Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (St. Paul: Graywolf, 2004) is a book-length prose poem filled with photographs and a few non-photographic images. It toggles between meditation and anger on a wide range of subjects, including death, cancer, depression (and anti-depressants), suicide, rape, 9/11, racism, history, politics, and literature, but the central trope is the ubiquitous television set. A repeated image of a static-filled television screen serves to separate the segments of the poem, signalling that Rankine is about to change the channel on us. The book’s epigraph from Aime Cesaire is an admonition to not be a spectator: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator,for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a man who wails is not a dancing bear…” In Rankine’s poem, the television is so much a symbol for the media, it’s simply the biggest source of bad news and despair. In one section, with the controversial vote count over the reelection of George W. Bush as the backdrop, Rankine writes: “I stop watching the news. I want to continue, watching, charting, and discussing the counts, the recounts, the hand counts, but I cannot. I lose hope.”
As the title implies, this is a very personal poem sequence, with a narrator who faces family deaths, takes an ever-changing menu of anti-depressants, and speaks directly to the reader. Whether this narrator bears any relationship to Rankine, though, is both unclear and irrelevant, because, in a very real sense, this narrator is narrating our own lives back to us. At first, I thought Rankine’s rather routine mixture of snapshots and media images imagery was rather mundane. But on closer inspection, it strikes me that her choice and use of imagery is crucial to the book’s tone. She often encloses photographs within her standard frame of a television set, which, in an odd way, makes them feel more familiar. Televised images are immediately, even if inadequately, contextualized. Collectively, the images tilt the book toward an informality, as if someone were talking to us while the television set drones in the background and we flip the pages of a newspaper. These are the images we are confronted with daily – images of politicians, press conferences, crime victims, celebrities – a relentless tide of insults and tragedies and deaths that threatens to benumb us. But however much the narrator might like to turn off the television and shut out the world, much of the impact of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely comes from the way in which we come to understand the persistent underlying interconnection of the personal, the social, the civic, and the economic.
One of these images, however, has haunted me for days. It’s one of the most arresting and enigmatic uses of embedded imagery that I’ve yet to run across. The image is located in the midst of a brief reference to the 1998 murder of James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was beaten by three white men in Jasper, Texas, chained to the back of a pickup truck, and then dragged for miles until his body was literally torn to pieces. The narrator notes that President George W. Bush could not correctly recall the facts of the story. “You don’t remember because you don’t care,” the narrator pointedly tells Bush via the television screen. The unidentified image may or may not have anything to do with the murder or with Bush, it simply shows four sets of legs (from the knees down) standing around a shiny spot on a hard, paved surface of some kind. It’s not clear who the people represent, although a woman wearing a skirt either has black skin or very dark stockings. Does the shiny surface represent blood? Are the four figures all looking at the ground or is only the photographer fixated on the spot surrounded by their feet where the reflected heads of the figures seem to blend into each other? Are we to think of these people as connected with President Bush or with the victim or with one of his murderers? Each of these little puzzles and possibilities passed through my mind more or less simultaneously, making each of them equally plausible. It’s an inspired choice of image.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely feels more like a dirge than a lyric. It is a powerful book about the struggle to find and maintain a moral position, to stave off loneliness and hopelessness, to not fall prey to the blind and blinding “American optimism” (she’s quoting Cornel West here). Only at the very end does Rankine’s narrator begin to address the ability of poetry to bridge the chasm between one person and another. On the penultimate page, Rankine writes this:
Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem – is how Rosemary Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handshaking over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that – Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.
The poem then ends with these lines:
In order for something to be handed over a hand must extend and a hand must receive. We must both be here in this world in this life in this place indicating the presence of.
But in this case, the end of the poem is not the end of the book, which goes on to provide an additional twenty-two pages of notes. In recent years, we’ve been seeing more and more works of fiction and poetry that conclude with lengthy notes and acknowledgements. Often, these notes simply give credit where credit is due for the sources of quotes and allusions, while in the hands of authors like David Foster Wallace the notes feel more like an extension of the actual text. But I’m honestly not sure I know what to think about the notes appended to the end of Rankine’s book. There is something oddly educational or remedial about them. Many of the notes read like the commentary that a translator might append to a text to clarify cultural references that might be puzzling to the foreign reader. For example, the passing reference to the television show “Murder She Wrote” becomes the occasion for a summation of the show’s plot and a brief profile of its main character Jessica Fletcher. A reference to the writer J.M. Coetzee leads to a note telling us that he won the Nobel Prize in 2003. Read independently, they don’t detract from the power of the writing, but I wouldn’t want to be moving back and forth between Rankine’s poetry and the strange endnotes.