- Toward an Antiracist Ecopoetics:Waste and Wasting in the Poetry of Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine’s most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, has received much critical acclaim. A finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Poetry and a recipient of the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, among other honors, Citizen was lauded by mainstream media outlets such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times soon after its release.1 The New Yorker described it as “an especially vital book for this moment in time” (Chiasson n. pag.). It is not surprising that Citizen, a book about “the ‘ordinary’ injury of racist encounter[s],” as Lauren Berlant writes (Rankine, “Claudia Rankine” n. pag.)—with its accounts of everything from casual racism at a café to police violence against young black men—has resonated for so many people in what some have called our post-Ferguson era.
While critics have published numerous review essays on Citizen, literary scholars have just begun to consider Rankine’s latest book as it relates to her earlier poetry, a task this article undertakes. Drawing on biopolitical, critical race, and environmental justice theories, I read Citizen as the latest installment of Rankine’s twenty-year meditation on the “wasting body”—a figure that, in Rankine’s poetry, accounts for how certain bodies are attenuated or made sick under capitalism and the state, while simultaneously being regarded as surplus by these same structures. While the book is not ostensibly a work of ecological poetry or environmental criticism, [End Page 79] one of Citizen’s most pointed critiques—a critique Rankine makes in her earlier books, too—concerns the difficulty of relating to or identifying with one’s environment when one has been othered by the dominant white society and, consequently, forced to live with greater amounts of environmental risk. In this sense, Citizen constitutes an important contribution to conversations among scholars of ecopoetics and environmental justice. In the pages that follow, I track Rankine’s engagement with embodied experiences of racism and environmental risk in her books Citizen, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), and Nothing in Nature Is Private (1994), examining how the wasting of life is figured as both capital and the biopolitical state’s condition of possibility.2
Citizen opens by asking the reader to imagine herself “alone and too tired even to turn on any of your devices” (5). Paralyzed in bed, “you let yourself linger in a past stacked among your pillows . . . nestled under blankets.” The exhaustion of the body and mind in a racist society is a central focus of Citizen. In Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the poet asks, “Why do people waste away?” (11). Between the most daily of discriminatory microaggressions and the entrenched forms of structural racism that facilitate them in the first place, Rankine suggests, black bodies are rendered increasingly deindividuated and expendable. In the process, life comes to be defined at and by a limit—between near-death and actual death, living life and maintaining life—and by its state of wasting, the condition of and for life at this precarious threshold. Rankine’s work figures not only the wasting of the body and self, but also the wasting of the environments in which they are placed. Through an examination of figures of waste and wasting, I will argue that Rankine’s poetry, in its duration of a vexed lyric mode, registers the structural forces and forms of power that both racialize and subject raced bodies and environments to degradation and violence. In using the term duration, I refer to Rankine’s continuance or persistence within, as opposed to outright rejection of, lyric. In the process of this duration, Rankine’s poetry exposes the attenuating conditions [End Page 80] for both writing and life under racist social, political, and economic structures. For Rankine, it is in critically inhabiting these states of wasting—what Fred Moten has called “exhaustion . . . as a way of life” (738)—that one becomes capable of realizing alternative modes for thinking and enacting ecological emplacement and sociality—what Moten calls a “social biopoetics of and in...