Embracing the Painfully Impossible in the Human Heart
April 21, 2015 § 5 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Morse, examining the work of Claudia Rankine, one of the anchor authors for our forthcoming Special Issue on Race, Racism, and Racialization:
When the world all around is calling for clear distinctions, loyalties to Self and hatred of others . . . . —smooth narratives—what greater threat exists than that voice which rejects such easy orthodoxies with their readily understood rhetoric and urges, instead, the most difficult readings, those that embrace the painfully impossible in the human heart?”
– Maria Rosa Menocal, from Shards of Love: Exile and Origins of the Lyric
Lyrical writing, like the lyre it originally accompanied, holds its heart in song and in the address of another. It is an observation shared with someone else, when the ‘I’ of the singer births a ‘you’ in the form of an audience, or a writer a reader. However, there’s a funny trick that happens with lyric: a blurring begins. The pronouns get mixed up. It occurs every time you sing your favorite song – the ‘I’ of another enters your mouth. You temporarily share someone’s else’s identity, their turn of phrase, and you want this moment, because this ‘I’ has captured something that feels true to you, even if the story being told is outside the scope of your regular life.
Because of your elite status from a year’s worth of travel, you have already settled into your window seat on United Airlines, when the girl and the mother arrive at your row. The girl, looking over at you, tells her mother, these are our seats, but this is not what I expected. The mother’s response is barely audible—I see, she says. I’ll sit in the middle.
Recently, Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric, was nominated for both the poetry and nonfiction categories of the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. This has never happened before in the award’s forty-year history. Thought it eventually won the Poetry Award, the dual-genre nod was the only one appropriate to the hybrid nature of the collection. ‘Collection’ works doubly hard here: Rankine gathered anecdotes of racist moments people of color have experienced when they felt most safe, amassed quotes from CNN reporting on Hurricane Katrina, collected World Cup audience transcripts, curated images of art that speak to the experience of being black in America. As she explains to an interviewer:
The entire book is a collection of stories gathered from a community of friends and then retold or folded into my own stories. And though it’s not strictly nonfiction, Citizen is not fiction either. The experience of writing it, which might or might not be the experience of reading it, was to see my community a little better, to see it, to understand my place in it, to know how it sounds, what it looks like, and yet, to stay on my street anyway.
Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ approach to short prose pieces (most log in at a page or less), to my mind inhabits the world of lyrical flash nonfiction. At the heart there is an elasticity of experience. As Marcia Aldrich writes, “The lyric essay does not narrate a story so much as express a condition – often named, sometimes called human, but still to us unknown. It reverses foreground and background, cultivating leaps and juxtaposition, tensing between the presentational and the representational.” Rankine seeks to understand, a word that in its etymology means ‘to stand between, among; to be close to’. Rankine tries to make the reader ‘understand’ her pieces by narrating micro-aggressions from the intimate, close place of ‘you’.
The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so.
With lyric, you may be suddenly seeing with multiple sets of eyes. In Rankine’s case, pronouns become a transitional space for a reader, especially if he is white; through his imagination he inhabits this racialized ‘you’, but at the same time the very foreignness of this experience serves to highlight the fact that he as a white person has never been treated this way. The blurring of ‘you’ and ‘I’ is disorienting; this painful impossibility echoes in the narrator’s refrain of What did you say?
A condensed layering of the self is what lyric flash holds in its heart. “The lyric essay doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the farm or why mama took to drink,” writes Sue William Silverman. “It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience . . . the reader accepts the emotion of the piece itself as the essential ‘fact’.” Rankine’s ‘not strictly nonfiction, but not fiction either’ asks a reader to explore what it means to have a black body in this world. She actively destabilizes her own text, asking her reader to cross lyric’s transitional space over and over again. Rankine: “I wanted to create an aesthetic form for myself, where the text was trembling and doubling and wandering in its negotiation and renegotiation of the image.”
This trembling and doubling and wandering between what each small ‘I’ knows to be real and the possibility of what each ‘you’ suggests, this lyric nonfiction, is more important than ever. Smooth narratives are dangerous ones, if not deadly. Poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” How can we express our griefs, our outrages, our complicated hearts, if not by breaking silence, breaking into song? When the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was announced in the Michael Brown case, over and over I saw a line from Rankine’s book being shared on Twitter:
And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?
The rain this morning pours from the gutters and everywhere else it is lost in the trees. You need your glasses to single out what you know is there because doubt is inexorable; you put on your glasses. The trees, their bark, their leaves, even the dead ones, are more vibrant wet. Yes, and it’s raining. Each moment is like this – before it can be known, categorized as similar to another thing and dismissed, it has to be experienced, it has to be seen. What did he just say? Did she really say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks. Still you want to stop looking at the trees. You want to walk out and stand among them. And as light as the rain seems, it still rains down on you.
Kelly Morse is a poet, creative nonfiction writer, and translator. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, Quarter After Eight, Linebreak, Flyway and elsewhere. Her translations and reviews of Vietnamese poetry appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, and she recently won Lunch Ticket’s Gabo Prize for Translation. Kelly has had work nominated for Best of the Net, is a Robert Pinsky Global Fellow and a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient.