Reading Citizen: An American Lyric is an experience which captures a niche in my heart unlike any other book I’ve read. The connection her story gives me comes not only from the words themselves and their simplistic profundity, but also from their presentation and the lasting impact it leaves upon my memory. She wraps the unexpected in the expected, turning things against the reader in a way that builds a deeper understanding of her themes. She creates human connection with her unusual viewpoint and formatting. She uses images to reinforce her thoughts and prompt the reader to form their own conceptions on the meaning. She forces the reader to think and to empathize. Section III, is one of my favorites because of how crisply all her techniques come to fruition in it. Additionally, the image on pages 52-53 also bears testimony to the power of her stylistic choices.
In poetic terms, she breaks tradition. She both redefines ‘lyric’ and reaffirms its current definition. Usually, a lyric poem is written to express the writer’s emotions, is organized into stanzas, and is meant to rhyme. Rankine unequivocally expresses her emotions, but does not rhyme or stick to ‘traditional’ stanzas; rather, she uses paragraphs which give her words a novel-like form. By naming her novel ‘Lyric’, she puts us in mind of poetry. By writing “prose” poems, she turns the expected unexpected and increases the power of her message. In such a way, Rankine seamlessly combines poem and novel, and through that, by presenting her voice, labeled by one form, shown through another, she strikes home one of her greatest underlying points: that a core issue in the terms of race is that of the White American Public’s problem with ‘the Black body’—a human being who is packaged in a manner they did not expect and have been trained unconsciously to resent for that jarring moment when they recognize another as not fitting into their limited worldview.
With viewpoint, she again seized the reins of the unexpected, turning all narration over to the reader, in a way, by using ‘you’. It is not ‘her’. It is not ‘I’. There is no way it can be alienated or separated to be considered as the experience of ‘the other’. It is forced to be your experience, your vision, your memory played over again in your head in these tight, black-texted paragraphs on their backdrop of shiny white paper.
By using such short and sentences in contrast with long ones, Rankine creates a unique rhythm of stops and starts that mimic the flowing of memory: first focusing on a long clear image and then spiraling off into short and clipped ones. Or else it starts small and builds to a long ending that wraps it all together. She uses dialogue, but without quotations. Why? It is a narration of what you are doing and experiencing. When you talk to someone, you do not see quotations appear around their words; they have no place in real conversation, so they have no place here. Again, Rankine challenges form. She has dialogue, but she does not want to separate it. She is not writing a novel. She is writing memory and showing reality. By making the written situation more real for the reader, she increases the power it has.
The image on pages 52-53 read: “I do not always feel colored”, and “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background”. This image, of splattered black words—thrown against a sharp white background—creates a visual not only of what the text there states, but also underlines the appearance of the entire book: how the pages are sharply white—made of paper designed to support detailed colored images—and the text is black and emphasized by the starkness of its backdrop. It also relates to my favorite passage, the one on page 44. There, Rankine recounts a situation of ‘you’ speaking with your manager and heading down to meet him in person—presumably for the first time—only for him to react with shock at realizing ‘you’ are Black. This image represents that well. ‘You’ did not feel colored on the phone with the manager. It was not important until ‘you’ were before his eyes, and then “thrown against a sharp white background” of ‘everyone else’. Both the passage and the picture demonstrate that, until you are being forced to notice a contrast in things, such as color, you do not always consider them in the same way. Without the contrast, ‘you’ are comfortable. When an emphasis is placed on how different ‘you’ are, ‘you’ have no choice but to be uncomfortable, because other people are making ‘you’ uncomfortable on their behalf; they don’t want to deal with ‘you’ as they are—so they make you deal with them. Rankine included this picture for just such a purpose: to visually link together this concept of contrast and show, in a new format, the meaning it had.