An American Lyric

A book that astonishes is a book to share, to cherish, to revere. A book that astonishes again must never be taken lightly. I first took notice of Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press) when booksellers and book lovers alike buzzed over it up and down my Twitter feed. "This book!" they cried in adulation. "This book!" Their experience became my own when I finally opened my copy.

Interjecting cultural criticism with poetry--or rather, injecting poetry with criticism--Rankine carefully and methodically begins to unravel the tightly wound spool of anti-black racism in the United States. "Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart," she writes in her thoughtful, simmering style, "dry out the tongue and clog the lungs." Of the numerous such moments depicted in Citizen, what adrenalized me first were those charting the career of tennis champion Serena Williams, the prejudice she has faced every moment she steps onto the court. I couldn't turn pages fast enough; I hardly dared take a breath.

Citizen astonished the book world when it landed on the shortlist for the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in not one but two categories--criticism and poetry--the first time a book has done so in the history of the award. Defying both categorization and convention, Rankine's writing reports newsworthy events like the violent deaths of Trayvon Martin, James Craig Anderson, Mark Duggan and the beating of Rodney King, as well as the many smaller aggressions Rankine has faced in her own career and daily life. She writes forthrightly of "the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color." But it is not this anger, nor its sources, that astonished me again--indeed, both are quotidian--it's where she takes us from there. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness

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