Thursday, June 3, 2010

Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Saint Paul: MN, Graywolf Press, 2004.

The back-cover of Don't Let Me Be Lonely categorizes the book as a collection of lyric essays. To this extent, the pieces are short, open-ended prose blocks that contain a musical rhythm and auditory repetitions that provide a certain amount of lyricism wherein the author “tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness” (129). As the title of the book suggests, the central theme is loneliness, particularly the manner in which it manifests itself within the contemporary, American cultural landscape (e.g. politics, prescripted medication, television, etc.); a language that embodies “usefulness,” then, seeks to combat loneliness in that, according to Rankine, “loneliness stems from a feeling of uselessness” (129). Outside of the trans-genre aesthetic the text evinces, another important aspect of Rankine's book is the incorporation of images into the fabric of the essays. To begin with, individual sections are separated by a photograph of a television with static on its screen. Just as viewers at one time needed to pass through interstitial, static spaces when changing from one channel to another, readers encounter the aforementioned image that signifies a passing from one essay to another: a symbolic or metaphoric photograph that indicates an alteration of subject matter. But more than symbolic, the images within the essays also produce an affective response within the reader/viewer. For example, in the first half of the collection, a cropped image of “a slate message board” bearing the inscription “this is the most miserable” (17) is embedded several times within a paragraph. When we find out that, instead of chalk, the composer of the message has “scratched in the words...with some sort of sharp edge” (18) a literal wave or chill radiates throughout one's body when looking at the third instance of the board. Another result of incorporating images into the collection is a heighten sense of pathos within the reader/viewer. When reading the end-notes we find that on June 7, 1998 three white men chained James Byrd Jr. to the bumper of their car and dragged him for two miles, leaving nothing but a “shredded torso” and “a trail of blood, body parts, and personal effects” along the road (135); knowing these facts, it is nearly impossible not to be disgusted. But looking at the images of blood-stain concrete, the crime-scene investigator's markings for where Byrd's head was found, and a portrait picture of Byrd sometime before the incident occurred, there is an added sense of revulsion that text alone cannot produce. In addition to pictorial reproductions, Lonely also contains hand-drawn and computer-generated drawings. In on such instance, four sets of lips at varying stages of openness disrupt the flow of a particular paragraph. After the lips, we find that these images correspond to the speaker as she “watch[es] my mother's mouth move” (40). A final aspect of Rankine's book that bears mentioning is the study of the first-person pronoun “I” that the author undertakes. Given the fact that, in this day and age, many “no longer...see confession as intimate and full of silences” (53), how does the use of the first-person pronoun function within our cultural consciousness? To Rankine's mind, she believes that “there exists an 'I' who was institutionalized” (53) by, on can presume, the media and other cultural outlets, and thus does not function in the same liberatory manner as the “I” found within confessional poetry during the mid-twentieth-century. Instead, lost in modern loneliness, Rankine can only pose questions as to the “I's” purpose: “what responsibility do I have to the content, to the truth value, of the words [of 'I']? Is 'I' even me or am 'I' a gear-shift to get from one sentence to the next? Should I say we” (54)? While she arrives at no definitive answer, recognition of the other, perhaps, is of more importance than recognition of the “I.” This is understood no more clearly than in Rankine's extend quotation of Levinas: “This privilege of the other ceases to be incomprehensible once we admit that the first fact of existence is neither being in itself nor being for itself but being for the other” (120). This is not to say that subject positions are outmoded or hold no import, but it does mean that, to combat loneliness, a necessary “conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of the same presence [to the other] perhaps has everything to do with being alive” (130).

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