With a new introduction by Calvin Bedient
Claudia Rankine’s second poetry collection, The End of the Alphabet , is an inquiry into despair and recovery, selfhood and alienation. Centered on a heroine named Jane, these poemsobsessive, intrepid, eroticspeak in the aftermath of a life-altering tragedy, attempting to make peace with loss and find redemption through mourning. Rankine writes with unflinching attention to exterior detail and emotional nuance, as well as with linguistic and formal innovation, crafting an extraordinarily powerful, utterly unique portrait of sorrow and strength.
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About the Author
Claudia Rankine is the author of five books of poetry, including Citizen: An American Lyric , which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and teaches at Pomona College.
Read an Excerpt
Overview is a place
* * *
Difficult to pinpoint
fear of self, uncoiled.
specter unstrung. staggering stampede. Which sung? left the body open for the moon to break into,
Give a thought, Jane: Did filth begin in conversation? drag the mood through before escaping the ugliness. Not to
dwell on but overhear footsteps again approaching: immured,
not immune, then dumdum
bullet templed. rip the mind out. go ahead.
* * *
Dawn will clear though the night rains so hard. Rain
and Jane mix and mixing up, thinking shore but hugging floor.
What Jane must substitute for this year's substitute for a mind intact? fire?
its greediness egged on, flame after flame uninvolved but still fueling the shifting onslaught.
Gray Jane emphasize otherwise, not the eyes but the cheek to the pillow. Bundle up and sweep
bare the mind. Land its ooze at some other gate, soften dead wood. Sea smoke, drizzle, distance. The moment
of elucidation snipped its tongue, its mouth water dried out —
* * *
Remember a future from another dream and hold on. open your mouth
close to your ear: fear in sanity lives. anatomy as dissonance,
vertebral breaking. In spite of yourself.
rising, the mercury
reaching out to fever. fire. all your civilized sense, Jane. disabled.
* * *
Assurance collapses naturally as if each word were a dozen rare birds flown away. And gone
elsewhere is their guaranteed landing though the orphaned wish to be happy was never withdrawn.
Do not face assault uncoiled as loss,
as something turned down: request or sheet. Pray to the dear earth, Jane, always freshly turned,
pull the covers overhead and give and take the easier piece.
to piece the mind.
to gather on tiptoe. Having lost somewhere, without a name to call, help yourself. all I want.
Elsewhere, things tend
* * *
Viewed in this way,
... her voice at any distance cannot be heavier than her eyes. Listen, among the missing is what interrupts, stops her short far from here in ways that break to splinter.
Until the sense that put her here is forced to look before remembering the towel that wiped sweat and wet face and dust from each mirror:
she cleans her glasses with that. So in the end is this defeat?
She thinks in it we are as washed-out road, as burnt-down, ash.
Dismiss the air and after her gesture, there,
the thrown off —
* * *
This then is —
It remains as dusk with the hour, feeling looted in the body
though every shadow is accounted for.
Who to tell, I am nothing and without you,
when good comes, every hand in greeting. There is no reasoning with need.
I coach myself, speak to my open mouth,
but whatever abandons, whatever leaves me sick,
a rock in each hand, on the shoulder of some road,
its nights unmediated, its dogs expected,
knows its nakedness unseduced:
(cruelty that stays, cut loose
— its voice keeps on,
meaning empty, the mood reproachful, faint. Don't think.
Don't argue. Surfaced again: This plummeting, pulled back, sudden no —
which cannot be given up as though one never hears back,
as though all the seats are taken. This
— drawn out of bounds without advantage and knowing, my God, what is probable is
this coming to the end, not desperate for, not enraged.
At first, embarrassed, lumbering beneath the formal poses,
the well-cuffed, the combed hairs, the could-not-be-faulted statement of ease, though utterly and depleted, closing the door behind, for in
this, the distance — wanting and the body losing, all the time losing, beforehand, inside.
* * *
each gesture offering a hand to the atmosphere, like a wave,
until it's realized the one I'm waving to can't see me anymore.
Or is it my back turned? Me who leaves?
If I remind myself all of us weep, wake, whisper in the same dark, and the sudden footfall or the longer silence separates us beyond each locked door, I am returned only to my own. And am reluctant to complain as if exaggerated is the high water, as if it didn't swallow thousands,
these fossils, this bone, as if between us are not many extremes: the taste of blood in our mouths though the blows are seldom physical. What I wish to communicate is that it can be too late: this life offering sorrow as voice, leaving nothing to shadow. I want to say, a life can take a life away.
* * *
As if I craved error, as if love were ahistorical,
I came to live in a country not at first my own and here came to love a man not stopped by reticence.
And because it seemed right love of this man would look like freedom,
the lone expanse of his back would be found land, I turned,
as a brown field turns, suddenly grown green,
for this was the marriage waited for: the man desiring as I, movement toward mindful and yet.
It was June, brilliant. The sun higher than God.
* * *
In this bed, a man on his back, his eyes graying blue.
It is hurricane season. Sparrows flying in, out the wind.
His lips receiving. He is a shore. The Atlantic rushing.
Clouds opening in the late June storm. This,
as before, in the embrace that takes all my heart.
Imagine his unshaven face, his untrimmed nails, as all
the hurt this world could give.
* * *
Gnaw. Zigzag. The end of the alphabet buckling floors.
How to come up?
The blue-crown motmot cannot negotiate narrow branches,
but then her wings give way, betray struggle,
intention broken off in puffy cumulus.
I wished him inside again.
Touched him. Feathery was the refusal,
drawing together what thirsts. His whole self holding me in,
we slept on the edge of overrunning
* * *
with parakeets nesting in porch lights and dying hibiscus covering the ground.
(a dry season choked in dust, etched cracks in dirt roads,
children down from the hills in the sweat of night
to steal water.
Plastic containers in those hands,
over the gate to my house. I lie here, my head on the prime minister's belly, listening: urgency swallowed by worried stillness
enveloped again by movement, before, finally,
the outside tap turns tentatively on —
* * *
Lower the lids and the mind swims out into what is not madness, and still the body
against such flooding hurled through the dull and certain dawn.
You, you are defeat composed.
The atmosphere crippled brings you to your knees. You are again where we find ourselves dragged.
Your hand, that vagary in shadow.
So soon you were distanced from error. Nakedness boiled down to gray days: hair in the drain, dead skin dunning shower water. The morning cannot
be picked through, not be sorted out. Clearly, you know,
so say, This earth untouched is ruptured enough to grieve.
* * *
Who distributes the live or die after juice is refused, the egg is fried?
Faced with its staggering number of runny noses the day begins, begins again, talks above the motor left running.
Then I pay what I am asked to pay to enter the kiss,
the low bow that does not touch the forehead to a scatter of needles
because the dove never comes when the distance from wreckage to shore is rimmed with yearning
suggesting once upon a time, our addiction to telling,
is all effort to shape what surfaces within the sane.
* * *
Ignore your own devastation and it doggedly shadows, resurfacing across the first version, the flat world, forcing you within the real conversation you hold with yourself.
If abandoned rage asks, Who should answer for this?
Say, the very blood of our lives eats composure up.
Or milk on the tongue tasted rude, unfortunate. And hunger
awoke as human. On all sides, riddled. Broken and broke against. Inside, by earlier years, shook.
I am remembering the hours lived in, steep steps angled, and the going up and down burdened before the certain hand went out, pushed —
if only —
or to go again, doing nothing to stop hurt releasing a body out. We live through, survive
without regard for the self. Forgiving each day insisting it be forgiven, thinking
our lives umbilical, tied up with living with how far we can enter into hell and still sit down for Sunday dinner.
* * *
Inconsolable outdoorness of the heart
and the self — not to bridge that — with limbs vexed,
irises fretting the skinniest of hopes, out of wall cracks, upended intestines, these organs, this imageless throat, much more than mud
locked together, microscopic genes, freezing surface of spleen,
crush of leaves beneath until the fragmented shadow readjusts, until who I am differs. Then to pray from this body,
waiting — Dear, heart, you break in two. You do not break into.
* * *
dukes up, duel or duck, beat on,
or laughter: swollen, leaking in to appeal, To die.
For in the hysteria, craven.
To the life loved: I have given my hand, my word:
solemn, the oath. And yet, still here, I am cringing into or tipped in the bone: no cushion here.
And the next minute with no clear word to speak and sore-shouldered,
feeling foolishly subdued,
I do not say (not yet,
not quite), Reasoned out — Telephoned,
I'll meet the party: dulcet is the Dubonnet
and yet the face cannot turn to turn the blind eye,
so monstrous is the stretch across this cloudy spot on the cornea.
The resolution: to outride, outride: (what the blues pull in. And in,
I don't know, I arrived unprepared for the lobed, dark-grayed matter of "wearisome" and cannot weep so cannot wake scaled-back,
calm, outside the mirror.
* * *
as if anguishing should be excrement:
a flabby stink unbandaged left out overnight:
as if anguishing should be seeping intrusion hacked into:
as if anguishing:
* * *
The plunging. This time complex neckline. This time phlegmatic clavicle unburied —
which is a complicated situation.
His bibulous baby pulls her knees in.
When she gets to be happy she is happy, but every smile this time is a transaction —
fluey, bluesy, she is, she isn't.
Any other night he would have wanted to bed her, his red carpet runaway,
his simper silly —
black mascaraed down to her ankle,
over the counter comes (wink wink)
points of upturned lip. crow's-feet embellishing the split eye.
roll away the nonsense. crumple.
cancel the flaming hoop.
feel sorry don't.
take out the bathwater (slippery
the floor). sit down the long while.
* * *
(mosquitoes abundant. limit of white wall. stray thread. this tendency to worsen. the lowest throw at dice. the smallest amount. no subtleties. no who calls through the door. far from. skin enclosing. low-slung treachery. threat of. giving thirst back to the table. drawn breath holding. the shut eye.
A she collapsing. some possible. some coherence unfastened. nothing acceptable. nothing stitched together:
one mind but that mind cannot —
______________as if the world, extrinsic, were methodically the wrong fountain, the one where water is stagnant, the drainage blocked by nature's things: leaves, moss, dirt the wind put here:
I apologize, but I do not apologize.
* * *
(to sit next to the self.
to wait. the chair next to the bed.
to wait. and not for this.
to wait. so, naturally in some wish working the way a grin does, stupidly
in the before. the after. and before. October, a dull red.
on the way to. a morning's incoherence. all teeth and gum.
as the smell of fire lingers without warmth. the fact imprisoned in wrong mind.
in plain sight. circling the light like moths. like ashes.
to wait. in the way of.
to wait. either way. waiting.
* * *
And like the ones who can see what the day sees but cannot hold its vision in destiny, I understand and the agility to understand makes no difference:
there is this about me: I feel bad
as if grief needs to be and is in the end, anyway.
* * *
The tongue is a muscle simply strolling along.
Crumbling is a neck bone as some distress that called itself flame burnt a life down, and rude was the laughter lodged in whose throat?
Tongue, tasting of rue, added:
Or on its own a mouthful of muddy water you can swallow.
One comes to this place of being born — here is necessary.
Hear its sorrow. Always again, its beauty in your eyes.
In the tone you pity.
Day sky responded:
Some lift their arms, feel remorse in their knees, candle after candle lit and all the weeping with its straightforward face —
to benefit doubt —
Unhyphen the self from the part that cannot leave the cruelty of this. For it is better to curse, Shut up, Shut up, before understanding sets in.
Hunger to the table
* * *
Though we occupied our regular seats, the tolling of the tower's hand unlit the skylight's blue: night sky before the shade. Two feet away the thickened bones of the street. The soaring traffic sung very badly to prove we owned some part in it.
Across, he, who was tossing earlier, hurled into the talk,
the talk, the talk, and what?
about the starving ... Give nothing? All of you, your kind, hold your doubts: on thinking back, on truth, on distribution, the famine, the drought.
On the linoleum floor,
prefixed, I detach myself. Stir out of solution to the next place, just below. Un generous, holding the tongue. To sense like scent his uneven equation, the width of the gustatory taste bud and some small mouth, 100,000
nanometers empty. In the same eye the linoleum we occupy,
square after square.
And easy it is, the wording of, Can't grasp. Not there. Inherent indeterminacy. And the nodding. Smuggled from: Safeway.
Stalemate. But I have stood within. A hunger sinking into. Nothing stops. And the feeling: Bound less. Could say: A hand. Could say: Needed. Close in on humanistic regard. Then the waiter wanted.
We ordered two two-lb. snappers.
The very elite, the very fine, most costly sent four one-lb. snappers. Ragged bottom to our rushing hunger without vision of the casting down.
* * *
Even today, after,
coldness in the flesh wakes the loneliness of him,
calls such contorts of want to his gut —
the thrust, a block of ice too thick to be, yet dragging up within man's desire to look around, to know physically
she will touch him, she will turn toward, wake up into from her own herculean expression of sadness.
(At last, then, are all the ways the hands stay involved:
weightless, lost word of love on the hardening nipple,
unburdened between the thighs as touch echoes, after all,
you. His hand urging out of her deep surrender what on its own could not. How he holds her holds him down.
(All the way through it is finally, then, that fear in the breath of the breath swept out, lost to dawn, loosened by the other's sleeping arms, bodies adrift until the space between them asks, How wide this?
* * *
A turned ankle is its own consequence. She hops about, then caught on the sofa waiting for the swelling to go down is reminded we move among others to fall from ourselves, windswept, having a liking for laughter but the ridiculousness of falling off one's own heels. What was being viewed from up there? The mind varies so, then the tripping up; for the foot, not steadiness, is at the same time as the mind running about in downpour. Outside the bathroom, moments before, having just pulled her panty and his underpants out from where the lump detracted from tightly tucked bedsheets, she, in that place which proves as she holds in her hands the closest mingling of them, scent sweetly wading across the mouth of love, comes about in this remembering and is reminded, the ankle throbbing, lying there. And so, knowing again remarkably, after all, you, she, finding the glass of water between the legs of the sofa, is moved to respond like any woman collecting rainwater to stay alive.
* * *
Nearer the open hydrants of summer to arrive flung. sung. sweat stains tossed aside: all effort past forgotten:
tension of whether forgiven as the unclothed if disciplined body releases as it wraps its legs around: closure rewarding and sustained and thigh-high.
* * *
Don't ask to be told x to y in time or eternity.
Passage bleeds between the hammering breath and flesh. Sweetness mumbled is the voice nice. Just as the lips open open the eyes.
Extent and root of
* * *
As each syllable leaves these lips as touch, feel how onerous
— always a draft touching, its embrace the dream awake chilling distance
and the body feeling it first as desire —
the just sound of lovers in a sureness of love without the love, oh, yearned-for thing, never without —
The same chill already resembling how the ocean feels though one flies over
gray voice of the open mouth,
each wave blown apart. So sullen each attempt —
until she who doesn't want, but having need, tries
to land somewhere without giving in; giving no expression and haunted at center, haunted at heart, without forgiveness in this atmosphere of —
Think of me somewhere dumb, open corridor into —
whispering, okay, okay.
and afraid. alone and not. afraid with no more room. falling into nowhere else —
* * *
(ripped out night, your core untranslatable. preverbal, paralyzed, out-of-place syllable outcried. tacked up sequences of daylight. distrusted though crossed over, miscounted wanting. fist in mind. damage in touch. age that broke and broke the fear up. other ache doubled over, occupied. echo smuggled in. rumored, dehydrated sweet. bound with twine, lost with shrug. course of dustiness revealed.
just the girl breathless and in her way against him, saying, Love, I love you.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The End of the Alphabet"
Copyright © 1998 Claudia Rankine.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Overview is a place,
Elsewhere, things tend,
Hunger to the table,
Extent and root of,
Residual in the hour,
Where is the sea?,
Cast away moan,
In this sense, beyond,
What People are Saying About This
A fiercely gifted young poet....She knows when to bless and to curse...[and] makes you hopeful for American poetry.