Pilot Light
A Journal of 21st Century Poetics and Criticism
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A Prescription Against Despair: On Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
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I’ve used the word hybrid, and yet I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of that term. In recent years there’s been a fair amount of traffic in textual hybridity—works that often operate in several genres or defy genre labels altogether. To be certain, this hybridity is not that of the American Hybrid anthology (edited by Cole Swensen and David St. John), which repurposes the term toward altogether separate ends (namely, the reconciliation of the academy with the avant-garde—already a fait accompli). In experimental circles at least, there’s been either a marked fatigue with genre conventions or a sense that genres work well in collaboration. I’m not sure, however, that classifying Don’t Let Me Be Lonely as hybrid does us any good, as the label has been poorly understood and even more poorly applied.

In his review of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—a book that shares some distinct thematic and formal similarities with Don’t Let Me Be Lonely—Ray McDaniel laments, apropos “the death of poetry,” that Wave Books marketed Bluets as “Essay/Literature.” McDaniel is a good critic—smart, incisive, and sensitive—and I think he’s onto something here. He writes:

Bluets reads like both [Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and The Beauty of the Husband] at the same time, and many other books besides. Why not? The failure here isn’t Nelson’s (for I think this is a wild, brilliantly successful book) but how it is marketed. And while I cannot blame Wave Books for wanting to expand the readership for such an accomplished and fascinating book, it doesn’t help matters to deny Bluets as poetry. It does what Nelson’s admitted poetry does; it also does what her mixed-genre work does.

McDaniel is edging toward a statement here close to the concerns embodied by Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: in a way, he’s arguing for a new definition of poetry, one that includes work that thinks like a poem even if it doesn’t look like one. McDaniel seems to be saying that until we embrace the full range of possible poetic expression—which includes essayistic discourse and fictional narrative—we’ll be stuck with this self-involved angst about the death of poetry. We’ll also be blinding ourselves to nearly everything except what has already been accomplished.

Aesthetic categories, as the artist Robert Smithson was quick to point out, are commonly vehicles for establishing, maintaining, and exerting power, and part of what’s at stake here (e.g., in a work like Don’t Let Me Be Lonely or Bluets) is power—power over what counts and doesn’t count as an essay or a poem, power to build an academic or critical career, but also power over the reader. The hybrid is democratic—verging on the anarchic—and it privileges readers’ experiences with texts over the boxes into which we might place them. One reason a manifesto of hybridity has yet to appear is that no single document could account for the writers and readers of the texts in question (although this has perhaps always been the case).

Put another way, the hybrid situates reading as the articulation of genre, not its reenactment. In the context of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, such hybridity begins with its subtitle, “An American Lyric.” Outside of some recognizably lyric poems by Milosz and Celan included in the text, there is little in the book’s formal presentation we might mistake for lyrical poetry as it has come down to us, through innumerable divagations, from Sappho. But as Anne Carson has written, at its origins the lyric enacted a “crisis of contact”: an I encounters a You and/or him/her, and the external becomes internal (41). The lyric situates the poem squarely between one person and another (cf. O’Hara’s “Personism”), or as the critic W.R. Johnson has written, “the words and sounds and pictures of a lyric poem are spoken to someone about something by someone, and that someone who speaks is, or should be, an integral part of what he speaks” (34). Such definitions of the lyric reflect the concerns of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely more clearly than any review of the book I have read. The book refigures and revises genre conventions according to the demands of its very particular “crisis of contact.” Namely, how does one subject encounter an other in a post-9/11 world, and how can this encounter become something other than an avoidance (I avert my eyes) or—pardon me—an apology? If strangers passing on the street can be models for strangers passing on a page, the question becomes how to enact and embrace the encounter between reader and writer.

One way to understand spirituality, divorced of its religious trappings, is as a longing for connection, not to material things—we have enough of that kind of connection—but to the unseen world that consists, in part, of everything internal both in ourselves and in others. At the same time, we tend to confuse spirituality with the practices that make us aware of that unseen world; the point of meditation, for instance, is not meditation but its application in one’s daily life. Seen in this light, writing (particularly hybrid writing) might be its own variety of spiritual practice, one that, ideally, connects us not to the text itself but to the unseen and to each other.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is obsessed with this kind of connection. It posits, as a solution to our cultural crisis and its accompanying static (indicated throughout the text by a series of fuzzy TVs), the poem as a kind of connective tissue; writing becomes the site of a reciprocal responsibility to everyone in social space, to paraphrase a line from Myung Mi Kim that plays a prominent role in Rankine’s book. And inlaid in that word responsibility is response. Much as the point to any prayer is its outward gesture, no poem exists in isolation: the poem enters and responds to social space. No matter how fiercely a piece of writing resists its context, it responds to the conditions in which it was produced. So why fight it? Myung Mi Kim makes the point that just as in a social situation there is a responsibility to those around you, the poem has its own sociability. Rankine writes:

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. 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. (130)

Our being, in other words, is both an ontological (“the solidity of presence”) and an ethical/metaphysical (“the offering of this same presence”) fact. Here, the text is the practice of offering and asserting the self simultaneously. It is a vehicle and ritual for connection, a conduit for the spirit. Rankine also quotes Emmanuel Levinas: “By offering a word, the subject putting himself forward lays himself open and, in a sense, prays” (120).

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