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Incorrect Merciful Impulses

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"A poet to watch."— O Magazine "I tell the truth, but I try to be kind about it."—Camille Rankine in 12 Questions Named "a poet to watch" by O Magazine , Camille Rankine's debut collection is a series of provocations and explorations. Rankine's short, lyric poems are sharp, agonized, and exquisite, exploring themes of doubt and identity. The collection's sense of continuity and coherence comes through recurring poem types, including "still lifes," "instructions," and "symptoms." From "Symptoms of Aftermath": …When I am saved, a slim nurse
leans out of the white light. I need
to hear your voice, sweetheart. I see
my escape. I walk into the water.
The sky is blue like the ocean,
which is blue like the sky. Camille Rankine is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire , selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America's Chapbook Fellowship. The recipient of a 2010 "Discovery" / Boston Review Poetry Prize and a MacDowell fellowship, her poetry appears in Boston Review , Denver Quarterly , Tin House , and other publications. Currently, she is assistant director of the MFA program in creative writing at Manhattanville College and lives in Harlem.

80 pages, Paperback

First published September 8, 2015

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Camille Rankine

4 books15 followers

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5 stars
138 (40%)
4 stars
120 (35%)
3 stars
64 (18%)
2 stars
15 (4%)
1 star
4 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 52 reviews
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,766 followers
December 19, 2015
I read each of these poems aloud. There was no other way to do it. The rhythm of Rankine's lines, the urgency of her stanzas, demand to be listened to as much as read. My throat, tongue, mouth, lips felt the meaning at least as much as my brain.

In the half-light, I am most
at home, my shadow
as company.

When I feel hot, I push a button
to make it stop.I mean this stain on my mind
I can't get out. How human

I seem. Like modern man,
I traffic in extinction. I have a gift.
Like an animal, I sustain.
From The Current Isolationism

There is very little of the literal in Rankine's debut collection; instead, quiet, keening allegory and dreamlike-imagery push politics and love and body and broken soul through thin ice into the air to be snatched like smoke. She writes often of loneliness and of love, which are inseparable conditions, aren't they?
I am dirt
and all the nights that keep ending like this:
I return from the party, my life is smoke,
I fall asleep trying to seduce you.
From Wilt

Rankine presents a range of poetic structures, from numbered lists to tercets to free verse that ranges over the page, sometimes like the unchecked rush of a waterfall, sometimes like the painted stripes on a highway that keep you in your lane. But always, ever-present, is the lucid and luminous prose that rings like a clarion.

Dear night: It was so warm
under you that I offered
but you refused

to endure
From Vespertine

Here is what a broken heart feels like:
I turn to you to find
there is no you,
which means it's morning

and I will fail
at everything today.
From Wake

Incorrect Merciful Impulses was a chance find at a Copper Canyon Press poetry reading of Pablo Neruda's forthcoming Lost Poems. An impulse purchase. A correct and merciful one.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,165 reviews709 followers
January 21, 2022
so I may be replaced
by a machine  which in its violence  behaves
more like me
     the longer you live  the more these lies
     come alive
so the past splits in two:
     one stays in the past and dies
one past shape-shifts  walks with you.
Profile Image for Leah.
23 reviews3 followers
January 26, 2016
I've been waiting for this book since I stumbled across Rankine's poetry in A Public Space and Gulf Coast last year. She has a way about her. A book to return to, to ask "how does she do it" and remain mystified. There's a certain unfolding of language, a curious arrangement of syntax to envy. Pages as brilliant as the title and cover design. I wish it went on and on.
Profile Image for Meg E..
Author 4 books8 followers
February 27, 2018
One of the best collections I've ever read. Rankine is flawless and startling in her choices of world building. Her titles and forms only further the perfection of each image and twist of humor. Rankine is pearl-handled death delivering precise and staggering landscapes that will stun you each and every time. A legend.
Profile Image for Sean Flynn.
20 reviews1 follower
June 14, 2020
Yes, these poems have to be read aloud. But I think that a book, or other piece of art, has to allow the reader their own interpretative capacity. So, I wouldn’t necessarily subscribe to the school that says I am not permitted to read poetry any way I like. And I think that robbed the enjoyment of the poetry from me. Not to mention that Rankine’s style is quite Plathian, with the added layer of deliberate obscureness, making reading her book a mountain. There were a few poems I did like that I felt didn’t give me this feeling, but not enough that would merit any redemption for me. 2 stars
Profile Image for Chris Roberts.
Author 1 book46 followers
December 27, 2017
I have twisted art
and sculpted love away from the heart.

Chris Roberts, God Unvanquished
Profile Image for Molly.
86 reviews4 followers
February 7, 2016
Camille Rankine’s poems are smooth and lyrical. She successfully strikes a balance between abstraction and realism, making the poems approachable yet deep. An image grounds the reader on the first read, and abstractions invite second, third, fourth reads. I enjoyed this style, as I sometimes find poetry collections difficult to read. Rankine speaks on a range of human experiences, from student debt, black history, the oppression of women, and optimism.
My favorite lines come from the poem “Failed Human Experiment:”
“You are lovely the way a wall is / ten feet tall.”
“I’m only crabgrass / green, after all, / experiencing things.”
Profile Image for Heather Lake.
25 reviews
January 14, 2018
I enjoyed this collection quite a lot, but I did find the poems to be too distant and vague at times, and wished I could feel the author’s particular experiences more clearly. Maybe this is just more of a stylistic preference than a critique though?

I don’t need the experiences of the author spelled out per say, but upon finishing a poetry collection I do like to feel as if I’d connected with the author, or understand them to some degree. I didn’t really get that as much as I’d like with this book.
Profile Image for Jerrod.
177 reviews13 followers
March 2, 2016
Life as an existential mystery, where death is around the corner, giving narrative to the room.

These are shadowy poems in the sense that they trace the outlines of things and play with the ephemerality of experience.

Rankine makes deft use of line breaks, and carefully allows themes, ideas and perspectives to bleed into, collide, and erode one another.

A really great debut that shows a sense of history buried in the body.
Profile Image for Larisa.
33 reviews5 followers
May 1, 2016
This book is insanely beautiful. I can't recommend it enough.
March 24, 2022
Like many other reviewers on this site, I think Rankine’s titles are incredible, and I wish the poems themselves maintained the same specificity of language. Instead, the individual poems often felt amorphous, and the language was so broad that it often undermined the content.

This may be a matter of personal taste, but at its best, poetry often communicates a memory, whether real or imagined—it’s a shared subjectivity. Within these poems, I never found that. Rankine is obscured by the language, but it rarely reveals anything else.

That said, there was one beautiful set of lines from “Symptoms of Doctrine,” and it felt revelatory of the book's shortcomings:

In all my memories, a story
keeps being rewritten. I am just trying
to be merciful. Is that honesty?

In the end, it feels like Rankine’s “Incorrect Merciful Impulses” protect both the reader and herself, and the result is an oddly detached body of work.
Profile Image for nazahah.
140 reviews13 followers
March 26, 2023
i don’t know if i liked this collection of poetry. i don’t think this is the type of poetry i usually read so that could be why i felt i didn’t connect much with the authors experiences. i didn’t particularly like the writing style either but some of the poems were thought provoking and i appreciated the authors use of imagery. the themes in this book were very unique in my opinion, i’ve never quite read anything like this before. i really don’t have much else to say about this (interesting? boring? fascinating? weird?) poetry book. in conclusion: head currently empty.

the poems that stuck out to me:
- Symptoms of Prophecy
- Dear Enemy:
- Necessity Defense of Institutional Memory
- On the Motion of Animals
- Still Life with Copernicus & Hypnophobia
- Vespertine
- The Problem of Death Within Life
- Contact
- Wake
- The Increasing Frequency of Black Swans
- Symptoms of Doctrine
- Possession
- Matter in Retreat
- Genealogy
Profile Image for Lex.
406 reviews8 followers
July 25, 2020
Sometimes in the morning your hand finds the dip in my side. For the moment we'll call it happiness.

You didn't want to hate the living, you just wanted it to snow

Dear night: It was so warm under you that I offered but you refused to endure. You won't remember me. (We danced. I was the one in the dark. I was wearing this face.)

Mercy, unpoison me and tell me what for. I'm only crabgrass green, after all, experiencing things.

I never knew where to put my hands when she laughed.

I engulf with an affection from a chasm in my gut, a sweet trapdoor, a heartshaped hole, a pretty well that threatens to swallow me up.

A flock of birds when touched, I scatter.

I am not good, I do not strive for it.

I see my escape. I walk into the water. The sky is blue like the ocean, which is blue like the sky.
Profile Image for Marjorie.
202 reviews
August 6, 2018
This book needs to be more known, needs to be more popular and more read than all those new tumblr/instagram poetry anthologies.
What Rankine is writing here truly is arresting, thought provoking poetry that is hiding so many things, weaving so many threads and stories and secrets in the layout and the word choices and the verses that you'll definitely want to read this again and again to gain even a glimpse of what she might mean.

The style is arresting and beautiful, the imagery vivid and true, the "vibe" mysterious and lingering like smoke on water, like driving through fog at night.

I loved this and I will be seeking out other works by her.
Profile Image for Melissa.
741 reviews15 followers
May 2, 2018
Poetry is so subjective. Whether you'll like it depends on you. This collections covers a wide array of issues from love, to trauma, to reality.


"The grief is a planet. A dust ring.
A small moon that's been hidden
under my pillow, that's been changing
the way my body moves this whole time."

"To what degree is this imaginary: life,
imaginary hours parceled out in morsels,
each minute sifted half in one eye, half
lifted in the wind. In this way, one day
stumbles to the next, skinless and inexact."

Personally, I found this poetry better read aloud.
Profile Image for Courtney LeBlanc.
Author 13 books61 followers
July 14, 2021
I had a hard time connecting with these poems and sometimes didn't know what they were about.

from Ex Machina: "we have come too far / to turn away from this // kernel that shapes / us into other / than animal or just // animal enough / to breed and break"

from On the Motion of Animals: "I am trying to tell you / something but my mouth / won't move // I want to hold you / but it comes all wrong / I am marooned // in this body"

from Contact: "I gather / my spit and sweat and sorrow beneath my raincoat. / I make a blanket of all the letters / no one writes anymore."
29 reviews
April 30, 2019
I mean, I already hate poetry and having to read things for class, but this was just miserable. Vague, pointless. I have no sympathy or empathy. Reading poetry is truly a practice in torture for me, and I hate that I have to try and interpret some wishy washy words of a woman I don't know nor care to know. This book has no substance or thought and would rather remain at an arm's length with the reader than say anything important. An absolute bore and waste of my money.
Profile Image for Joanie Zosike.
42 reviews2 followers
November 13, 2016
Sparse, elegant, intelligent. This is the writing of a young woman who knows her craft and can sculpt on a page. Hers is a serious palate that makes its pronouncements with authority far beyond her years, at the same time without didacticism or arrogance. It's a lovely book well worth reading, and I look forward to see more of her work forthcoming.
Profile Image for Rick.
778 reviews2 followers
March 4, 2017
Camille Rankine’s first collection of poems came out last fall in the nick of time. Along with the music of Leonard Cohen, it has been with me particularly since the election and into the new year of Trump’s Bizzaro America. Not that Rankine’s work is specifically political or had anything to do with Trump. These remarkable poems have a timelessness and a calculated ambiguity that decouples the work from any specific moment or circumstance without ever undermining their applicability to any specific moment or circumstance. “Dear patriot / Dead catastrophe / None of this means what we thought it did.” Some of it is direct, but most is allusive, suggestive, seed planting. Even the direct can be misleading: “I’m telling you,” she writes in a poem called Little Children, My Apologies, “I have no power here. I’m just a dummy swaddled / in worry and want.”

But the collection speaks with authority, even in its worry and want. Writing of the sorrow that accompanies events that are not as rare as they are supposed to be: “The grief is a planet. A dust ring. / A small moon that’s been hidden / under my pillow, that’s been changing / the way my body moves this whole time.” The allusive lines and poems ring true even as we struggle to make full sense of them. “I am just trying to be honest. / Like the door and its squeak,” she writes in a poem called Symptoms of Doctrine, concluding the poem with “In all my memories, a story / keeps being rewritten. I am just trying / to be merciful. Is that honesty?” Seven other poems have titles that begin “Symptoms of…” as if prophecy, island, sympathy, prey, optimism, aftermath, doctrine and home were all conditions to be diagnosed and remedied.

The book’s title, Incorrect Merciful Impulse, comes from a Jenny Holzer work called “15 Inflammatory Essays” The three words begin one of the very dogmatic declarations in this particular Inflammatory Essay, which reads “INCORRECT MERCIFUL IMPULSES POSTPONE THE CLEANSING THAT PRECEDES REFORM.” The naked certainty, the masked malevolence, the faux call for action without heart or soul exposed by Holzer is countered in Rankine’s poetry with humanity, our fragility, our doubts, our need for each other regardless of how poorly we treat ourselves and others. It is a poetry, despite its confessions of weakness and uncertainty, of strength and daring; her poems, bell-like, ring their alarms, their call to worship, to confess, to commune, to find love, mercy, home.
Profile Image for Scarlet.
72 reviews8 followers
December 18, 2017
Before we could beautify our death
it was a white noise in my head, underwater-

red. The bullet holes in the walls
were stars and stars.

A fantastic debut collection. Elegant writing and thought-provoking content.

I sadly couldn't connect with every poem, but this doesn't make me less excited for Rankine's future work!
Profile Image for Robin.
791 reviews3 followers
April 13, 2019
While undoubtedly a masterfully crafted collection of poems, it doesn't necessarily fall into the style of poetry I gravitate towards; there were many poems in which the meanings and messages felt too withheld, too hidden behind aphorisms or imagery.

There were other poems, though, that absolutely bowled me over. But this collection was, admittedly, somewhat of a mixed bag for me.
Profile Image for Jeremy.
63 reviews6 followers
May 15, 2022
"Systems of Prophecy" / "Dear Enemy:" / "History" / "Contact" / "The Current Isolationism" / "Wake" / "The Increasing Frequency of Black Swans" / "Symptoms of Doctrine" / "Instructions for the Forest"
Profile Image for Elidiot.
30 reviews
November 14, 2022
"« I want to
know you I think
I could

love you like you
probably should
be loved but my love

is a fish
in the wrong
kind of water

where I want
to hold you but
there’s someone else »

Profile Image for Jenny.
1,021 reviews7 followers
March 20, 2023
I don't know, I keep trying to read poetry, but I think it's not always for me. The only poem I could really say I enjoyed in this collection was the one that was a metaphor using the imagery of a pinata. I think I am just too literal for poetry.
Profile Image for sam..
56 reviews4 followers
May 4, 2017
- Dear Enemy
- Symptoms of Island
- Fireblight
- Contact
- Possession
- Lament for the living
Displaying 1 - 30 of 52 reviews

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