Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

Christopher Nealon: On Don't Let Me Be Lonely

[Nealon’s final chapter in The Matter of Capital (2011) revisits material from a seminal 2004 essay, “Camp Messianism, or, the Hope of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism” (American Literature 76.3 [Summer 2004], 175-193). In that 2004 essay, he considered contemporary poetry in relation to “really, really late capitalism” in which capitalism appeared “in a fully globalized and triumphant form, the destructive speed and flexibility of whose financial instruments alone make Nixon’s lofting the dollar off the gold standard in 1971 look thoughtful and conservative” (177).  In 2004, Nealon found volatility in markets that had “an order of magnitude beyond even the ricochets of the early twentieth century”: “If Adorno and Horkeheimer made much of how the Enlightenment’s dream of the equality of all people had become the nightmare of the interchangeability of all people,” he wrote in 2004, “that interchangeability could now said to have become entirely liquid, even quicksilver.”  He also wondered whether “the Enlightenment’s dream of the equality of all people had become the nightmare of the interchangeability of all people.”  In 2004, Nealon could still suggest that “late-late capitalism gives texture to our leaves” in a fashion that was “murmuringly,” noting the solicitation “day and night by a kind of manic mass culture that seeks, even more aggressively, to stuff our attention to the gills.” By 2011, when the essay was revisited and revised, the economic crisis of 2008 had instituted itself at every level, and “disaster capitalism” had become a widely-circulated term. But if we now understand global capitalism’s recent phase as constituting “a series of political, environmental, and financial disasters, the best recent poetry allows us to see something like that history’s obverse – the story of how selves are solicited to participate in this phase of the life of capital, and of how they struggle to respond to the tones of that solicitation, which range of course from  murmur to threat” (The Matter of Capital, 146). Rankine’s Don’t Le Me Be Lonely, in Nealon’s words, uses “a mixture of lists, images, and poetic prose to look back on the boom of the 1990s from midway through the Bush administration” (Matter, 147). Nealon notes Rankine’s interest in the “mixed-race figure of posthistory, Keanu Reeves’s character Neo from The Matrix” (1999) as exemplifying what Joshua Clover calls “the dreamlife of the boom” in which hackers actually outmaneuver “the megacorporations that give them amazing toys to play with and colonized their daily lives” (148). In Rankine’s telling, the sequels to the first film suggest a “symptom of what came after – a crash; a war” … and “the franchise, succumbing to the spectacukar logic its prequel seemed to critique, became as disposable as the boldfaced pamphlet the poet tosses aside” (148) after examining the words “BE LIKE JESUS.”]

Rankine’s suggestion that the end of history is now a kind o disposable waste (“salvation narratives are passé”) turns her thoughts in a different direction, to the burdens of history, especially the burden of racial violence and its repercussions in the emotional lives of those who witness it. Much of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely struggles with this problem, which we might describe as the struggle to give meaning to broken lives, or meaning to death, in a context where historical hope seems passé, and where its becoming passé is explicitly linked to its having ballooned into an empty spectacle. The simple word that Rankine uses for this is “sad” – a word that appears throughout the book, and that she links to racial violence, historical hope, and the value of life.

The word comes up, for instance, in a meditation on the death of James Byrd Jr. – a 49-year-old black man who was dragged top his death, tied to a truck, in Jasper, Texas, in 998. Rankine accuses George W. Bush of not caring about the death because he could not recall the details of the case (it was very high-profile, and he was governor of Texas at the time). Then she writes.

[Nealon quotes the passage beginning “I forget things too …”

and ending with words: “too close to dead is what I think.”]

Rankine’s indictment of Bush almost immediately becomes a query to herself, a forlorn investigation of the “deepening personality flaw” that, like her deflated retirement account, acquires an acronym – “IMH” – and that teeters on the edge of pathologization. But she demurs from Cornel West’s diagnosis of blck “nihilism” in favor of a contradictory and tendential account of sad blackness and black sadness: “too scarred by hope to hope” – and “too close to dead.” This relation to death has a history; it’s someplace people are headed.  And though that history is older by far than the phase of capitalism Rankine inhabits, she insist again and again that part of what keeps it in the register of inarticulate pain is the way it becomes spectacular – part of the news, just what’s on TV.  Indeed, the epigraph to the book, taken from Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (1939), addresses this problem directly:

And most of all beware, even in thoiught, 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.

 … Throughout the book Rankine draws on what we might think of as her poetry’s cousins and antecedents – Hegel, [Paul] Celan, [Czeslaw] Milosz, [Cesar] Vallejo, and Césaire, for instance, establishing touchstones for the poet, many of which center on remarks about happiness and suffering. …

One of the functions of this work of citations, I think, is to protect the poet and her work from being drowned out by other media – not least television, which threatens to numb and depress the poet by making all life, because it streams uninterruptedly at her through the screen, equally worthless. But there is no absolute dichotomy in Rankine’s book between poetry and televison, between life that “can not matter” and the work of genius that connects each life. Instead Rankine slyly acknowledges the allure of TV, as well as a variety of other media films, Internet search engines, and newspaper writing. Rankine makes analogies to these other media throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, using them to establish a poetic method through which the uncertain value of life can be tested out.

[Nealon argues that Rankine “maintains a lyric attitude” though her poems are mostly written in prose paragraphs, through “associative leaps and startling juxtapositions” and sets in motion analogies between the “lyric” and the “other textual and linguistic forms” the book records, so that the book as a whole “comes to feel like a scrapbook of commonplace book,” though a scrapbook in part composed of images from television, of television, that makes the “image-stream both as a toxic or atonal part of the book’s lyric surround, but also as an ironic domestication of the image stream … made slightly comic ... by the relatively low-tech simulation of their appearance on the page” (152).

The textual environment Rankine assembles thus establishes “lyric” as a master category meant to be intellectually powerful enough to withstand the intrusions of the image stream, even to take energy from it, even to mock it. But because the book also positions itself as a personal and idiosyncratic collection of clippings, it also foregrounds the vulnerability of the scrapbook in the face of the spectacle. There is no final adjudication in this pas de deux between the will to power of the lyric and the humility of the scrapbook, no judgment day – after all, “Salvation narratives are passé.” …

From “Bubble and Crash: Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism,” Chapter Four in The Matter of Capital: Poetry and Crisis in the American Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), pp. 147-149, 151-152.  

Dorothy Barrisi: On Don't Let Me Be Lonely

[A poet herself in the baby-boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964), Dorothy Barrisi includes Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in a review-essay that considers poets in that generation as possessing a special relation to “iconic nostalgia” which she defines richly: “Simultaneously hip and told as unreconstructed yearning, iconic nostalgia rejects the constraints of prior social constructions (Sinatra, Monroe) while remaining half in love with their dashed glamour, and then it inserts Jimi Hendrix or Pol Pot (and always ourselves) at the center of an ever-more-distant galaxy of shared historical experiences and long-drawn-out sighs, even as we reassert our cool.” Barrisi proposes that the baby-boom poets work within an alienation that isn’t aloof, as figures “no longer at the center of popular culture, shaping it,” and therefore “de facto, an analyst, an observer rejecting or making sense of change.” While Barrisi notes that the trade-off is to gain institutional power but lose “revolutionary street cool,” not everyone inhabits this “rather complicated place” in the same way, as she shows Rankine’s speaker demonstrating in her role as an “anxious but astute naïf, … death-obsessed as she muses about race, terror, television, and American violence in the age of dread, … a collector and a connector of uneasy moments strung like oddly lit pearls on the book’s irregular prose line.”]

… Rankine intercuts these vignettes with poorly resolved black-and-white photographs and simple graphics (the Do Not Resuscitate sign used on hospital charts, television screens filled with “snow”). Taken together, words and images are meant to be speculative; they enlarge the discourse in order to dislocate it. But Rankine’s speaker only seems lost in the flood of data. Her shrewd observations of public and private events and feelings suggest that everything is connected in the post-modern world. Ultimately she challenges us to stay focused, despite ample cultural distractions, on the crucial topics at hand: our loneliness, our spiritual vacancy (note the empty billboard bearing the book’s title on the cover), our fear. “Or one begins asking oneself that same question differently. Am I dead?” She does not use mass-culture allusions to reinvigorate her membership in a particular group (no nostalgic/ iconic secret handshakes here) but to illustrate the ways virtual and media ”realities” displace individual belief until we no longer recognize ourselves or our purpose in the world. “As the days pass I begin to watch myself closely,” she writes. … “Do I like who I am becoming? Is this me? Fear in phlegm. Fear airborne. Fear foreign.”

In the most powerful passages in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine confronts that fear with what she calls “IMH, The Inability to Maintain Hope.” Clarifying, she observes that “Cornel West says this is what is wrong with black people today—too nihilistic. Too scarred by hope to hope, too experienced to experience, too close to dead is what I think.” Pitting acuity against despair, her speaker notices everything. She participates in the accreting impulse described in the 1983 essay “The Rejection of Closure,” in which Lyn Hejinian argues that “language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes.” Striving to enact as much open-ended “curiosity” as possible (because perception itself lacks closure) within the necessary boundedness of form, Rankine’s post-modern aesthetic presupposes this: every raw detail is revelatory, and in context, every detail holds the seeds for future, as-yet-unknown revelations. To this end Rankine juxtaposes her mother’s long ago miscarriage; a friend’s misdiagnosed and now terminal breast cancer; the shooting of Amadou Diallo; the lynching of James Byrd Jr.; the simultaneity of life and death in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch; Timothy McVeigh’s execution (this detail is an especially brilliant stroke if we recall that the bombing in Oklahoma City was first thought to be the work of Middle Eastern extremists—when it was learned that the perpetrator was an American fanatic, there was, it seemed, an appalled sigh of national relief, as though we had been granted a temporary reprieve); the rain falling on still-smoldering Ground Zero; Derrida’s definition of forgiveness; Cornel West’s distinction between hope and blind “American optimism”; the lilies her parents send her for her fortieth birthday; the latest anti- depressant her editor takes. Information itself is presented as a kind of drug we take unawares, and Jean Baudrillard’s notion that the media itself is an effector of ideology (and that our response is already constructed), underpins much of the book’s anxiety and resistance. …

In the end, the act of remembering and writing creates the possibility of purpose for the speaker of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, who tries “to fit language into the shape of usefulness.” Paying attention is political engagement, the first form of protest registered against our numbing daily dose of undifferentiated information. “What alerts, alters,” Rankine reminds us. But Rankine also speculates that only the combination of attention and real human connection can reawaken her—and us, the numbed-out walking wounded. … Don’t Let Me Be Lonely concludes with syntax marked by the stress of the author’s uncertainty: “Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. … The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. … this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.”

It is the tentativeness of Rankine’s rapprochement with hope in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely that sums up the zeitgeist for baby boom poets today. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama’s instantly famous red and blue poster bore his likeness and an unlikely political slogan: “Hope.” Perhaps it also announces the complicated renegotiation with hope we make as poets in 2009. How much hope will we allow ourselves to feel? To write? Do we believe—as we did decades ago—that hope-engendered action might heal the present (since there is no healing the past)? Will we permit ourselves the consoling (but currently unfashionable) belief in language’s ability to communicate these ideas?

From Dorothy Barrisi, “Baby Boom Poetry and the New Zeitgeist,” The Prairie Schooner 83.3 (Fall 2009), pp. 191-193.