Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

"Citizen" by Claudia Rankine (Penguin, 2015)

I've commented before on how poetry tends not to tackle political issues, and how it doesn't use the variety of formats and styles that prose uses, so this book's to be welcomed. It's a mixed media (it includes illustrations), and mixed genre (essay, poetry, scripts). That said, I'm not always convinced by the poetic intrusions into the prose. For example, on p.10 there's an anecdote where someone says something to the narrator that sounds racist, and the narrator wonders what this means about their relationship. It begins "You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed". "in the dark" is perhaps meant to be taken two ways, and tar is always black, so "black-" must be making a point. Fair enough. Only later are we're told that the "You" is driving - useful information deliberately withheld, I presume. The page ends with "It is not also that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn't include acting like this moment isn't inhabitable, hasn't happened before, and the before isn't part of the now where we are and where we are going" I can understand this, and there must be a reason why the phrasing's contorted. It puts me on my guard though the content's interesting enough.

Later she considers the power of words to offend - "Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness, your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your presence, your looking up, your talking back" (p.49). Well, maybe.

The poetry alludes back to the prose and comes in a variety of styles. At times there are even hints of Gertrude Stein. I liked Section IV and V. Here are extracts -

  • "To live through the days sometimes you moan like deer. Sometimes you sigh. The world says stop that. Another sigh. Another stop that. Moaning elicits laughter, sighing upsets. Perhaps each sigh is drawn into existence to pull in, pull under, who knows; truth be told, you could no more control those sighs than that which brings the sighs about" (p.59)
  • "You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard" (p.63)
  • "You could build a world out of need or you could hold everything black and see. You give back the lack.// You hold everything black. You give yourself back until nothing's left but the dissolving blues of metaphor" (p.70)
  • "Tried rhyme, tried truth, tried epistolary untruth, tried and tried" (p.71)
  • "The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow" (p.72)

I didn't like section VI, especially sections like "each time it begins in the same way, it doesn't begin the same way, each time it begins it's the same" (p.107). Section VII (perhaps like the previous section) was rather beyond me. I don't get the point of p.134 - it's been done too many times before. And the phrasing of passages like "You smile dumbly at the world because you are still feeling if only the feeling could be known and this brings on the moment you recognize as desire" (p.153) make me struggle.

Mimicry is a risky business. The tennis player Wozniacki imitated Serena Williams. Was it racist? Several people imitate the obsessive habits of Nadal and Shirapova. Is that fair? Accents are imitated. Nationalities are caricatured. When people make comments based on (perhaps false) stereotypes, or features that defy stereotypes, they may indeed betray bias but there are other reasons. From personal experience I know that scientists, IT staff, and accountants put up with a lot of such comments too. They tend not to react, partly fearing perhaps that people will think they're thin-skinned and can't take a joke. They sometimes attempt to improve the public image. Comedy and self-deprecation are used, but their sense of injustice isn't strong - after all, the consequences of the stereotypes aren't too damaging. For racism (and religion) the stakes are far higher.

I think listing microaggressions is fairly simple to do. Discourse analysis has shown how common they are in family and business settings. Analysing the cause of individual cases is harder - I'd have liked to see more of that in this book (quoting statistics might have helped). Offering solutions is harder still. There are widespread misunderstandings and delusions in many areas (belief in Horoscopes, Creationism, miracle cures, etc) that can have serious consequences yet seem hard to refute. Thoughtlessness is rife, even amongst the intelligensia (who frequently get simple probability matters very wrong). So apparent microaggressions are only to be expected. That's the problem of course - they can disguise relentless, thematic assaults. She offers no solutions, but why should she? It's only poetry.

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