Pushcart 2014: Claudia Rankine, excerpt from That Once Were Beautiful Children (Poetry) – Ploughshares, Spring 2012

My brothers are notorious. They have not been to prison. They have been imprisoned. The prison is not a place you enter. It is no place. My brothers are notorious. They do regular things, like wait. On my birthday they say my name. They will never forget my name. What is that knowledge? Is it sadness?

When Rankine finished her last book of poetry, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, she had an extensive conversation with her publisher about how to categorize it in release; she compromised between “lyric essay” and “poetry” with the subtitle, “An American Lyric”:

For me, the lyric is tied to the intimate. The lyric is traditionally thought of as that which is overheard and the use of “American” as a modifier for the lyric took the text into the public sphere….. In my new book, I’m trying more aggressively to marry the essay to the lyric…. But I actually do believe I’m a poet because my world revolves around poetry. If I’m interested in the sentence and the paragraph and way the essay develops, it’s still with the poetic sensibility, within the limits of a poetic sensibility.”

~~Claudia Rankine interview, South Loop Review

This poem – prose poem – lyric – is from that still-in-the-works new book.

Reading this poem is like sinking into a warm wordbath of the tears of a hundred generations. Rankine and multimedia artist John Lucas recorded a short film titled “Situation 5” as part of their series “Situations”; it’s quite remarkable. Keep an eye on the scenery going by.

It’s a poem I can’t begin to parse, so I’ll just mention some of the elements I noticed. Right from the start, there’s a sense of confusion and turmoil. Who are these brothers – are they brothers as in born to the same parents, or is “brother” used in a more metaphorical sense, an “all men are brothers” sense, or in the specifically racial sense? Does it shift? There’s a lot of shifting going on: a frequent shift of voice from active to passive and back again (“It looked like we rescued ourselves, were rescued”) in the first half of the poem, as though as though it looks different from different points of view. Is this an embrace of an entire population of black men?

Tropes repeat, then morph into other tropes. Imprisonment starts things off, leading to a meditation on broken hearts; the haunting and evocative refrain “my brother, dear brother, my dearest brothers, dear heart,” and towards the end, the sky and blueness (“blue” has so many connotations: blue skies, feeling blue, the Boys in Blue; how it looks depends on where you’re standing). The phone calls, the goodbyes, to me play into the opening prison imagery, calling from prison (literal or figurative) and “hanging up” which carries over the lynching imagery from fourth to fifth stanza. There’s a powerful connection between speaker and the brothers, in images of childhood (emphasizing the family tie) and in her sorrow becoming her brothers’ hearts.

And the words, oh, the words: “another dawn where the pink sky is the bloodshot of struck, of sleepless, of sorry, of senseless, shush.” The fourth stanza is the most literal and direct imagery of racist violence:

Those years of and before me and my brothers, that years of passage, plantation, migration, of Jim Crow segregation, of poverty, inner cities, profiling, of one in three, two jobs, each a felony, boy, hey boy, accumulate into the hours inside our childhood where we are all caught hanging, the rope inside us, the tree inside us, its roots our limbs, a throat sliced through and when we open our mouth to speak, blossoms, o blossoms, no place coming out, brother, dear brother, that kind of blue.

For me, this is woven through the poem: sadness and heartbreak – and hope – in feeling deeply the ongoing effects of this undercurrent that has been part of the American fabric since America was, that some still – still – claim doesn’t exist, as they announce it’s time to “get over it.” This poem, like Morrison’s Beloved, shows that racism isn’t something that ended in 1865 or 1964, no matter what Five Fools in Robes think. Maybe some day. In the meantime, let’s hold our brothers dear, all of them.

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