Claudia Rankine: I’ve wanted to read Citizen for a while now, but anytime I come across it, I don’t have the funds to hand out what the store’s charging. But the other day, I spied her Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric on the shelves while volunteering, and grabbed it. Even before the poet explicitly mentions Derrida or Hegel or Levinas, you can tell she’s had ample dealings with word-loving philosophers– and by that I don’t mean those who engage in the stale logic games of the analytic camp, but rather, the continentalists who go at meaning and deconstruction in a more existentialist vein, if it’s at all accurate to phrase it that way. With that adjective, I don’t want to indicate followers of existentialism, but those who in some sense look for the soul that stands behind and works within the words we use. An example? I don’t think it’ll ruin anything for anyone to quote from the last couple of pages of her book:
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.
Or one meaning of here is “In this world, in this life, on earth. In this place or position, indicating the presence of,” in other words, I am here. It also means to hand something to somebody– Here you are. Here, he said to her. Here both recognizes and demands recognition. I see you, or here, he said to her. 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.*
Being alive: being present, handing over, extending a hand, receiving what is offered. Not a basic economic exchange, but deceptively simple involvement that entails handing over one’s entire self, and having that self recognized and accepted by the other whole self on the receiving end. Perhaps the only true counter or prophylactic to loneliness, which emerges even in the presence of others, if those others are unwilling or unable to engage fully in this un-transaction.
There’s so much more to discuss about this book; one of the richest crumbs for follow-up thought she hands us is a reflection on sadness:
“Sad is one of those words that has given up its life for our country, it’s been a martyr for the American dream, it’s been neutralized, co-opted by our culture to suggest a tinge of discomfort that lasts the time it takes for this and then for that to happen, the time it takes to change a channel. But sadness is real because once it meant something real.”**
There’s also the scattered use of images throughout– not in themselves necessarily fantastic, but effective in terms of lending something to the accounts and words Rankine is using. It’s a different employment of pictures and photographs than W.G. Sebald’s; in themselves, her images are less inherently haunting than his are. “Unobtrusively forceful” might be a better way to describe how Rankine’s come across.
In short, though, the book or collection– I don’t know what to call it, or even her work in general, really, and I actually like that fact– is a fantastic one, and I’m chomping at the bit to delve into more. (And my super-dream? Producing a similar image-word hybrid, and one that even remotely approaches the quality of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.)
* Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), 130-1.
** ibid., 108.