A prism of personal perspectives illuminates a poet’s meditations on race.
Like a previous volume, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004), Rankine (English/Pomona Coll.) subtitles this book An American Lyric, which serves as an attempt to categorize the unclassifiable. Some of this might look like poetry, but more often there are short anecdotes or observations, pieces of visual art and longer selections credited as “Script for Situation video created in collaboration with John Lucas.” Yet the focus throughout is on how it feels and what it means to be black in America. It builds from an accretion of slights (being invisible, ignored or called by the name of a black colleague) and builds toward the killing of Trayvon Martin and the video-gone-viral beating of Rodney King. “A similar accumulation and release drove many Americans to respond to the Rodney King beating,” she writes. “Before it happened, it had happened and happened.” Rankine is particularly insightful about Serena Williams, often criticized for displays of anger that the author justifies as responses to racism, conscious or not. “For Serena,” she writes, “the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.” The author’s anger is cathartic, for her and perhaps for readers, though she shows how it can be strategic as well: She refers to an artist’s “wryly suggesting black people’s anger is marketable,” while proposing that “on the bridge between this sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger.” Within what are often very short pieces or sections, with lots of white space on the page, Rankine more effectively sustains a feeling and establishes a state of being than advances an argument. At times, she can be both provocative and puzzling—e.g., “It is the White Man who creates the black man. But it is the black man who creates.”
Frequently powerful, occasionally opaque.