EILEEN TABIOS Engages
DON’T LET ME BE LONELY: AN AMERICAN LYRIC by Claudia Rankine
(Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2004)
DON’T LET ME BE LONELY is a post-911 poetry collection but it’s larger than even that very large event which presents its cloud. The book very much reflects the zeitgeist that is, sure, U.S.-American but also larger than American due to the media’s and internet’s lack of national borders. And Rankine (for example, too, with her latest, much-lauded book CITIZEN) is known for reflecting / refracting the times or her times.
Yet I accessed DON’T LET ME BE LONELY for this review specifically after reading her words on forgiveness as raised by the death of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. After quoting from Derrida, Ranking notes that McVeigh apparently considered both condemnation and forgiveness irrelevant by quoting from William Earnest Henley’s poem “Invictus”—“It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
Upon reading Henley’s words, I immediately recalled how Mom and I had seen the movie Invictus together. To quote from this zeitgeist’s oracle, Wikipedia, “Invictus… is based on the John Carlin book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made A Nation about the events in South Africa before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was hosted in that country following the dismantling of apartheid."
Rankin’s poem made me remember how, during the movie, Morgan Freeman who played Nelson Mandela started reciting Henley’s poem. And I’ll never forget how Mom astonished and quieted down the movie audience into listening to her as she recited the words along. I also was astonished—I didn’t even know Mom had memorized that poem. Mom's really was a different generation reflecting how poetry memorization was a normal part of education—how much poetry was part of the mundanity of living. I sense some in the audience recalling that time even as younger attendees were simply surprised. And then, of course, in remembering Mom and how special she was, I had to put down Rankine’s book to wipe away my tears.
Now, is my particular response relevant as criticism? Does it indicate something about literary merit? Well, in Rankine’s case—certainly for this book—I believe it is relevant. For one of the strengths of the book—and the strength I most admire—is the expanse of Rankine’s knowledge and (then) the distillation that occurred to alchemize said knowledge to fit within poetry’s inherently minimalistic borders. A stellar example would be the prose poem that begins with a reference to two women chatting about “Rudy Giuliani” receiving a knighthood from the British Queen and whether he would kneel as he was knighted.
The overheard conversation compels Rankine in the poem to recall and mull over “Giuliani as nobility. It is difficult to separate him out from the extremes connected to the city over the years of his mayorship.” But then, Rankine remembers:
“… a day after the attack on the World Trade Center a reporter asked him to estimate the number of the dead. His reply—More than we can bear—caused me to turn and look at him as if for the first time.”
From there, Rankine moves on to quote Wallace Stevens on nobility (and Stevens is powerful on nobility), describes her walk through the downtown debris of the World Trade Center attack three days later including her observation about the stance of the police as they watch traffic, offers a discourse on the name “Osama Bin Laden” (the last name “rhymes with sadden, not lawless”), recalls college studies on Hegel, an observation on Antigone, singing to the tune of “Day-O” Come Mr. Taliban, give us Bin Laden, and finally an overheard conversation about death and how the conversant felt he’s led a good (I first typed “god”) life such that he would be able to “live” with a life suddently cut short.
Amidst the above descriptive paragraph is this wonderful connection of two dots, this relationship Rankine draws from Hegel’s positing death as a threat to keep citizens in line such that someone who doesn’t fear death is no longer controlled by governments or councils. That relationship drawn by Rankine is that the terrorist, by not fearing death, is the embodiment of freedom and that they manifest such freedom by already being dead. Like Antigone, Rankine notes:
“Antigone, the character not the play, by Theban definition was a domestic terrorist. Hegel uses her as an example. She identified with the dead, was willing to walk among them. In the course of the drama, even though she has many lines left to speak in the play, Creon eloquently describes her to her sister as already dead. So it is, was, already, with Osama.”
Consider the breadth of just this one work that began with Rudy’s knighthood coronation. And so, yes, I consider my personal reaction involving my mother and our movie viewing of Invictus to be relevant because Rankine’s work—with its huge scope—seems to me to be why it would be wise to allow a poem to have the fluctuating expanse that would generate individualized and varied responses. I am remembering something that Meena Alexander once told me about poetry during an interview (cited in my first book BLACK LIGHTNING). Alexander said that a poem can have different entry points for different readers—it could be even just one stanza out of a long poem. And such would be okay: in the example prose poem I describe above, it would be asking a lot (though that’s okay, too) for all readers to make similar journeys as Rankine did in connecting the specified dots. In my case, for example, her referenced singing to “Day-O” left me unmoved. But there is still much in the poem to resonate with me—from Stevens from whom I’ve also quoted as regards nobility to the notion of Antigone as a “Theban … domestic terrorist.”
The word “parataxis” is somewhere in the book—what is marvelous about Rankine’s writing is how her placement of matters and events next to each other reveal an unanticipated logic. At their best, the combinations also reveal wisdom. Read these two examples below and marvel as I did:
“Or, well, I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect do not exist. The world, like a giant liver, receives everyone and everything including these words: Is he dead? Is she dead? The words remain an inscription on the surface of my loneliness. This loneliness stems from a feeling of uselessness. Then Coetzee’s Costello says in her fictional lecture, “for instants at a time I know what it is like to be a corpse.”
“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 Rosmarie Waldrop translated his German. 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.”
Eileen Tabios recently released an experimental auto-biography, AGAINST MISANTHROPY: A LIFE IN POETRY, as well as her first poetry collection published in 2015, I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS. Forthcoming later this year is INVENT(ST)ORY which is her second “Selected Poems" project; while her first Selected THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, INVEN(ST)ORY will focus on the list or catalog poem form. She does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work. Her poetry collection, SUN STIGMATA (Sculpture Poems), received a review by Joey Madia in New Mystics Review and Zvi Sesling in Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com