A Review of Camille Rankine's Incorrect Merciful Impulses — January 17, 2016
by Christopher Nelson
A maxim among writers is that the first poem of a book should instruct the reader on how to navigate what follows; "Tender"—the powerful opening poem in Camille Rankine's first full-length collection—does that by establishing the tone, but it is the framing allusion in the title, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, that best informs one how to read these poems. Between 1979 and 1982 artist Jenny Holzer made brightly colored provocative posters and pasted them around New York City. She called them the Inflammatory Essays—page-long diatribes inspired by lines from political figures: Emma Goldman, Mao Tse-Tung, and Vladimir Lenin, for example. Rankine seems to have found inspiration and directive in the tenor of Holzer's essays, most specifically represented by the sentence: "Incorrect merciful impulses postpone the cleansing that precedes reform." The Holzer studio explains that these essays "invite the reader to consider the urgent necessity of social change … and the conditions that attend revolution." Behind Rankine's at-times confessional voice, roil these very urgencies. She writes, "The bullet holes in the walls / were stars and stars"; these lines come from a poem called "Always Bring Flowers," a command that leaves us aching from the ambiguous and multiple reasons we might need flowers: for courtship, for comforting the ill or injured, for saying farewell to the dead, or for beautifying a world we have defiled.
One of the many pleasures of Incorrect Merciful Impulses is the formal variety of these consistently brief lyrical poems: couplets and triplets conventionally punctuated; poems in parts; poems with the punctuation omitted, creating a less-certain syntax; and poems sort of shattered across the page, broken by intervening white space. This formal variety, however, does not make the book feel disunified; whether writing about personal love or history (the small or vast in scale), we are led by the same consistent voice that unerringly binds it all together.
And that voice is given to a speaker admittedly flawed, afraid, and damaged in matters of love, a speaker arguably emblematic of contemporary urban hearts, which "traffic in extinction." The lover is absent or present only in dreams, and when touch does come, the speaker scatters, "a flock of birds." It is in the failures of the heart that Rankine is most confessional and vulnerable; "I, like everything else, am a carcinogen," she writes, and "I am / a sickness. I want to give you more." She makes clear, by implication, that societal ills leach into the most intimate spaces of our personal lives, and the heart is relegated to "just keeping on / like a muscle."
But the strongest poems in the book are those that have overt political circumstances, like "Dry Harbor," about the conquest initiated by Christopher Columbus, and "We," suggestive of the protracted darknesses in the African-American experience. All of the poems, however,—the gorgeous and the despairing—rise out of history's miasma and never fully escape it. In "Symptoms of Prophecy" are the potent lines, "I called to say we have two lives / and only one of them is real." Many of the poems are titled "Symptoms of …"—of doctrine, of home, of sympathy, of optimism; "symptoms" because everything here is touched by a grand and far-reaching illness. That's not to say that these poems are without hope; in fact, the subtle promises and moments of hope both encourage the reader and, by power of contrast, make the darkness all the more compelling: "Tomorrow," Rankine writes, "the birds will come."
It is worth returning to Holzer's sentence from which Rankine's title comes: "Incorrect merciful impulses postpone the cleansing that precedes reform." One can read much into the tantalizing idea, and to do so would be to create a third text, neither Holzer's or Rankine's, but we would be remiss to not consider the explicit possibility in the title: that merciful impulses can be incorrect. By what rubric and in what circumstance that happens is left to the reader to determine, but the rationale is pretty clear: there are times when leniency and forgiveness are not the right course of action, when ruthlessness is more appropriate than pity. A remarkable quality of Rankine's voice is the elevation of confession above self-pity. She writes, "I should have told the truth, but / the truth is incomplete." Truthfulness is, of course, fraught—by semantics, subjectivity, literary history, and the general ambiguities of life—, but it is what makes a book of poems more than mere entertainment or exercises in language. With it Rankine fulfills the difficult and various charges given to poets: to invoke, to provoke, to yoke, to inspire, to instruct, to reveal—and, yes, to entertain.