Sunday, March 27, 2016

Like a displaced sound

Just finished Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014). It's poetry of a kind I'm not familiar with. It often looks like prose, often sounds like it, but then of a sudden dispenses with punctuation or some other convention of prose, suggesting that prose - all prose, in fact - is just a veneer, glossing over realities barely verbalizable in their surplus and absence of significance. I can't do better than share a part, the transcribing of which helped me appreciate its exquisite precision. (It's pages 131-33.)


On the train the woman standing makes you understand there are no seats available. And, in fact, there is one. Is the woman getting off at the next stop? No, she would rather stand all the way to Union Station.

The space next to the man is the pause in a conversation you are suddenly rushing to fill. You step quickly over the woman's fear, a fear she shares. You let her have it.

The man doesn't acknowledge you as you sit down because the man knows more about the unoccupied seat next to him than you do. For him, you imagine, it is more like breath than wonder; he has had to think about it so much you wouldn't call it thought.

When another passenger leaves his seat and the standing woman sits, you glance over at the man. He is gazing out the window at what looks like darkness.

You sit next to the man on the train, bus, in the plane, waiting room, anywhere he could be forsaken. You put your body there in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within.

You don't speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs to the body of the man next to you, not to you.

Where he goes the space follows him. If the man left his seat before Union Station you would simply be a person in a seat on the train. You would cease to struggle against the unoccupied seat when where why the space won't lose its meaning.

You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it's okay, I'm okay, you don't need to sit here. You don't need to sit and you sit and look past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel.

All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What does suspicion do?

The soft gray-green of your cotton coat touches the sleeve of him. You are shoulder to shoulder though standing you could feel shadowed. You sit to repair whom who? You erase that thought. And it might be too late for that.

It might forever be too late or too early. The train moves too fast for your eyes to adjust to anything beyond the man, the window, the tiled tunnel, its slick darkness. Occasionally, a white light flickers by like a displaced sound.

From across the aisle tracks room harbor world a woman asks a man in the rows ahead if he would mind switching seats. She wishes to sit with her daughter or son. You hear but you don't hear. You can't see.

It's then the man next to you turns to you. And as if from inside your own head you agree that if anyone asks you to move, you'll tell them we are traveling as a family.


I sometimes sit in the space next to a man like this in the subway. It's like Rankine's sitting, and entirely unlike. I don't know what it is to have the unoccupied seat follow you out, to have it always in proximity to, adjacent to, alongside, within. I don't know what it's like to have a white man like me (I should say, following Ta-Nehisi Coates following James Baldwin, a man who believes he is white) sit in it as if it means something, as if he knows what it means, as if it might mean nothing.

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