This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Heather Christle features three poems by Camille Rankine. About Rankine’s work, Christle writes: “In this group of urgent, haunted, determined poems, a young poet asks us to consider what a country is, ‘what category of disaster.’ Turning received phrases inside out, or against themselves, or spiraled through linebreaks and caesuras, Rankine arranges words into a necessary document of this particular moment in our nation’s history, our many failures, the ‘armed voices’ and open mouths of those whose bodies are permitted to survive. I’m grateful that Rankine’s voice sings here, fierce and rough and clear.”


Horror Vacui

I look into the air       it presses on me
       a gale knocking        
at my chest my paltry
       bag of hungers and dubiety        I want
for wonder for anything

to say       to ask a question
       of an empty room and a ghost
in the doorway mouths
       something about change
but everything is static

or I am the ghost       and without question
       the room crowds me out the whole room
runs right through me      
       I am transfixed       I stack my slip of skin
against the atmosphere

I can’t contain myself        but I can only
       see so far       I lift
my face to the dark and the dark
       fills me       because I am small and it is night
I make shapes of the stars


E Pluribus Unum

by the glow of our equality I keep myself inside and when the sun
descends I descend and furtive in the dark I take
my difference for a walk

a woman stands before me with an open mouth as if to speak
I fix my face into position something kin to understanding
I have settled all my awe and weary at our living into

if it’s all the same I say I reach my hand into the darkened day
as a woman turns her open mouth
closed and far away

and looking up we watch the kingdom on the hilltop
shift to rearrange and all the same
parts click and lock into their place

I move toward the living after all the only ones still here
for which I stand or rather have considered amity
and how much of a man am I what fraction

of me is mine and what belongs to a pattern
repeated endlessly I do not want to be afraid
I have decided I am not

afraid and in this hopeful state I call out to the living
we have been cleansed word has come down
from the hilltop we are one

people so we put our differences aside and quiet
our single mind we rest against the dark and let our eyes
adjust accordingly


The Great Dying

this is what happens:     the sky
provides     the ground opens     one day

swallows a man entire     the smoke
lifts     the citizens gathering

on the hilltop    the citizens consume
the scene     a nation

cheers     a nation mourns     this
is what happens:     a woman hangs

her head     a good citizen
an exhibition     a woman

moving in the wrong
body     quick

combustion     each voice armed
and at the ready     each heart

moving      just keeping on
like a muscle     what is

a country     what category of disaster
this is what happens:     the sky

where we imagine
tumult just is     it is

the end     we seek
shelter     we are good

citizens     we shut up
our eyes     for so long

we wait and wait
the room grows     smaller

the sea     rises up
to meet us 


Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).