Seething Salad: How Alliteration Helps Establish Tone in “A Woman You Do Not Know”

Claudia Rankine’s poem “A Woman You Do Not Know,” as part of her 2014 poetry collection Citizen, covers an uncomfortable lunch meeting between two women, one of color and one not, who had once attended the same college.  The white woman mentions her son did not get accepted into their school on account of affirmative action or “minority something,” but is instead attending another prestigious school (13).  The second to last line of the poem ends with the second-person perspective line: “This exchange, in effect, ends your lunch” (13).  It is in this short sentence where the literary device of the alliteration has a powerful effect on the overall tone of the piece.   

The sentence is separated by commas into three short segments, each including a short “e” sound in the words “exchange,” “effect,” and “ends.”  These repeated sounds in conjunction with the short breaks in between them create a need to slow down while reading the sentence.  In effect, the repeating commas and e’s make the verbal diction of this line uncomfortable and abrupt to speak out loud.  The way the alliteration helps split the sentence into fragments and makes the spoken delivery short directly associates to the literal meaning of the line: that the subject gives up hope of having a positive lunch with the woman before the food even arrives.  The woman’s passive aggression against affirmative action and the notion that the poem’s second-person subject got to attend the college and her son never will helps bring out a tone of passivity, as if you have to suck your teeth or bite your tongue just to make it through the lunch you already gave up on.  The three “e” words themselves, exchange, effect, and ends, are also key moments in how the poem evolves.  The two individuals exchange just a few words before there is an effect of underlying racism in the air that in turn puts an end to any real amicability between the two.

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Works Cited

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf Press, 2014. (Book)