just making it into view at the bottom left, the only mortal woman on show. It is not particularly controversial to suggest that this pyramid structure acts as a direct analogue for Marx’s model of the capitalist economy, with bosses, middle managers and bottom-feeders. In the contemporary poetry system of the United States, Apollo offers tenure (or the book deal that leads to it); at the top of that pyramid, the poetic champions are those who have managed to turn their words into securities (even as they might look covetously at the riches being enjoyed on the neighbouring peak of Hip-Hop), while the untenured teachers of creative writing wait their turn and the great unpublished lurk below.

6This sociology of poetry remains in place, even if the names come and go; yet the hierarchy is clearly precarious, and dependent on patronage from greater structures of influence, greater structures of culture in which poetry lies close to the bottom. To ignore that bitter truth, poetry is rarely regarded as being accountable to anything other than poetry. When encountering many books of contemporary poetry with students, they often pose the question of whether or not they are actually reading poetry, in itself an indication that they are primarily interested in looking at poetry in the way in which it represents itself according to its own hierarchical economy. The answer to this question almost invariably is that poetry is poetry because poetry says it is so.

7The struggle to find another way to talk about it, or to believe in such a possibility, is the most urgent concern for anyone who wants to think about the obsolescence of not just the poetry book, but poetry itself. How can the hierarchical object of the poetry book break out of the relative comfort of the poetry-economy, and become part of that far more problematic and volatile phenomenon, the network, with the fullest possible imagining of what that might be?

8In one sense, Mason provides us with an answer:

In the past, radicalism of the mind would have been pointless without power. How many generations of rebels wasted their lives in garrets writing poetry, cursing the injustice of the world and their own paralysis? But in an information society, the relationship of thought to action changes. (Mason 2015, xviii)

9The words of past poets were wasted because they were unable to access the means of publication. In the old world, no one could hear you scream. Now, in an Internet society, there is the Utopian thought that no word is wasted, that there is nothing to inhibit us from publishing whatever we want. Poems under the terms of a traditional publishing economy could at least claim a kind of scarcity value. Now, with no need for books, the problem is of being heard above the din. The sheer immensity of available material in the digital age might make it practically impossible for any text to have an enduring influence.

10Rankine’s book is significant for such a discussion because it has shifted out of the hierarchical domain of poetry in which it was a highly-prized commodity. It has done so partly by its own design but even more radically by its reception, and the use to which it has been put. This could be described cynically as a matter of pure opportunism, as America has never appeared more ready for a book as intelligently observant of its race-based catastrophe. The election of the first black President saw a palpable intensification of race-based violence that might have exceeded some of the most pessimistic projections; Citizen emerged to report out of this experience, and it has continued to gain significance and presence as the Trump-Ubu era has rolled out with all its noise. True, Rankine’s book first achieved recognition within the conventional terms of book publication; but then it became a network-text, presenting an image of activism online that proved remarkably tenacious and reproducible – a meme that could not be simply wiped away with the thumb.

11One of the ways in which Rankine’s book has snagged attention is in its posing of the right questions. The subtitling of Citizen as An American Lyric is the first such question; what does it mean by calling itself a lyric, not least because its writing is mostly presented as prose? This is an immediate question of literary classification here (the question we ask within the hierarchy of poetry) but it also demands to be seen that titling in itself becomes entitlement within societal discourse. Never mind the question of what it means to call your book a lyric, what does it mean to call yourself a citizen?

12Ben Lerner has indicated the dimensions of the problem that the lyrical designation generates in Citizen and Rankine’s preceding work Don’t Let Me Be Lonely:

The invitation to read these volumes as lyric strains against one of their most notable formal features: the books are mainly written in prose. And that prose is “measured” less in the sense of having a poetic prosody than in the sense of evincing a kind of restraint, verging on flatness, exhaustion, dissociation. (Lerner 2016, 88)

13In this way, according to Lerner, “‘Poetry’ becomes a word for that possibility whose absence we sense in these poems” (Lerner 2016, 91):

What I encounter in Rankine is the felt unavailability of traditional lyric categories; the instruction to read her writing as poetry – and especially as lyric poetry – catalyzes an experience of their loss, like a sensation in a phantom limb. (Lerner 2016, 90-91)

14So poetry is what poetry is not; we are nearing the ultimate paradox of the poetry without words.

  • 3 Philip Coleman has pointed out that this intensification may be possible in the interactive reading (...)

15What originates for Lerner as a problem of genre, and a problem for poetry alone, quickly becomes something else; if we must ask what makes the designation “lyric” impossible for Rankine, we should acknowledge quickly that it has very little to do with poetry. There is no apparent space in Rankine’s book for the vertical decisiveness of lyric, its ability to intervene in time and create an intensity of realization that demands exceptional attention.3 Her book shows a racist sprawl, a low-rise white hegemony that commands all aspects of discourse and consciousness; in the book’s first photographic representation, you are greeted with a street sign for Jim Crow Road with a chain of pristinely blanched bungalows in the background. This is remarkably apt for the way in which Citizen shows a civilized racism which is both quotidian and suburbanized, one that stretches as far as you can see.

16A poetry drained of poeticity arguably serves a political purpose very well, giving the text the status of testimony so as to put the reader in the place of examining their own conscience and consciousness. Then, like good citizens, they are asked to judge, no less partially than the American justice system does. That is not really a confidence which Citizen offers, however; the want of trust in an idea of justice (such as it is available) is precisely what the poem communicates so vibrantly. The flatness of the tone is not neutral but affecting; and even though the language is devoid of lyric super-structure, its minute effects are in some cases almost classically intense and familiar:

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. (Rankine 2015, 7)

17These lines do not refer us to any classic of our prose, but to Sappho, and the rapid transference from tongue to mind, and the violence of the transition being brought together in words, even as mind and body fall apart: “tongue breaks,” “in eyes no sight and drumming / fills ears” (Carson 2004, 63). So the lyric mode is alive in Citizen, but it is burdened and existing subterraneously. The absence of a verse framing (as in Sappho) apparently diminishes the throttling force that is possible in the lyric mode, yet at the same time it is important to be cautious. Read only with your eyes, Citizen is only prose, flattened discourse; however, in terms of its rhythms and pulses, the book is in fact full of flashes, wounds, kicks and punches. Its impact is invisibly tortuous, like the notorious interrogation technique of beating prisoners with a telephone directory.

The Book as Activist: Prop or Agitprop?

18Denunciations of Citizen for being poetry-deficient can take on a usefully provocative direction. Adam Fitzgerald’s blog for The Guardian demonstrates how debating the poeticity of Citizen can create inadvertent but telling new contexts for its reading:

At a recent reception following a poetry reading by elder, experimental poets, an academic critic – of decidedly avant-garde tastes – overheard that I had been teaching Claudia Rankine’s Citizen for the last four semesters. I knew, in fact, that this scholar’s life’s work centered around championing unsung postwar US poets such as Clark Coolidge and Susan Howe, who were difficult, acquired tastes (that I shared). Howe, for example, is known to publish textual sculptures often quite literally illegible. Who better, I thought, to appreciate my teaching of a complex poem like Citizen than this brainy, patient scholar. Yet quickly he fired off: “That’s not poetry; it’s sociology!” My spirits sank. (Fitzgerald 2015)

  • 4 For a thorough account of the online life of this event, see Chad Bennett 2019.
  • 5 Either way, Idusuyi can be seen as one of Mason’s “educated and connected human beings” (Mason 2015 (...)

19This is not necessarily a criticism. Rankine has generated a book which has a life beyond its genre (and its related hierarchies), damaging complacencies about the social irresponsibility of poetry that have an unfortunately long history. All poetry can and should be read as sociology, if you have the will to do so. Citizen has proven this capability, as was made most vividly clear with the life that it enjoyed online subsequent to its appearance in the hands of the activist Johari Osayi Idusuyi in the onstage crowd behind Donald Trump as he spoke at a campaign rally in Springfield Illinois, an event that has since been replayed over and over online (Irvine 2015).4 Idusuyi became an unsuspecting minor celebrity out of this, but so did Rankine’s book. Unsurprisingly, this can be viewed both positively and negatively. New possibilities for the poetry book are surely revealed in that single image of Citizen bearing up in the face of Trump’s hot air and bad hair. Yet Citizen is only one poetry book, and arguably its vitality is only pronounced because Trump made it so. That said, we can venture that no other book would have had quite the same impact as Citizen in Springfield, Illinois, not least because its title and cover image (David Hammons’s In the Hood) are impossible to ignore in their presentation (Fig. 1). Its typeface – a word that seems fraught in such a context – has an agitprop confidence of gesture, commanding a response; it is highly visible by design. When interviewed by Kara Brown for the online feminist magazine Jezebel, Idusuyi said she also had Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist in her bag (Brown 2015). It might not have had the same impact, although maybe it makes a subtler joke; it certainly would have been harder to make out.5

Figure 1 : Cover of the 2014 Graywolf edition of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

Figure 1 : Cover of the 2014 Graywolf edition of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

Figure 2 : Screenshot from Fox News showing Johari Osayi Idusuyi reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Springfield (Illinois), 9 November 2015.

Figure 2 : Screenshot from Fox News showing Johari Osayi Idusuyi reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Springfield (Illinois), 9 November 2015.

20Also worth noting concerning the photograph of Idusuyi (Fig. 2) is the fact that this reader of Citizen looks as isolated as any other reader of poetry, the lonely soul you can still spy in a coffeehouse. She is the only one reading. Yet she is isolated in public, present rather than absent, in fact highly visible. In this way, Citizen is participating in the poetics of the book-as-agent (in the Whitmanian tradition) while also recalling the politics of the book-as-agent (in the Maoist tradition). So a viral phenomenon from within the minor hierarchy of poetry encountered a major viral phenomenon in the blowhard shape of Trump, like a remora living off the body of a particularly overblown shark. Evidently, Citizen’s impact was visual in this instance, its cover a Debordian interruption in the society of the spectacle made possible by its immediacy of design. This book had an outer as well as an inner life.

  • 6 Meditations in an Emergency actually appears in two episodes of season 2 of Mad Men, For Those Who (...)

21Citizen therefore reminds us that a print-text can offer a billboard space that an e-reader cannot. Implied is the notion that the twenty-first century needs books with better covers, with outsides as well as insides – something the album cover did particularly well in the 1970s. It might be coincidental, but American TV has been gesturing at the ability of a poetry book to provide a sign of query. In the TV series Mad Men – practically a history lesson in the evolution of the Spectacle – poetry books have materialized in the hands of the show’s main protagonist, Don Draper, usually to signify a moment in which internal and external crises meet. At the end of the opening episode of season 2, Draper is seen reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (Fig. 3)6; another season opened with the image of Draper on a beach, reading a pulp paperback of Dante’s Inferno. But then this is practically reducing the literariness of the book to nothing; the cover-text becomes all that you need to project. Forget about reading.

Figure 3 : Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men, “For Those Who Think Young,” Season 2, Episode 1 (00:47:00).

Figure 3 : Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men, “For Those Who Think Young,” Season 2, Episode 1 (00:47:00).

Citizen! Or Citizen?

22With Citizen, the outward posing of the book’s title becomes an appeal as well as a query; the question “What is a citizen?” is a very good question, especially in the context of the Trumpfest; but the cry of “Citizen!” is an even more valuable counter-holler to the catcalling of the candidate. The ability of a word in bold – CITIZEN – to drag people into intelligent attention should offer a better guide to the future of poetry than anything else.

23In a way, Citizen delivers on the insurrectionist programme for poetry that Franco “Bifo” Berardi hypothesized in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance (2012). Berardi’s little orange book demands that poetry use its creative power of dérèglement to undo the destructive work that hyper-capital and economic deregulation have done on contemporary consciousness. To do this, the discovery of a “refrain” is required to reactivate “the body of the general intellect” because “poetry is the reopening of the indefinite, the ironic act of exceeding the established meaning of words” (Berardi 2012, 158). Rankine’s cover performs precisely the work of such a “refrain,” as the declaration of Citizen (or rather, CITIZEN, given that the word appears in all caps on the cover) ironically reopens the range of potentialities that have been suppressed in the word, notably by the discourse around immigration. These possibilities exceed the actual focus of the book’s internal dynamics, which in the main part stress the particular nightmare marriage of white privilege and black mortality. What all of this might mean is that Citizen has become a footnote-worthy moment in the visual history of the Trump carnival, or that the book is perhaps more prop than agitprop, a piece of bedside radical cool. It is significant that Burt has remarked on the high-quality paper that the book is printed on, which makes it feel like a gallery catalogue (Burt 2016, 349). Materially, the book is destined for the coffee table, where it may well lie unread. It could be that there is no need to read Citizen because, to many people, it simply presents things as they are, and people who would not share Rankine’s bleakly keen analysis would probably not be minded to read it anyway. The people at the Trump rally did not mind what Idusuyi was reading, merely that she was reading; but the Berardian point would not be to despair about what happened in that moment, rather to use it as a point of departure, to begin the refrain of “Citizen” to see what real freedoms might emerge.

24Interestingly, Citizen opens meta-poetically at a moment of exhaustion: “When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices, you let yourself linger in a past stacked away among your pillows” (Rankine 2015, 5). This may signify nostalgia for a pre-digital peace, as well as a vulnerability to painful memory. But it also creates a possibility for the book to become an authoritative device in its own right, a means of accessing and presenting such traumatic material in the absence of competing media. The thinking and feeling body that is bringing the book into being is laid flat here, an American patient whose malaise we will have to inhabit. Truth is, nothing gets turned off anymore, and the book has to become a similarly active machine, monitoring the health of that patient. In the nightmare of living digitally, things update instantly as soon as they are reactivated. The things that you would like to forget simply reboot the next morning.

25That knowledge is a vital part of the murmuring disquiet of Citizen, that there is not just a problem called racism which can be identified and mastered (according to the hierarchical model of organization); rather, racism is an ineradicable part of the network (like everything else) and therefore a necessary part of the social organism, something that lives as long as you do. It is not only that Rankine shows the degradations of capital and racism, and how they interweave; rather, she shows that they are the same thing, and that the phenomenon of racialized capital has another name that can be felt with a force that is less theoretical: slavery. The game has always been rigged because of it, an argument that gets expressed with particular force in Rankine’s pages on the history of racialized injustices that have beset Serena Williams:

[I]t is difficult not to think that if Serena lost context by abandoning all rules of civility, it could be because her body, trapped in disbelief – code for being black in America – is being governed not by the tennis match she is participating in but by a collapsed relationship that had promised to play by the rules. (Rankine 2015, 30)

26Citizen shows us that the racist demonstration of hierarchical violence (police killings) is one expression of barbarism, but that it is complemented by the micro-aggressions of civilized discourse. Rankine’s pernicious network of assumptions is as deadly as any bullet: they just take more time to kill. Mason’s liberating and socially Utopian network has yet to arrive. This is all a source of despair in the book, but it is nevertheless Rankine’s task to show it. Her book shows the warping of American consciousness by slavery as devastatingly as Huckleberry Finn.

You Are It

27The technical brilliance of Rankine’s book lies in its ability to bitterly and painfully demonstrate the active presence of racism in the minute grains of language and society, as an always-present trace. To show this, Citizen becomes a new book-formulation, not least in how it critically mimics the way in which the Internet (and, in particular, cyber-capitalization) has impacted consciousness and social exchange. It activates modes of reception between text and image in the same way that the Web does, and it is practically blog-like at times in its methods of assemblage. All of this emanates from the book’s refusal to become what it promises to be in its title: a lyric.

28The most effective refusal of the lyric in Citizen comes with its switch from “I” to “you.” This “you” is the lyric object, where the self only sees how it is recognized and valued by its formulation in another discourse. Lerner writes that “the play of pronouns in Citizen is discomfiting and a compelling refutation of the nostalgist fantasies of universality” (Lerner 2016, 93); the “you” cannot be universal, because everyone has to acknowledge their understanding that they are not recognized as “you” in the same way all the time: “Whoever you are, while reading Citizen, you are forced to situate yourself relative to the pronouns as opposed to assuming you fit within them” (Lerner 2016, 94-5). This is particularly true in the context of racism, however, and we should sharpen Nick Laird’s claim that “Citizen offers a new way of writing about race” (Laird 2015), by saying that it is rather racism which is the one and only subject of Rankine’s book. Of course, the way of writing that is being performed here about the “you” is not new, since Elizabeth Bishop did it with particular acuity in “In the Waiting Room”:

But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was. (Bishop 2008, 150)

29Bishop’s “you” suffers existential panic, triggering a series of possible anxieties about being gendered, identified and anthropologized in the grammar of being. However, her “you” refers very clearly to herself, and carries an impulsive belief in the possibilities of freedom. Rankine’s “you” is different, elusive in its lack of specificity but carrying with it a far more confrontational potential. It implicates “you” as a reader and carries with it a call-to-accountability, even as it simultaneously generates uncertainty about whether the reader-you can possibly share the experiences of racism that Rankine’s “you” accumulates. Her “you” is loaded with the terrible awareness that in the eyes of normative whiteness, “you” are an “it.”

30Rankine’s awareness of how selves are perpetually in a state of portrayal can be related directly to the way in which her work has always shown a manifest responsiveness to media; in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004) – the subtitle she reuses in Citizen –, she incorporates images of billboards and TV screens into the book and, at its end, shows a small screenshot of a Google search bar. In Citizen, Rankine’s writing practice has changed to reflect the imperial march of cyber-consciousness and, in many respects, the book page meets the web page – most notably, in its vivid use of colour. Even in the absence of any buttons to click, the images in the book resemble the buttons and prompts of a web text. Interestingly, the book also presumes the locatability of much of what it references: while in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine provided pages of endnotes explaining (often in painful detail) the base content of the book, Citizen presumes that the user of Google will have an ability to find these things for themselves; instead of endnotes, Rankine simply lists the provenance of the images she has incorporated. In this way, the old technology of the book becomes revivified through its foray into the dynamics of web reading: the book’s images talk to others outside the book, and any reference invites further scrutiny via Google. At the same time, Rankine does not leave the reader entirely to make their own multilateral connections; rather, she builds her book around linkages and references which they can follow. In the concourse of Citizen, however, it is worth noting that Rankine does not often show the reader the images that she describes as positively portraying race; so even as she refers approvingly to Claire Denis’s film Beau Travail (1999), she does not show examples of its African women coolly surveying themselves in disco mirrors, or its erotic ballet of multiracial male torsos; nor does she show us Serena Williams at play: you can find these things for yourself. What she does show is Caroline Wozniacki’s grotesque imitation of Williams’ body (Rankine 2015, 37), both because she needs her reader to experience it, and because the image almost defies the power of words to describe it. Christopher Nealon argues that Rankine generates texts which foreground the issue of language as power, but that she does so even as web-spectacle places that power in perpetual jeopardy:

The textual environment Rankine assembles thus establishes “lyric” as a master category meant to be intellectually powerful enough to withstand the intrusions of the image stream, even to take energy from it, even to mock it. But because the book also positions itself as a personal and idiosyncratic collection of clippings, it also foregrounds the vulnerability of the scrapbook in the face of the spectacle. (Nealon 2011, 152-3)

31Nealon uses “spectacle” to give a Debordian sense of danger to the phenomenal visual abundancy of the internet. It is a dangerous place to be, and one far removed from the comfortability of the poetry-hierarchy; whatever subjective agency Rankine discovers in putting together her “scrap-books” is highly precarious. The amount of irony or control that can be exerted over the image-stream is strictly limited. Within the chaotic circuitry of capital, the book is endlessly in a state of exchange, like anything else. It can announce that it is there in the middle of that flow, even if it cannot arrest it. Multimedia, multimodal, digital poems implant new forms of assemblage; not ending the print poem, but rather ending its insulation. At the same time, this means that they are a part of the image-flow as much as they are critical of it. Citizen is a book that becomes a network-text; it queries the impact of online culture, or “the network,” even as it puts its multiplication of potential modalities to use. So within its own presentation, the book morphs into a gallery space, and a blog-space at times. It wanders. It redirects the reader outside of the book to the web spaces where Lucas and Rankine’s films can be viewed. It gets picked up and put to further use by Idusuyi, and then again by those who saw the image of Citizen in her hands and commented upon it or retransmitted it. Stephen Sachs’ adaptation of it premieres in Los Angeles in 2015, and it quickly becomes part of both student and professional repertoires. Each performance or citation in turn generates others, and Citizen acquires new visibilities across the network – its influence and potential being measured by the sheer range of actions it inspires.

32Yet this is a book that makes us continue to see things that we tend to forget after we have seen them, and plants images that erupt out of the unthinking drift. It is possessed with a weirdly patient rage about the failure to see and perceive; so it tries to make you see and perceive. In John Lucas’s alteration of the notorious lynching-image from Marion, Indiana in 1930, the bodies of the hanged men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, are rendered invisible. The test for us, and our consciousness, is: did we notice? In an extraordinarily concentrated passage, Rankine reminds us why we should remember to see (and as with the tongue passage that was remarked upon earlier, she again deploys language that is manifestly lyrical in its intensity, even if it is not lyrical in form):

On the tip of a tongue one note following another is another path, another dawn, where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush. Those years of and before me and my brothers, the years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, boy, hey boy, each a felony, accumulate into the hours inside our lives where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue. The sky is the silence of brothers all the days leading up to my call. (Rankine 2015, 89-90)

33Channelling the torturous transformations of Ovid with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” history here becomes an arborescent nightmare. The trigger for this is the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida by a member of the neighbourhood watch, Georg Zimmermann (later acquitted of murder), which in turn enacts a violent rhythm of empathetic recall.

  • 7 The lines are Rankine’s adaptation of Lowell’s poem (itself adapted from Milton): “I hear // my ill (...)

34In a way, Citizen is a remodelling of Whitman’s original project with Leaves of Grass (1855), an attempt to create a book that will affect the complex of reality in totality. The subtitle of Citizen further reminds us of this commitment; the book may or may not be describable as song, but it unmistakably generates an anguished yet ecstatic expression of self in the Whitmanian tradition, a writing from within and without the self: “This is the city, and I am one of the citizens / Whatever interests the rest interests me [...]” (Whitman 1891-1892, 235). Like Leaves of Grass, too, Citizen has been – and, presumably, will continue to be – remade in numerous editions, updating its In Memoriam list to take heed of new deaths and disasters (Rankine 2015, 134). A subsequent edition added the victims of the Carolina Church shootings as well as Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Texas jail cell in June 2015. More wretched updates have followed, a living testament to an ongoing nightmare. Unlike the living nightmare of the conventional American lyric (as in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” archly referenced in Citizen by Rankine), the nightmare is not a matter of hierarchic privilege or agony, but a burden that should be everyone’s: “Your ill-spirited, cooked, hell on Main Street, nobody’s here, broken down first person could be one of many definitions to pass on” (Rankine 2015, 72).7

Citizen Pain

35If the cover promises an intervention – maybe even the Maoist mantra that Berardi desired – at the same time it is only a promise. The book cannot exactly provide anything more than a sampling of an immense disaster. Citizen is not so much a rallying cry as a call to proper attention, the generation of a new self-scrutiny that might eventuate in the emergence of a new network. It is not that we are indifferent, but that we are forgetting to see what we need to see: the whole picture. Once we encounter the contents of Citizen, the dream of meaningful protest fades as the book’s rigorous query takes over reality. Rankine’s negative dialectics bring us inexorably to the awareness that things are in fact worse than they appear to be. A kind of glum comedy emerges from this, of course, as with the scene in which the trauma specialist assumes the speaker to be a menace to society when “you” merely thought she had a two o’clock appointment (Rankine 2015, 18).

36What makes this book so intelligent, necessary and alive, then, is its refusal of a solution, its resolute defeatedness. The citizen of Citizen expresses abjection and disillusionment as the antidote to cheerful struggle or making-do. The talk of micro-aggressions is apt, but also limiting, as it is their aggregation that hurts most in Citizen. The minor observations, like the microanalyses of Adorno in Minima Moralia, nevertheless amount to a devastating portraiture of racism as a total phenomenon, ineradicably complicated. The final proof of the relevance of Rankine’s book brings us back to the “filthy Presidentiad,” as Whitman rightly had it (Whitman 1867). Citizen can be read intertextually with Obama’s last speech as President on January 10th 2017, just as the United States was about to enter into the brave new wasteland of Trump and Bannon. In warning against taking the privilege of democracy for granted, Obama turned for inspiration to the very same concept that is so voided of actuality for Rankine, demanding that every American accept the “responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings”:

We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.
It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. (Obama 2017)

37This does not necessarily mean that Obama was consciously responding to Rankine’s poem, but it is startling to reflect upon the gap between this still-aspirational rhetoric and the exhaustion that is expressed in Citizen. Obama wants “you” to act, as the next paragraph shows:

Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try to talk with one in real life. If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up. Dive in. Persevere. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you’ll lose. Presuming a reservoir of goodness in others can be a risk, and there will be times when the process disappoints you. But for those of us fortunate enough to have been a part of this work, to see it up close, let me tell you, it can energize and inspire. And more often than not, your faith in America – and in Americans – will be confirmed. (Obama 2017)

38It seems impossible to reconcile these words with those of Citizen; but that is the last thing we need to do. If anything, what they require is to be read in triangulation with the apocalyptopoetry of Trump’s inaugural address. Between Trump and Obama, there is a convergence that is not too surprising, given their jobs; for Obama’s talk of responsibility of the citizen to the state, read Trump’s statement of the reverse:

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. (Trump 2017)

39It is Trump’s next bold (if not brave) movement that takes us into more radical territory:

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
(Trump 2017)

40Trump’s hyperbolic portraiture demonstrates what “you” are up against; whatever grindhouse of reality you actually inhabit, there is the exorbitant fantasy that pretends that anything and everything is much worse than you can believe, or the Utopian fantasy of redemption which implies you can make everything better. Faced with these contending irrealities, it is no wonder that Rankine’s citizen retreats, to nestle “under blankets” (Rankine 2015, 1); too tired, even, to read a book.

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Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Trans. E. F. N. Jephcott. New York: Verso, 1974.

Bennett, Chad. “Being Private in Public: Claudia Rankine and John Lucas’s ‘Situation’ Videos.” ASAP Journal 4.2 (2019): 337-402. (doi: 10.1353/asa.2019.0018)8

Berardi, Franco “Bifo.” The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012.

Bishop, Elizabeth. Poems, Prose, and Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz. New York: Library of America, 2008.

Burt, Stephanie. The Poem Is You. 60 Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Brown, Kara. “A Conversation With Johari Osayi Idusuyi, the Hero Who Read Through a Trump Rally.” Jezebel, 12 November 2015.

Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho [2002]. London: Virago, 2003.

Ciabattari, Jane. “Frank O’Hara: Poet of the Mad Men Era.” BBC “Culture”, 21 October 2014.

Fitzgerald, Adam. “‘That’s not poetry; it’s sociology!’ – in defence of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.” The Guardian, 23 October 2015.

Irvine, Lindesay. “The Latest Weapon of Political Dissent: Reading.” The Guardian, 13 November 2015.

Laird, Nick. “A New Way of Writing About Race.” The New York Review, 23 April 2015.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016.

Lowell, Robert. “Skunk Hour.” Collected Poems. Ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. London: Faber & Faber, 2003. 191-192.

Mason, Paul. PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

Nealon, Christopher. The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Obama, Barak. “Farewell Address.” White House Archives, 10 January 2017.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. [2014]. London: Penguin, 2015.

Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004.

Trump, Donald. “Inauguration Speech.” The Los Angeles Times, 20 January 2017.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself, 42” [1891-1892]. Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 188-247.

Whitman, Walt. “To The States, To Identify The 16th, 17th, Or 18th Presidentiad.” Leaves of Grass [1867]. The Walt Whitman Archive.

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1 Citizen has continued to amass resonance in the years since this essay was first written in 2017, acquiring yet more significance and being produced in yet more updated editions. What this piece wants to capture, however, is the particular significance of the book in the cultural and political moment of 2017, roughly a year into the Trump presidency.

2 Mason argues that “By creating millions of networked people, financially-exploited but with the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away, info-capitalism has created a new agent of change in history: the educated and connected human being” (Mason 2015, xvii).

3 Philip Coleman has pointed out that this intensification may be possible in the interactive readings that the poems might receive in connection with Lucas’s films, although it is disputable whether such readings are really intense in a “lyric” way.

4 For a thorough account of the online life of this event, see Chad Bennett 2019.

5 Either way, Idusuyi can be seen as one of Mason’s “educated and connected human beings” (Mason 2015, xvii) who understood very well how to generate a sense of an event, sitting so as to be clearly on camera, and holding the book so it could be seen. In an online culture where every image is apparently subject to minute deconstruction, especially in politics, she could rely on this to happen.

6 Meditations in an Emergency actually appears in two episodes of season 2 of Mad Men, For Those Who Think Young” (season 2, episode 1) and “The Mountain King” (season 2, episode 12), and resurfaces in the title of the last episode, entitled “Meditations in an Emergency” (season 2, episode 13). For more on this topic, read Ciabattari (2014).

7 The lines are Rankine’s adaptation of Lowell’s poem (itself adapted from Milton): “I hear // my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat. […] / I myself am Hell; / nobody’s here –” (Lowell 2003, 192).

8 All Web references last accessed 1 September 2022.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 : Cover of the 2014 Graywolf edition of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.
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Titre Figure 2 : Screenshot from Fox News showing Johari Osayi Idusuyi reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen at a Donald Trump campaign rally in Springfield (Illinois), 9 November 2015.
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Titre Figure 3 : Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men, “For Those Who Think Young,” Season 2, Episode 1 (00:47:00).
Fichier image/jpeg, 55k
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Michael Hinds, « Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: A Network-Text »Sillages critiques [En ligne], 33 | 2022, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2022, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Michael Hinds

Irish Centre for Poetry Studies, Dublin City University

Michael Hinds (michael.hinds[at] is an Associate Professor in the School of English at Dublin City University. He previously was Senior Lecturer and Head of English at the Mater Dei Institute, and was a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Tokyo from 1996 to 1999. He is editor of the online journal POST: A Review of Poetry Studies, and has published widely on American poetry and its intersection with popular culture, including recent book chapters on Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke. He contributes regularly to the Dublin Review of Books. In 2006, he co-edited Rebound: The American Poetry Book (Brill) with Stephen Matterson. In 2020, his study (co-authored with Jonathan Silverman) of Johnny Cash’s international fandom, International Cash: How and Why the World Loves the Man in Black was published by University of Iowa Press.

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