Sway This Way | Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine | Review


Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
160 pgs | Graywolf Press, 2014


I read Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine by the flashlight of my phone in a dark parking garage ten minutes after I bought it. Here’s why:

I. The Texture


The texture is beautiful and the font is simple and important, perfect for scribbling notes and writing reactions in the margins.

II. The Pictures


The pictures, half of them I don’t understand, and I think that’s the point. There’s no caption under them and you’ve got to create your own understanding of them, almost like they are there for pause but that pause is not meant to be quiet.

III. The Cover


The cover is purely definitive of Zora Neale Hurston’s quote from How It Feels to Be Colored Me: “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background”.[1]

The cover is a black hoodie cut off at the neck (a head post execution) against a pure white background. The hoodies, he’s looking at you, looking at me, he’s not letting us look away. He knows we’ve looked away long enough, denied truth long enough. We’ve ignored him and it in life and tried to in death but this cover is like the murdered asked the Grim Reaper to let them come back from death so that they could haunt the living right.


IV. The Content.


Citizen reads as one of the most terrifying landscapes in the world.

The Bolton Skid in Yorkshire[2] looks innocent enough when it starts out but as you move upstream, it literally turns into one of the most deadly places in the world. No one has ever come out of it alive.

The more you read Citizen, the further you tread into the black (did she mean blood?) stained pages, the more you think that you can handle this, that you can swim out onto the other side. But then, somewhere around page all of them, the focus goes from the personal to the public and then mixing them so that you don’t even know which is which and the microaggressions they’ve told you to forget turn into breaking news headlines, and you lose your footing, you lose your place, and you’re pulled under, exposed to a truth so powerful you cannot deny it any longer, you can no longer un-know it.

Before you know it, the book has swallowed you up whole. You cannot come back.

You are not meant to come back.


V. The Reaction


I’ve been carrying this book around for a week. I wish there was a way I could sew it onto the door to my heart. I wish there was a way I could inject the words into my bloodstream because you always forget the important things when you need them most. It feels as if these are the only ways you cannot forget this book. You need this armed with you every time you walk out that door, every time you log on to the internet and these are the only ways you think you could never forget this book. This book is more than necessary, more than vital, but I can’t think of a word that covers all of that yet.

I’ve been told go into work that helps people with the hope that your job will no longer be needed, but knowing that it’s a long time coming, if ever. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is a series of poems, a collection of truths, that are written in the hopes that we won’t need them anymore, but knowing full well that time isn’t coming soon. But the only way to get to where we won’t need these truths anymore is to heal and write in the time that we do. So Rankine does the impossible: she writes, she heals.

You won’t come back from this book, but you will come out better.



Contributing Editor

Alexis Smithers is a twenty one year old explosion of messes. They are queer black writer that was published in a book about how horses heal (Wild at Heart by Heather Kirby), and has work that can be found on theEEEL. Fun facts: they tied a pillowcase to their back and tried to fly after seeing Sky High, their mantra can be found in Wreck-It Ralph, The Babadook, or Orphan Black (depending on the day) and they’re terrified of mostly everything but art makes the fear easier to hold.