Let’s say the lyric poet, among many definitions, is also a kind of translator, at least that she faces a similar challenge: the task of rendering in one tongue some experience beforehand first articulated, first heard, in another. But where the translator pivots between at least two culturally recognized languages, the lyric poet moves no less complexly between, say, interior and exterior idioms, between the image and the imagination, or between the just-at-first private articulations of her intellectual and emotional self, for which no perfect language exists, and into this thing called “English,” called “grammar,” or a “poem.” Who knows? Though we do know that any such crossings as I’ve described must probably reveal, unless we labor not to see it, the gaps between, the imprecisions, the failures and silences, and thus also makes apparent the very real difficulty involved in such a project. The trick, though, is to make that difficulty sing. I’d say Camille Rankine, in Incorrect Merciful Impulses, her debut collection, sings the point succinctly and, for that, most profoundly when she writes: “I am trying to tell you / something but my mouth / won’t move” (from “On the Motion of Animals”).
But, of course, Rankine’s speech does move, each poem coming to stand, if this time obliquely, if the next time straight ahead, in the face of any number of forces that attempt in the first place to suppress such motion. Call these forces social, psychological, literary; say they are informed by gender, race, national status—the purpose of the book, it seems to me, isn’t so much, or only, to name such forces, but rather to document their effects. “I am not / loud enough I suspect I have not / enough protest in me,” writes Rankine, as if in a kind of apology, in “Matter in Retreat,” but to my ear Rankine offers only another kind of protest—one which, rather than make “loud” commentary, seeks intead to illustrate or perform the ways in which our speech can be, at one moment, compromised or lost or, at another moment, excellently achieved. And from the very start, Rankine’s Impulses exposes this kind of trial-and-triumph, whether by direct or indirect admission or, more interestingly, by way of rhetorical strategy. Some stanzas from “Tender,” the book’s opening poem, illustrate my meaning:
None of this means what we thought it did
Dear bone fragments
Dear broken skin
I am in over my head
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Dear put upon
The day folds over and begins again
Dear bad animal
Dear caged thing
There was something about you
If it’s right to want to know to whom this kind of fractured epistle is addressed, I’d say that’s the point: to want to know, to be teased almost into knowing, seduced in turns here by the ambiguity, there by the sharpness, to be “put upon.” What’s remarkable to witness is the poem reaching toward utterance, toward a kind of precision of naming (dear “this”, dear “that”) that ultimately, because the speaker keeps trying new names, we realize isn’t totally satisfying, accurate or right. Yet the poem still offers these gulps of information (“There was something about you”) that vis-à-vis the brisk language come before do seem whole, if fleetingly, seem gracious. This, at least, is how I come to see Rankine’s title, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, as both diagnosis of the book and instructions for the reader. The poems are “impulses”—guttural, visceral, rimmed with a quiet emotion (“I want to hold you / but it comes all wrong / I am marooned,” she continues in “On the Motion of Animals”) or sharpened by a clever wit (“our living it’s pathetic / I mean it makes you sad,” she concludes in “Matter in Retreat”). They are “incorrect,” insofar as they admit to and announce that earlier translator’s dilemma: of having to find a way for one language to speak what may well resist being said in another. And yet they are “merciful” because, despite these barriers, perhaps using them, they do nevertheless offer themselves, for our benefit, and in a speech imperfectly their own.
For a poetry so rich and individual there can be many comparisons, but for me what comes most immediately to mind is that kind of ecstatic, if funereal, sublime of Emily Dickinson’s lyric. From both minds we see poems that don’t so much point or accrue to a narrative or story, poems that—while they do speak—even that literary construction we know as “voice” seems in the end an unsatisfactory description of their intents. What the poems do, perhaps, is translate a “perspective”—a way of starkly experiencing and processing our world, even being so marooned from it (“Today, I feel an alien. If I could disappear,” from “Contact”), or so indebted by it (“I owe everything money but all I have / is nightmares,” from “Forbearance”), even as that perspective is so overwhelmed by the world (“In the next yard / over, honeybees swarm / and their sound is huge,” from “The Current Isolationism”), or so in love with it (“Sometimes in the morning your hand / finds the dip in my side. For the moment / we’ll call it happiness,” from “Symptoms of Island”). And at no moment are the gaps needlessly disguised, the places where language might fail us prettied away, but rather we’re invited to see the poet trying to sing—to lay bare the notion that, in this world, we just may be “a language lost / owning nothing of ourselves” (from “We”). If for nothing else, you have to respect these poems of Camille Rankine, who so respects her readers, trusting in our intelligence that we will follow, that we will listen, negotiating our own journey in the process, and taking the leaps.
Rickey Laurentiis was raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the author of Boy with Thorn, winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Prize and the 2016 Levis Reading Prize, among other honors. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Camille Rankine’s first book of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, was published in January by Copper Canyon Press. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She serves as chair for the Executive Committee of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and the board of The Poetry Project, teaches at Columbia University, and lives in New York City.