Arielle C. Greenberg


Claudia Rankine
Grove Press Poetry Series
$13.00 / 80 pages / ISBN 080213792

Plot, Claudia Rankine's third collection of poetry, does indeed have one. The book is divided into nine sections and an afterword which directly correspond to the nine months of pregnancy: in this case, the first pregnancy of an artist named Liv and her husband Erland, the pregnancy which will produce a boy his parents refer to in utero as Ersatz. The fact that the child is named after artificiality gives a strong sense of the book's playful and philosophical meanderings, its concern with the existential questions (Is the separate being growing inside of me part of myself? What is my self now that it contains another? Have I become a part of the child?) that new mothers face.

Rankine is a sophisticated and innovative writer whose intelligence is in evidence on every page, and Plot bears a definite resemblance to her previous books in its use of multiple voices, allusions to other avant-garde writers (in Plot, both Virginia Woolf and Lyn Hejinian), and varied experiments in form. Plot can be sometimes dense reading, but it is helpful to keep the chronology of a pregnancy in mind, so that one understands that the doubt of the first few months ("If the floor muscle gives way, bitter and fibrous, and the bluing cervix turns shades of gray, who will be no more than a moan, little person about whom?") gives way to the preoccupation with the changed body in the second trimester ("A reflection unclotted (she decides) is a low-zippered hue, a bare midriff against the newly dug slow surge") and the urge to know what's coming next, the impatience and distraction ("enormous stillness hum of the hot-water heater trace of a siren" ) as one approaches the due date. The afterword, which is written in the voice of the newborn, is slightly less successful, an ambitious but ultimately anti-climactic (!) postscript.

A fragmented style pervades the book, and although it often yields up truly exciting syntactical dislocations and rich juxtapositions jumping with aural rhythm—"Ideally (so already never) what they desired, sired, is a love that would flood everyday fears communicable: each broken step, open depth, blackened call, searing grasp, oh ruined cell"—it also serves as a means of distancing the character Liv, the reader, and Rankine herself from this compelling and most human subject matter. In one sense, the fragmentation feels appropriate to the harried state of an expectant mother's mind, but I am a reader who is very interested in non-linear poetry, and I found myself wanting more of the plot, the story. I was therefore deeply charmed and satisfied when Rankine slips into an extremely earthy and straightforward narrative, which is often presented as dialogue between Liv and Erland, as in this section from the fourth month:

About the pregnancy...should we tell the parents?
You mean before they tell us? Maybe they'll think I've had breast implants.
Which reminds me, will the baby be your only customer?
I always suspected you were the type to take milk out of the mouths of babes.
The lowliness of my tongue confesseth...
Augustine. Saint.

Rankine shows restraint: this kind of passage only happens sporadically, but when it happens, it offers a kind of emotionality and directness that complements the more abstract poems and endears us to the couple and their circumstance. I was grateful for this eclecticism: I think it's a book which is meant to be read more or less cover-to-cover, and the varied styles make for a compelling read. I teach contemporary literature to first-year college students, and I wager that Plot would make a superb classroom introduction to the kinds of innovative writing currently happening in American poetry. Rankine is certainly among the most talented younger poets writing today, and this collection—with its important and relevant story, mastery of linguistic art, and inventive experiments—is as suitable for students of poetry as it is for bedside reading, to be kept on top of the literary pregnant woman's copy of What to Expect When You're Expecting.



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