When Camille Rankine speaks, you can’t help but listen. It’s something in her voice, which is somehow at once calming and relentless, lilting and insistent. You hear each word. You feel each pause. It’s impossible, really, not to be transfixed.
Rankine read a series of poems from her recently published collection of poems, entitled Incorrect Merciful Impulses, on Monday night in Griffin Hall. Her work is made for the page but, as she said in a question-and-answer session after the reading, sound is important to her. As someone who also has experience as a vocalist, Rankine said she tends to think of voice as itself an instrument. Editing, she said, is largely a matter of “making sure it sounds right.”
To be sure, her poetry does sound right – in fact, it sounds beautiful. But Rankine’s poems don’t only please the ear; they also challenge the intellect. Her work is smart, complex; the ideas she plays with, the notions she explores and, sometimes, explodes are multi-faceted, complicated, thought-provoking. The first poem she read on Monday night, called “Tender,” examined the many senses of that word, which is both soft adjective and hard noun, descriptor and form of currency. “Dear patriot,” she read. “Dear catastrophe. None of this means what we thought it did.”
Often, in Rankine’s poetry, the listener has that sense, that what we thought mean this means that, that what we thought meant that meant – well, something else, something not always specified. Lines never seem to end quite the way you expect them to; they bend away from you, twisting, turning. In a poem called Fireblight, Rankine read, “We try to save ourselves / and set the house on fire.” “For fear of losing,” she read, “We go looking for a fight.” Rankine said the piece was inspired by fire blight, a bacterial disease that ravages fruit trees, and the sense of destruction is paramount in the piece, which feels almost apocalyptic with its references to scorching and blood, talking car radios and missing gods. But what’s most interesting about the poem is the way it keeps surprising the listener. Everything that happens is unanticipated, and if this is because the poem is, in part, about the end of a world, it is also, the suggestion seems to be, because we know so little about this world in the first place.
“I like subverting expectations,” Rankine said of her work. Many times, she tries to structure a sentence that the audience anticipates having one ending but has another. In doing this, she’s not just trying to confuse, to muddy the waters. Instead, it’s because she’s trying to explore concepts that seem to exist in deep and perhaps inherent contradiction. “A lot of times in this book,” she said, referring to Incorrect Merciful Impulses, “I’m grappling with the natural versus the manmade.” And yet even this is distinction is troubled by the fact that humanity is both a product of nature and a corrupter of it. Rankine explores and complicates this opposition by placing lyrical language in close proximity to mechanical language. “The mechanic is rote,” she explained. “It has a path it must follow. To introduce humanity into it is unexpected.” It’s also, potentially, meaningful.
At its heart, then, Rankine’s body of work investigates what it means to be human, the question of who we are in the midst of a world we have created and not created. One of the most fascinating aspects of her poetry is her consistent use of the first person. The “I” in her poems is always a little ambiguous – is this Rankine or someone else, a fictional voice or a real one? This in itself is perhaps not so unique; whose perspective the narrator represents is a fairly standard question for literary analysis. But what is so interesting about the speaker in Rankine’s poems is the way the “I” itself seems deeply uncertain about who – and even what – she or he is. “I was born in a forest,” she said, reading from a poem called “Genealogy.” “I don’t know my name.” At another point, she read, “We have two lives. And only one of them is real.”
Who we are is uncertain, Rankine’s poems suggest, because of the physical facts of the universe, because we are so small and space it so big. (One of her poems actually explores Copernican principles of the universe.) But it is also uncertain because of the past, because of the history of how humans have defined and related to and treated one another. “I’ve come to understand that we are disease, accident,” she said, reading from a poem called “Dry Harbor,” about the historical impacts of Christopher Columbus’s “arrival” upon (not “discovery” of) the island of Jamaica.
Rankine is interested, she said, in “how we pathologize behavior … how we tend to view behavior and decide certain things are unacceptable.” There’s very little resolution in her poems, and that’s intentional. A continuing question for her body of work is whether or not there’s any kind of universal value system with which we might understand human actions. At the end of the reading, it’s clear that Rankine doesn’t know and we don’t, either. But then, people have never looked to poetry for concreteness, for the unassailable consensus, the easy answer.
“I am just trying to be merciful,” Rankine said, reading from a poem called “Symptoms of Doctrine.” “Is that honesty?”
I love that. (Me “I,” this “I,” an “I” that is maybe more identifiable – just check the byline – but, ultimately, still not entirely certain about who she is). I love that, and I can’t answer. I don’t know whether honesty is merciful or mercy is honest and maybe Rankine doesn’t, either. It doesn’t really matter. We keep looking. We keep listening.