Two Prizes, Two Poets, Black and White
D. S. Rao
Claudia Rankine: Citizen, an American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 2014. 184 pages, $ 20.
Louise Gluck: Faithful and Virtuous Night. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2014. Hardbound, 71 pages, $ 23.
From over two hundred poets, Claudia Rankine, and Louise Gluck, one black, the other white, made it to the final five shortlisted for the National Book Award for 2014. Rankine teaches poetry and creative writing at Pomona College and was in New York for the National Book Awards, but the poetry prize went to her former professor, Louise Gluck, of Williams College, for Faithful and Virtuous Night. The younger poet recalls, the older poet-professor has always been an inspiration to her; Gluck returns the compliment, Rankine was ‘a phenomenal student’, who ‘spoke always with such boldness and accuracy and intensity.’ A few weeks later, Rankine won the National Book Critics Circle Award for 2014, for Citizen, an American Lyric.
American folklorist, anthropologist and author, Zora Neale Hurston’s line, ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background’, inspires the conceptual artist Glenn Ligon’s canvas, reproduced on pages 52-53 of Citizen. This acute sentience of black and white permeates Rankine’s ‘American lyric’. Add perception and thought to the feeling, the result is Rankine’s haunting prose poetry or poetic prose or nanno-essay.
A person, watching out of his window, spots on the lawn next a ‘menacing black guy… casing … homes … walking back and forth talking to himself’, and calls the owner, saying he has already called the police, thinking he has done his neighbor a good turn. The person on the lawn is no doubt black, but neither menacing, nor talking to himself. He is a friend who, at the owner’s request, has picked up her child from school, and is on the lawn talking on his phone, waiting for the parent’s arrival. Four police cars reach the place; facts are verified; apologies do their rounds. The poet does not mention the neighbor’s color; there is no need to. This brings to mind the arrest of a black professor of the Harvard University, in his own home, by a white police officer, responding to a similar call from a well-meaning white neighbor, and the hasty comment of the first African-American President of the United States, subsequently sorted out over a beer summit.
Color prejudice intrudes subconsciously: ‘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 her 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’ (12); or irrupts openly: ‘You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there’ (10), implying no black can ever be as ‘great’ as white.
At a bar, a man trying to make conversation, shows a picture of his wife, saying she ‘is beautiful and black, like you’ (78), as if beauty and black hardly unite. At the drug store, the man does not notice the black woman before him and passes her to the window. ‘Oh my god, I didn’t see you.’ (77). And ‘the man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work’ (54). The manager sees the applicant and blurts out, ‘I didn’t know you were black’ (44). ‘And when the woman with the multiple degrees says, I didn’t know black women could get cancer,’ you do not know whether to pity the ignorance of the learned, or ‘realize nowhere is where you will get from here’ (45).
Aptly, the poet says in the last poem, ‘I don’t know how to end what doesn’t have an ending’, and goes on, ‘I was waiting in the car for time to pass. A woman pulled in and started to park her car facing mine. Our eyes met and what passed passed as quickly as the look away. She backed up and parked on the other side of the lot’ (159).
When Rankine writes ‘the past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow’, she sounds almost like a karma crossed Hindu. This is no casual comment on action and reaction, because a few lines later, she makes a pointed reference to her ‘creating a life study of a monumental first person, a Brahmin first person.’ As she invites the listener to ‘join me down here in nowhere’, she gets closer to the existentialist angst. The monologue ends with an indelible image: ‘each body is a strange beach, and if you let in the excess emotion you will recall the Atlantic Ocean breaking on our heads’ (72-73).
The Hurricane Katrina of 2005 killed two thousand and displaced many more, mostly black: ‘the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the whites and the blacks’ was stark (83). As the displaced were temporarily accommodated in an indoor stadium, some one says: ‘and so many of the people in the arena here, you know … were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them… and they are so black’ (85). The poet does not name the some one; she doesn’t have to; the media had widely reported the former first lady Grandma Bush’s callous reaction to the tragedy, part nature, part man made.
Among Rankine’s scripts for situation videos created in collaboration with her husband, John Lucas, the briefest is the most poetically poignant: ‘Its motion activates its darkness. The pickup truck is a condition of darkness in motion. It makes a dark subject. You mean a black subject. No, a black object’ (93). A white teenager driving his pickup truck over a forty-nine year old black in a hate crime shows how hard it is to erase preconceived notions. The truck in the dark symbolizes nescience in action; darkness is agnosy, becomes a subject, black subject, and then an object of attack by the forces of inscience.
Rankine’s muse keeps pace with technology: the very opening image is: ‘When you are alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices’ (5); ‘the people around you have turned away from their screens. The teenagers are on pause’ (16); ‘watching a foreign film without translation’ (50); ‘Despite the air-conditioning’ (151) …
‘No one is free’ (124). Everyone is a prisoner of prejudice, hurt, real or imaginary, and, as Rabindranath Tagore puts it, no chains are stronger than the chains we hug. One hopes Rankine moves beyond black and white and explores other hues.
Louise Gluck teaches at the Yale University and her earlier laurels include the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Bollingen Prize for Poetry, and the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. She was the Poet Laureate Consultant for 2003. Her latest work, Faithful and Virtuous Night, contains two dozen poems, of varied length and line, poetic prose or prose poetry, call each what you will, it doesn’t really matter. The poet gets you to feel, and think, and occasionally the imagery lingers. The poem that keeps coming back to me again and again is the very last one, in simple prose:
The Couple in the Park
A man walks alone in the park and beside him a woman walks, also alone. How does one know? It is as though a line exists between them, like a line on a playing field. And yet, in a photograph they might appear a married couple, weary of each other and of the many winters they have endured together. At another time, they might be strangers about to meet by accident. She drops her book; stooping to pick it up, she touches, by accident, his hand and her heart springs open like a child’s music box. And out of the box comes a little ballerina made of wood. I have created this, the man thinks; though she can only whirl in place, still she is a dancer of some kind, not simply a block of wood. This must explain the puzzling music coming from the trees (71).
Delicious is Gluck’s gibe at the critics:
It is the critics, he said,
the critics have the ideas. We artists
(he included me) – we artists are just children at our games (42).
Gluck’s Award book took me to her earlier poems: eleven volumes of verse, spanning fifty years, over six hundred pages, conveniently collected and published as Louise Gluck: Poems 1962-2012. She draws on the Greek myths (Eros, Persephone, Orpheus, Eurydice, Achilles, Agamemnon…), relationships (father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband, child, lover, beloved…), seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter), rain, wind and snow, birds, bats, trees, leaves, fruits, lakes, stars, moonbeams… She declares:
What others found in art,
I found in nature. What others found
in human love, I found in nature.
Very simple. But there was no voice there (Poems 1962-2012, p.496).
And she gives voice both to nature and human nature, in a ‘language really used by men’ – to borrow from Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads – throwing ‘over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things’ are ‘presented to the mind in an unusual aspect’. Gluck, however, gives a distinctive American coloring to the poetic idiom, sans shackles of rhyme or meter.
Love returns to her verse, again and again, in various facets:
When you fall in love, my sister said,
it’s like being struck by lightning. …
I reminded her that she was repeating exactly
our mother’s formula, which she and I
had discussed in childhood, because we both felt
that what we were looking at in the adults
were the effects not of lightning
but of the electric chair (Poems, 505-06).
Being struck was like being vaccinated;
the rest of your life you were immune…
unless the shock wasn’t deep enough,
then you weren’t vaccinated, you were addicted (Poems, 509).
Maestoso, doloroso (Poems, 497).
The familiar pattern of most marriages:
When we were young, it was different.
My husband and I – we were in love. All we ever wanted
was to touch each other (Poems, 604).
But, soon, the wife feels
He’s trying to turn me into a person I never was (Poems, 603).
And the husband rues
But a person who accepts a lie, who accepts support from it
because it’s warm, it’s pleasant for a little while –
that person she’ll never understand, no matter how much she loves him (Poems, 612).
Eventually, the mopes
I loved once, I loved twice,
the form collapsed: I was
unable to sustain ignorance (Poems, 438).
Thrush has drawn poets before, like Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy. While the red-winged blackbird’s singing in the icy winter irritates Edward Thomas (‘you love what is kind, / what you can sing in / and love and forget in / all that’s ahead and behind’), Thomas Hardy finds in it ‘some blessed Hope’ (‘whereof he knew / and I was unaware’). Louis Gluck, however, takes it to a different level, coming close to the Hindu concept of moksha:
After many lives, maybe something changes.
I think in the end what you want
you’ll be able to see –
Then you don’t need anymore
to die and come back again (Poems, 551).
Many lives make us think of the soul, and the soul means different things to different people. Gluck muses: one time, soul as servant:
Like a foot soldier wanting
to serve a great warrior, the soul
wanted to side with the body (Poems, 513).
Another time, the soul is literally ‘too high’, metaphysically beyond grasp, scaring the mortal body:
What is a soul?
A flag flown
too high on the pole, if you know what I mean.
The body cowers in the dreamlike underbrush (Poems, 517).
She pokes fun at the organized church in ‘Confession’. A boy tells the priest that he has taken the fruit of a tree belonging to another, is ready to do penance, but refuses to believe that Jesus gave the tree to her. ‘He wants to know / what Jesus does with all the money he gets from real estate, / not just in this village but in the whole country.’ The priest is annoyed, but is relieved when ‘the conversation’ moves ‘away from money’ (Poems, 599).
Gluck’s imagery bridges the old and the new: childhood ‘a small bird sealed off from daylight’ (Poems, 518); ‘cartons of tubes, boxes of the various objects that were my still lives, the vase and mirrors, the blue bowl I filled with wooden eggs’ (Faithful, 28); ‘the television on; various schoolbooks open, or places marked with sheets of lined paper’ (Poems, 427); mother ‘machine of the family’ (Poems, 422); fire ‘a family run by a dictator’ (Poems 568); ‘blue sky, blue ice, street like a frozen river’ (Poems, 537); ‘sky punctuated with small pines like spears’, ‘poppies opening like butterflies with black markings’ (Poems, 561); ‘the diver with enough air in the tank’ (Faithful, 16); ‘the August sun, returning everything that was taken away’ (Poems, 494); mice in the fields, fox hunts, ashes, airplanes, stewardesses…
The poet asks, rather combatively:
Why should my poems not imitate my life?
Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning
is not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie (Poems, 484).
Pattern, inertia and reverie are familiar to all sensitive people, but Gluck places them in startling juxtapositions, opening new vistas. Her poetry is indeed remarkable for its reach and profundity.