Is it a prose poem? A lyric essay? A hybrid essay-poem? A hybrid poem-memoir? Yes. I’ve long contended that genre is mostly useful to define reading strategy (define? demand? encourage?). We read a poem differently than we do a memoir. Or an essay. And I’ve also suggested to my non-fiction writing friends that poetry and non-fiction have more in common than most realize. Except for those working between those forms: Susan Howe, Anna Joy Springer. Poetry lends a freedom that can be dangerous (I recently heard C.D. Wright give a phenomenal lecture on poetry, in which she discussed poetry as a catch-all for writing that doesn’t fit anywhere else, and how that’s a problem…the essay is part of a forthcoming book that I am holding my breath for). But that Claudia Rankine puts that freedom to wonderful use.
There are several threads through the work: death, depression (occupying the most memoiristic moments); racism, and the response to 9/11/01 (the social/ethical commentary made personal); and a searching for a way to express, which ultimately fails (the most poetic moments fall here). Towards the end, she seems to be struggling most with this question of poetic possibility/responsibility. What is the purpose of a poem, in the face of death, depression, racism, tragedy?
Or, well, I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect did not exist.
But she addresses these questions that poets (especially women poets, especially women poets of color) have to ask themselves (perhaps in a way that other poets aren’t forced to, because their poetry is not read as representative of their gender/race/etc.?). In a section following the discussion of the shooting death of Amadou Diallo (who in case you don’t remember was unarmed, leaving his house in New York City, was shot 41 times by the New York City Police, and died at the scene having done nothing but walk out of his door) Rankine writes:
Sometimes I think it is sentimental, or excessive, certainly not intellectual, or perhaps too naïve, too self-wounded to value each life like that, to feel loss to the point of being bent over each time. There is no innovating loss. IT was never invented, it happened as something physical, something physically experienced. It is not something an “I” discusses socially. Though Myung Mi Kim did say that the poem is really a responsibility to everyone in a social space. She did say it was okay to cramp, to clog, to fold over at the gut, to have to put hand to flesh, to have to hold the pain, and then to translate it here. She did say, in so many words, that what alerts, alters.
Loss runs through the book. Loss of her sister’s husband and children, her own happiness. She says of 9/11/01 that perhaps what we lost as a nation was our complexity (as in “you’re either with us or you’re against us”). This is another one for my list of sad books, though it doesn’t deal with the specific loss of a beloved. It’s about the loss of self as much as anything else, an identity crisis brought on by too much tragedy, too much racism, too much too much. Instead of retreating to a self-occupied first person, Rankine’s “I” is wide open to multiplicity. Her language is open to uncertainty, is open to failure, and her uncertainly and pain and failure is encompassing of my own. I am implicated (I the reader, I any reader) throughout, as someone troubled and worrying and sad and uncertain. This is a poem that speaks of its time.
The interruption/sectioning of the poem into discrete units separated by images of a television (sometimes displaying static, sometimes displaying images from the news) adds to this outward motion. The encompassing of the lyric, its multitudinous multiplicity. Though dealing with tragedy on personal, and national levels, Rankine ends on (to my mind) a hopeful note. That the value in poetry is that of a handshake (Celan, via Rosmarie Waldrop), a handing over, an assertion of hereness. “This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive. … In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.”
That dangling preposition opens out into the absolute of possibility: indicating the presence of me, of you, of all of us, of this life, of this world, of this place, of everything absolutely everything. And to come to that, through everything that comes before, feels optimistic. In some way, as long as the “I” (mine, or hers, or anyone else’s) is here in the world, there is possibility, and that possibility will contain sadness and tragedy and death (mine, and hers, and everyone else’s), but also hereness and coming together.