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Towards a Poetics of Racial Trauma: Lyric Hybridity in Claudia Rankine's Citizen



The longevity of the lyric belies persisting difficulties in terms of its definition and categorization, particularly given the form's evolution in the face of philosophical, sociopolitical and cultural transformations. In Claudia Rankine's Citizen, the lyric is powerfully refashioned in response to the historical and contemporary tribulations of being a black citizen in America. Rankine's keen awareness of how linguistic injury caused by microaggressions registers in the body leads her to an adoption and adaptation of the lyric form, with Citizen aptly subtitled “An American Lyric.” Citizen is an urgent and timely book that sustains America's conversation on race and racial injustice on a level of national grief, even as Rankine brings it to the level of personal intimacy by asking, “How do you make a body accountable for its language, its positioning?” I contend that Citizen is a work that extends the lyric's possibilities through creating a hybrid text containing lyric essays, photography, public art and video scripts, which are juxtaposed for intertextual and polyphonic effects. I argue that Rankine uses lyric hybridity to create a poetics of racial trauma that meditates on the effects of racial injustice as it manifests in the bodies of traumatized individuals. Lyric hybridity appears crucial to Rankine's project, since it allows for complex subjectivity and intimate address amidst a clarity of language that enables the reader to perceive how we easily we fail one another in our daily pursuit of relationality, community and citizenship.



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1 “What are poets for in a destitute time?” asks Holderlin's elegy Bread and Wine,” in Heidegger, Martin and Hofstadter, Albert, eds., Poetry, Language, Thought (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 1256, 89.

2 “Text of Obama's Speech: A More Perfect Union,” Wall Street Journal, at

3 Sharma, Meara, “Blackness as the Second Person”, Interviews (Guernica/A Magazine of Art & Politics, 2014), at

4 Harriet Staff, “Lauren Berlant Interviews Claudia Rankine in New Issue of BOMB,” Poetry Foundation, at

5 Thain, Marion, ed., The Lyric Poem: Formations and Transformations (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 3 .

6 Peter Nicholls, “Modernism and the Limits of Lyric”, in Thain, 177–94.

7 Ian Paterson, “No Man Is an I: Recent Developments in the Lyric”, in Thain, 217–36.

8 Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure”, Poetry Foundation, 2009, at

9 Ibid., 136.

10 Robbins, Amy Moorman, American Hybrid Poetics: Gender, Mass Culture, and Form (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 125 .

11 Paterson, 20.

12 Rankine, Claudia, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2014), 71 .

13 Ibid., 71.

14 Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 2008), 1 .

15 Rankine, 44.

16 Rankine, 142–43.

17 Rankine, 49.

18 John D'Agata, “We Might as Well Call It the Lyric Essay”, Seneca Review, Fall 1997, 10.

19 Berlant, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation: Claudia Rankine by Lauren Berlant,” at

20 Sharma, “Blackness as the Second Person.”

21 Rankine, 71.

22 Butler, Judith P., Excitable Speech: Politics of the Performative (New York and London: Taylor & Francis, 1997), 1 . Crown, Kathleen, “Reading the ‘Lucid Interval’: Race, Trauma, and Literacy in the Poetry of Ed Roberson”, Poetics Today, 21 (2000), 187220, 187.

23 Rankine, 69.

24 Morrison, Toni, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1993), 1213 .

25 For more on the language school that emerged in the United States from the late 1960s see Silliman, Ron, Harryman, Carla, Hejinian, Lyn, Benson, Steve, Perelman, Bob and Watten, Barrett, “Aesthetic Tendency and the Politics of Poetry: A Manifesto”, Social Text, 19–20 (Autumn 1988), 261–75.

26 Fredman, Stephen, Poet's Prose: The Crisis in American Verse, ed. Gelpi, Albert (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 134 .

27 Silliman, Ron, “Realism”, Ironwood, 20 (1982), 65 .

28 Rankine, 123–25.

29 Robertson, Lisa, Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, the Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities and Related Aporias (Toronto, ON: Book Thug, 2012), 82 .

30 Kreider, Kristen, Poetics and Place: The Architecture of Sign, Subjects and Site (London: I. B.Tauris, 2013), 1 .

31 US Declaration of Independence, text transcript, at

32 Harris, Fredrick C. and Lieberman, Robert C., “Racial Inequality after Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African-Americans”, Foreign Affairs, 94, 2 (March–April 2015), 187220 .

33 Claudia Rankine, “Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry,” 15 Feb. 2011, at

34 Fried, Daisy, “Tony Hoagland's ‘The Change’”, The Poetry Foundation (Harriet: The Blog, 2011), at

35 Rankine, Citizen, 25.

36 Chris Broussard, “Williams Receives Apology, and Umpire's Open Is Over”, New York Times, 9 Sept. 2004, at

37 Mark Hodgkinson, “US Open 2009: Serena Williams Loses to Kim Clijsters after ‘Foul-Mouthed’ Outburst”, The Telegraph, 13 Sept. 2009, at

38 Rankine, Citizen, 30.

39 Wang, Dorothy J., Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian-American Poetry (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 5 .

40 Hong, Cathy Park, “Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde”, Lana Turner Journal: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, 7 (Nov. 2014), n.p.

41 Wang, 5.

42 Alison Flood, “Poetry Anthology Sparks Race Row”, The Guardian, 22 Dec. 2011, at

43 Ailish Hopper, “Can a Poem Listen? Variations on Being White,” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum, April 2015.

44 Robbins, American Hybrid Poetics, 4.

45 Owens, Louis, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 35 .

46 Hong.

47 Hopper.

48 “Chester Pierce (1974) first described microaggressions as sources of stress (being treated as if one is a threat to others or as if one does not exist) in the form of daily slights and insults directed at someone because of her or his race.” In Carter, Robert T., “Racism and Emotional Injury”, Counseling Psychologist, 35, 1 (Jan. 2007), 13105, 27.

49 Rankine, Citizen, 134–35.

50 Nick Laird, “A New Way of Writing about Race”, New York Review of Books, 23 April 2015, at

51 Ibid.

52 Claudia Rankine, “Aspen Institute Arts Program: Poetry, Justice and Alienation Panel”, Aspen Institute, July 2015, at

53 Rankine, Citizen, 12.

54 Ibid.

55 Caruth, Cathy, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), 5 .

56 Kimberley, Emma, “Politics and Poetics of Fear after 9/11: Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely ,” Journal of American Studies, 45, 4 (Nov. 2011), 777–91, 783.

57 Cheng, Anne Anlin, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10 .

58 Heffernan, James A. W., Cultivating Picturacy: Visual Art and Verbal Interventions (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press 2006).

59 Sharma.

60 Rankine, Citizen, 43.

61 Ibid., 5, 8.

62 Ibid., 9, 16.

63 Ibid., 62, 139.

64 Ibid.

65 Heffernan, 289.

66 Rankine, Citizen, 7.

67 Johnson, Barbara, The Critical Difference: Essays in the Contemporary Rhetoric of Reading (Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press, 1985), 116 .

68 Berlant, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation.”

69 Ibid.

70 Barthes, Roland, “The Theory of the Text”, in Young, Robert, ed., Untying the Text: A Post-structuralist Reader (London: Routledge, 1981), 3147, 33.

71 Rankine, Citizen, 18–19.

72 This article includes captions for all images reproduced for copyright purposes, although it is noteworthy that Rankine chooses to forgo the use of captions in Citizen entirely and only acknowledges her artists at the end of the entire collection.

73 Heffernan, Cultivating Picturacy, 25.

74 Rankine, Citizen, 132.

75 Kimberley, “Politics and Poetics of Fear after 9/11,” 791.

76 Rankine, Citizen, 49.

77 Rankine, Citizen, 71.

78 Ibid.

79 Jackson, Virginia and Prins, Yopie, “General Introduction,” in Jackson, Virginia and Prins, Yopie, eds., The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2014), 110, 5.

80 Adorno, Theodor W., “On Lyric Poetry and Society”, in Tiedemann, Rolf, ed., Notes to Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 3754, 37.

81 Sharma, “Blackness as the Second Person.”

82 Robertson, Nilling, 82.

83 Sharma.

84 Rankine, Citizen, 131.

85 Berlant, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation.”

86 Wallace, Mark, Haze: Essays, Poems, Prose (Washington, DC: Small Distribution Press, 2004), 27 .

87 William E. Stafford, “Traveling through the Dark”, Poetry Foundation, 1998, at, line 17.

88 Butler, Judith P., Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (New York: Verso Books, 2006), 7 .

89 Rankine, Citizen, 14.

90 Rankine, “Aspen Institute Arts Program: Poetry, Justice and Alienation Panel”.

91 Rankine, Citizen, 14.

92 Butler, Excitable Speech, 5.

93 Rankine, Citizen, 49.

94 Austin, J. L., How to Do Things with Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 109 .

95 Ibid.

96 Berlant, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation.”

97 Butler, Excitable Speech, 34.

98 Crown, “Reading the ‘Lucid Interval’,” 187.

99 Rankine, Citizen, 106–9.

100 Rankine's live readings of Citizen include “The Making of Citizen with Claudia Rankine” held on 27 April 2015 at the Houghton, Harvard University, as well as a performance at the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, held on 29 March 2014 at the National Geographic Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington, DC.

101 Crown, 10.

102 Rankine, Citizen, 105.

103 Ibid., 108.

104 Butler, Excitable Speech, 38.

105 Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure,” 4.

106 Rankine, Citizen, 107.

107 Caruth, Trauma, 4, 58.

108 Rankine, Citizen, 109.

109 Ibid., 72.

110 Butler, Excitable Speech, 38.

111 Rankine, Citizen, 106.

112 Bakhtin, M. M., The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. Holquist, Michael (University of Texas Press Slavic Series) (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 278 .

113 Rankine, Citizen, 60.

114 CNN Library, “Trayvon Martin Shooting Fast Facts”, CNN, 11 Feb. 2015, at

115 Rankine, Citizen, 90.

116 Nick Laird, “A New Way of Writing about Race.”

117 Crown, “Reading the ‘Lucid Interval’,” 189–90.

118 Eco, Umberto, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1981), 32 .

119 Ibid.

120 Rankine, Citizen, 9.

121 Berlant, “BOMB – Artists in Conversation.”

122 Rankine, Citizen, 90.

123 Ibid., 145.

124 Ibid., 159.

125 Ibid., 151.

126 Auden, W. H., “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” in Ramazani, Jahan, Ellmann, Richard and O'Clair, Robert, eds., The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003), 798800 .

127 Rankine, Citizen, 159.

128 Sharma, “Blackness as the Second Person,” original emphasis.

129 Lewis, Robin Coste, Voyage of the Sable Venus: And Other Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015).

130 Danez Smith, “Alternate Names for Black Boys”, Poetry Foundation, 2016, at

131 Brown, Jericho, The New Testament (WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2014).

132 Rankine, Citizen, 156.

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