“Bread is the main thing to understand: the staple of speculation, the food for all theories about what happens next. Fifteen years from now, on the day the Bastille falls, the price of bread will be at its highest in sixty years. Twenty years from now (when it is all over), a woman on the capital will say: ‘Under Robespierre, blood flowed, but the people had bread. Perhaps in order to have bread, it is necessary to spill a little blood.’”

Hilary Mantel, A Place of Greater Safety

A brilliant paragraph, and one that sets off a train of thought about how far the shortage of bread, the most basic staple, has been at the start of moments of political unrest the world over.

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“What happens formally in Citizen, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Plot is an obsessive circling of the subject. Many positions are inhabited relative to a line of enquiry. It’s like one of those mirrored rooms where the spectator sees the same thing repeated in different variations and from different angles.

“Didn’t feel it the first time? Here it is again. We don’t get there by saying it once. It’s not about telling the story, it’s about creating the feeling of knowing the story through the accumulation of the recurring moment.

Claudia Rankine interviewed in the Paris Review, Winter 2016.

Race and rage in Citizen by Claudia Rankine

This is a powerful reflection on the everyday experience of racism in contemporary America and it’s psychological and emotional impact.

At its core, I think, is the idea that daily acts of racism – sometimes subtle, sometimes less so – pervade interactions between people and these inevitably and understandably build up into occasional acts of rage by those who experience constant racial discrimination.

The subtle racism is highlighted through poetry, essays and short insightful vignettes covering everything from stop and search on the streets of Ferguson to professorial conversations at elite universities. 

One of the strongest pieces is a lyrical essay on Serena Williams who has experienced spoken and unspoken racism through her career, despite being perhaps the most successful ever female tennis player.

The essay is set against Zora Neal Hurston’s phrase: ‘I feel most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background.’ Tennis, surely the whitest sport there is, exemplifies the significance of this insight, as Rankin’s essay shows.

This sense of eruptions of rage is brought to life in a small section of quotes from the likes of Franz Fanon and Zinidan Zidan. The latter , a French Algerian, famously ended the final football match of his successful career by head butting another player after he made a racist insult about Zidan’s mother. In the context of Citizen, his action can be understood as an act of uncontrolled rage that appears occasionally among those who experience continuous racial discrimination.

Citizen is also a book that allows you to make connections to other things – to the concept of displacement in psychoanalysis, that of ressentiment in Nietzsche, as well as films about resistance to colonisation like the Battle of Algiers. And it makes you realise how art can reveal feelings that are hidden or misunderstood.

The missing protagonist at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues

An evocative story, Broke Heart Blue weaves the voices of countless upper class Americans together in a powerful tale of memory, perception and class.

The background to the plot is the early years of John Reddy Heart, a working class teenager from our of town and new to a well-off school in Willowsville in upstate New York. Adored by the girls for his rugged aloofness and admired by the boys for his manliness, he ends up shooting a man – Melvin Riggs – apparently after Riggs has a fall out with Reddy’s Mum, the beautiful and out of control Dhalia Heart. We subsequently learn that John Reddy was not responsible but takes the fall anyway in order to protect his family.

What’s interesting is how little John Reddy Heart is in it. The book is split into three parts. Part 1 is at high school and told through the eyes of various teenagers, first focusing on their lust for him, later the trial. Part 2 is twenty years later when John Reddy is trying to make his way as Mr Fix It, an odd-jobs person, and build a relationship with a young woman, Nola. And Part 3 is a 30 year reunion for the school, where the privileged kids of yesteryear reunite in a decadent party that is fuelled by alcohol and the lack of John Reddy a Heart.

Beyond the missing Heart, so to speak, the most striking feature of the book is the style. At no point is there a clear narrator but instead a range of interweaving voices and perspectives. The technique is at once gripping and difficult, and has the effect of reinforcing the subjective views on what’s happening and the impossibility of getting clarity. It’s all emotion, conjecture and desperation. Other than John Reddy there are no strong characters developed, despite this being a dense 500 page book.

In their youth, the mass of teenagers – Verrie Myers, Art Lutz, Kate Olmsted, Dwayne Hewson and countless others – are so in thrall to their passions that they can’t get a clear sense of what’s going on for John Reddy. He is living a difficult life with a neglectful mother, forced to be the grown up rather than her – but none of them ever appear to realise the gravity of the situation.
And thirty years later, at the reunion, their memories of school are idealised and often wrong. There are events they have completely rewritten, people forgotten – and John Reddy Heart looms large in their lives despite them not knowing him while at school or since.

They are, it seems, all successful white upper class Americans who were always destined to do well. Their love affair with John Reddy Heart represents a shallow infatuation with the working class and troubled life of John Reddy Heart which they appropriated for their own stories, entertainment and collective memories without ever thinking of his life. In this sense, John Reddy Heart is missing from the story both in the sense that he isn’t much part of the plot and in the sense that his thoughts, motives and life are never seen or understood by the other characters that place such significance in him.

The honest melancholy of Sian Hughes’s The Missing

This is poetry unadorned and raw. It hardly feels like you’re reading verse, so different is Sian Hughes’ collection The Missing from common views of poetry as flowery or difficult.

Rather than dealing in similes and metaphors, Hughes’ writing is direct, almost prose-like if it weren’t so effective. In just a few short lines of everyday language she can nail descriptions and encapsulate emotions.

Like the evocative Fireworks on Ward 4C, so vivid you can picture the scene and almost feel the disappointed desire and sadness in the room:

The lights are out in the playroom
where gathered at the windows
on flimsy metal legs a small crowd
of saline drips and monitors
send out quiet illuminations
in response to the distant trees.

Only the rockets reach us here.
A series of explosions at ground level
do no more than colour the sky dark green
as we wait for the next high-pitched yell
to descend into a whining thump
and a spray of pink and yellow stars.

The themes of the collection are around the death of a child, grief, soured and dysfunctional relationships. Many of the poems have glimmers of humour, but what is strongest throughout is an honest melancholy.

This, from the most famous poem in the collection, The Send-Off, for example, which documents the death of a baby:

No, you don’t need a bottle, cuddle,
special rabbit, teddy, bit of cloth.

You don’t even need to close your eyes.
They were born that way, sealed shut.

You are a hard lesson to learn,
soft though you are, and transparent.

There’s a mark on your forehead –
the simple flaw that separates
the living from the dead.

It looks like I dropped you downstairs.
I didn’t. I promise. It was like this:

somebody did some counting
and when they added you up

they found one part of you didn’t match.
It’s supposed to come out even.

You’re beautiful because you’re classically trained

I’m ugly because I associate piano wire with strangulation

You’re beautiful because you stop to read the cards in newsagents’ windows about lost cats and missing dogs

I’m ugly because of what I did to that jellyfish with a lolly stick and a big stone

– Simon Armitage, You’re Beautiful

Just a brilliant opening to an entertaining, honest and acccurate poem.