Books

Uniqueness & Universality: Why Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Belongs in the 21st Century Canon

Intro

I wrote the essay that was included below for my Contemporary Lit class. It is a challenging book and yet heartbreakingly straightforward at times. It is set in post 9/11 America, but I feel that a summary would not necessarily make reading this essay easier. The book is a collection of thoughts about the world and deep topics such as death and drugs.

Trigger Warning: This book contains serious topics such as suicide, which was not my focus in this essay but will be present in the book if you read it.

Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Analysis

The selection of books that should comprise the collection of twenty-first century literature is a serious matter, primarily due to its impact on future generations. A book chosen for this honor is effectively immortalized, appearing in syllabi and on shelves for ages to come. On the other hand, a deserving book that does not become part of the canon may fail to attract academic attention, and its merit will likely remain unrecognized. As a result, the selection process must be approached with great care and responsibility. The books chosen will need to be continually relevant to diverse audiences across time periods, distinguishable formally from other books of the century, and expressive of the values and issues of their time. Consequently, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine is an ideal candidate for the canon of twenty-first century literature because of its unique formal features, its accurate representation of the culture in which it was written, and its critical insight into the heart of human nature.

There are many formal features that contribute to the unique nature of the text. For example, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is part of a new genre form called the lyric essay. It is lyrical in the sense that it is made of concise sections that deal with the emotions of a speaker. It is an essay in the sense that these concise parts make up a similarly themed whole that extends for more than a hundred pages, longer than most lyric poems. Also, “as Rankine comments in a radio interview, [the format] was intended to mimic the form of the newspaper column, and indeed uses a newspaper typeface” (Kimberley 782). Furthermore, these poems are ekphrastic in nature, frequently focusing on description of visuals which are included in the text, which include prescription labels, postal service instructions, and a list of drug companies arranged alphabetically, among other images. Tana Jean Welch identifies Rankine’s work as a form of investigative poetry as well, “part documentary, part imagination,” and it resembles this style because it “incorporates a variety of data and reportage” (124). Rankine describes this mixed-media style of book as her “American lyric” (1).

The first thing a reader notices about the book, however, is its unusual size and shape. It is much taller and towers over the size of a typical paperback. This feature results in a higher percentage of blank space than text on the page. Having these large areas of emptiness serves to heighten a theme of loneliness that pervades the narrative. Furthermore, the shape of the book forces the reader not to skim over it on a shelf—Rankine makes it become noticeable, just as she does for all the forgotten people and images in this book.

Each section of the book has a large proportion of blank space, while the chapter breaks feature an image at the bottom of the page of a static television screen. This marks a shift in attention over the course of the book without a shift in theme, since the same universal themes of death, grief, loss, and loneliness fill the entirety of the narrative. Kevin Bell describes this as a “ruptural mechanism” that subverts the “spectatorial craving for solidity, continuity and clarity” by vaulting into separate topics or narratives (94). In the first part of the book, the reader learns that the narrator constantly keeps the television on in the background of her day-to-day life, even when she is not actively watching. The ubiquitous presence of the television seems like commentary on how much technology has become a part of society so that it is inseparable from everyday life. Additionally, the static television screen is analogous to switching channels, since the topic changes at these chapter breaks, and suggests the shifting attentions of the mind. Referring to CNN, but similarly applicable is Jorie Graham’s take on this: “The ‘multitasking’ of the…screen is precisely geared to dissociating our sensibilities. It forces us to ‘not feel’ in the very act of ‘collecting information’” (qtd. in Kimberly 780). Rankine’s concern is clearly this same issue, since many inclusions of data, images, or information include the story of someone or something rarely considered with profound thought or empathy.

One example is the news of a black man who tragically was killed in the state of Texas. Rankine includes a picture of the stained ground where he met his demise. The narrator voices her anger at George Bush for failing to remember how many people were convicted for the murder, and writes accusingly, “you don’t remember because you don’t care” (Rankine 21). The narrator, in this occasion as in many, speaks for those forgotten due to the overwhelming wave of news that the public deals with on a daily basis, and due to a general lack of empathy. There is a sickening voyeurism that results from being keen on learning the story of a murder, but not caring enough to know and remember about the real people involved. This is a part of twenty-first century culture that is often addressed in our tech-laden age, but not in the unique manner that Rankine employs—the inundation of the mind with information which is only considered and applied in shallow ways.

Another example is her commentary on the execution of a criminal by the name of Timothy McVeigh. She includes an image of the chair in which McVeigh received a lethal injection and explains that the execution was broadcast for the families of the victims. Even at the point of death, McVeigh shows no sign of repentance, and even uses a quote from Henley that suggests that “both forgiveness and condemnation were irrelevant” (Rankine 47). Rather than leave the commentary off at that point, as the news would, she brings up a vexing question: “so what is forgiveness and how does it show itself” (Rankine 47)? This brings the story away from the sensational and into the universal, contemplating the meaning of forgiveness itself and how one can come to be redeemed, and Rankine raises the question in the reader’s mind with the strange combination of commentary and imagery that follows the execution of a murderer. It was undoubtedly intentional that Rankine’s narrator fails to provide an answer to her own question, as the narrative is meant to provoke more profound thought in the reader.

In addition, Rankine uses her writing to transform inconspicuous images and pieces of information into messages of great significance by displaying them before the reader in a position of prominence. She uses the reader’s familiarity with certain aspects of culture as an opportunity to re-examine what is frequently taken for granted. For example, taking medicine, like many things, becomes a habit that receives very little consideration. The label on a bottle of prescription medicine might be skimmed once, for instruction, but after that it blends in as much as it would if the label was blank. One of the labels featured in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely reads “Check With Your Doctor or Pharmacist Before Taking Any Other Medicines” (Rankine 31). This command presumes the reader is the recipient of the medicine and intends to take it, unlike the narrator, who frequently reads and notices such things, but will occasionally place her medicine back into the cupboard without taking it. The lack of a “you” in the message or any similar specificity gives it a sense of universality, leading the speaker to forge a connection with any reader who has ever taken medicine and either acknowledged or ignored warnings. Furthermore, it is in all capitals, demanding attention from anyone who looks at it, though this tactic is ineffective. Rankine brings the warning to the front of the mind of readers, causing them to consider their relationship with drugs and with the speaker.

Another medicine label says, “Federal law prohibits the transfer of this drug to any person other than the patient for whom it was prescribed” (Rankine 32). Ironically, the narrator’s first instinct is to give the pills away rather than taking them or throwing them away herself. Placing the text of the medicine label into her poem draws attention to this irony, and her little act of rebellion which otherwise would not have held meaning outside the context. Consequently, Rankine manages to take something that has been seen so many times it has lost meaning and to use it as a tool in her work.

A further example of how Rankine brings attention to little parts of American culture is found in the postal service instructions, which mirror the hysteria and fear in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11.  Few people attend closely to postal service instructions. In these ones there are warning signs given that would cause someone to “suspect a piece of mail” (Rankine 92). These include concerns about whether its “unexpected,” “handwritten,” or has “excessive amounts of postage” (Rankine 92). These normally benign aspects of a piece of mail are considered with great seriousness to be a matter of security and to require immediate handwashing. There is some humor here, as even receiving mail intended for a previous owner of the house is regarded as suspicious, and washing one’s hands and reporting the incident is supposedly the correct course of action. These excessive safety measures are expressed better with the postal service instructions than they would be if the narrator had just explained that people were on edge.

As stated before, grief is a major theme of Rankine’s work. Grief is a difficult part of human nature to express in writing, especially since it is a multifaced struggle that can include anger, sorrow, and guilt among other emotions. Rankine does this masterfully through the suffering of various acquaintances of the narrator. One is a friend of hers who is unnamed. “Cancer slowly settled in her body,” the narrator explains, “and lived off it until it…became useless to her” (Rankine 9). The narrator visits her friend a couple months before her friend’s death, and one of the first things she recognizes about her friend is that series of emotions that is grief: “She is sad. She grows tired. She becomes angry. She grows tired” (Rankine 9). Her friend is grieving her own death, while the narrator is attempting not to grieve for her dying friend. The second thing that the narrator notices is the DNR sign that warns others not to resuscitate the dying friend. Rankine reproduces the image on the page, wary that her audience may overlook it as an uninteresting detail, and forces readers to take in the full meaning of the sign even as the narrator does. The narrator laments: “Why do people waste away” (Rankine 9)? This is another universal question that has been asked hundreds of times, though in real life as well as in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, there are no easy answers.

Another friend develops Alzheimer’s, and the narrator has difficulty coping with his deterioration. She follows his demise lovingly and remains a close friend, keeping track of him even when he no longer speaks rationally and becomes more irate. Rankine presents this as a hypothetical scenario, beginning with “or say a friend…” (17). She does this even though it is actually being dealt with by the narrator, in order to universalize the issue. Though not everyone has had a friend develop Alzheimer’s, nearly everyone has watched a friend suffer without being able to do anything about it. According to Welsh, “Rankine abandons the fixed, unitary speaker traditionally associated with the lyric genre and in its stead offers a multiple and fragmented ‘I,’” one whose multiplied presence allows for this feeling of universality (125). The fact that the friend remains unnamed adds to this effect.

In this section, Rankine also includes images of a message board on which the ailing friend scrawled the words “this is the most miserable in my life” to demonstrate the pain that he is going through. This is more effective than merely saying so, because the reader can imagine the sound of the sharp object being drawn across slate to create the scratched out words, and can see that his hand must have been shaking due to the sloppiness of the letters. After her friend’s death, the narrator keeps this as a token of their friendship. Rankine portrays the inexplicability of the mourner’s tendency to keep what reminds them of tragedy, which is a universal part of human nature.

It is the universality and particularity of Rankine’s work that makes it fit for the twenty-first century canon, for it is those aspects that will predict its relevancy throughout time. Universal themes such as grief, loss, death, and loneliness are placed alongside particular circumstances such as the death of a friend from cancer. The reader’s ability to relate to these instances prepares them for Claudia Rankine’s primary message to the American people. It is best summarized by the first page, where she includes this quote from Aime Cesaire: “And most of all beware, even in thought, 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…” (qtd. in Rankine 1). Rankine is concerned that due to the inundation of information and news pieces in American culture, the American people may forget empathy toward their fellow man. When news of crimes and tragedies is absorbed by the public as if it were entertainment, it is then that “a man who wails” is treated like “a dancing bear,” and a “sea of grief” is treated as a stage (qtd. in Rankine 1).

According to Kimberley, “Rankine’s examinations of images form part of a warning against cultural passivity and a questioning of our roles as perceivers” (783). She goes on to say “we tend, and are encouraged, to take media images as fact, as though we were seeing them at first hand with our own eyes, unmediated” (Kimberley 788). As both of these quotes suggest, the American public is accustomed to taking in information without question and without examination of its content and implications. The individual fails to give the gift of his or her full presence to the issue at hand, and fails to be fully present even in the moment. Rankine’s narrator, on the other hand, takes the better route by affirming her presence in the moment: “Here. I am here” (Rankine 130). It is this message that Rankine has for her readers, one that will remain relevant throughout the centuries—that one must be present to be empathetic, and that empathy is what makes life worth living.

Rankine’s work belongs in the twenty-first century canon due to this timely and timeless message. Furthermore, its uniqueness and universality ensures that it has a wide potential audience and that it has the ability to be far-reaching in its message. Lastly, its representation of culture and human nature as it is brings the reader’s attention to vital issues in society. All of these aspects contribute to make Don’t Let Me Be Lonely an ideal candidate for canonization.

Works Cited

  • Bell, Kevin. “Unheard Writing in the Climate of Spectacular Noise: Claudia Rankine on TV.” The Global South, vol. 3, no. 1, 2009, pp. 93-107. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/40339250. Accessed 5 November 2019.
  • Kimberley, Emma. “Politics and Poetics of Fear after 9/11: Claudia Rankine’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.’” Journal of American Studies, vol. 45, no. 4, Nov. 2011, pp. 777-791. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org/stable/41427299. Accessed 5 November 2019.
  • Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Me Be Lonely. Graywolf Press, 2004.
  • Welch, Tana Jean. “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: The Trans-Corporeal Ethics of Claudia Rankine’s Investigative Poetics.” MELUS, vol.40, no. 1, pp. 124-148. JSTOR, doi: www.jstor.org /stable/24569956. Accessed 6 November 2019.

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