In anticipation of Claudia Rankine’s visit to Concordia University this week we will feature writing that responds to Rankine’s works Citizen: An American Lyric and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine will be giving a public reading at 7pm, March 10, 2017 in the DeSeve Cinema in Concordia’s Library building on de Maisonneuve. Books will be for sale by the Co-op bookstore and Rankine will be available for signing after the reading.
The Things We Tell Each Other: A Response to Claudia Rankine’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely”
By Eli Lynch
My therapist tells me it’s important to understand that something can be more than one thing at a time; multiple truths can exist at the same time. This is a hard fact I need to learn, and as I reread Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf 2004), I feel Claudia Rankine’s speaker reiterating this to me, “I could choose that […] or rather I could be all that I am – fictional,” (104) and the complexity of being, the choices and the differences, all become part of this fiction. The things we tell each other to feel better or worse.
Z texts me “truths are multiple” and sends me a juggling emoji. This reiteration grounds me, reminds me that I’m here, with this book, existing in multiplicities. I start looking for more grounding truths. I start carrying Rankine’s book around, rereading passages whenever I feel sad or lonely or lost, in the metro, at work, during parties.
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely feels relevant every time I read it, which speaks to the strength and multiplicity of Rankine’s poems, of her words, of her perspective. In times when the inherent racism and misogyny of the world is becoming more obvious even to people not directly affected, the subtleties of Rankine’s criticisms of class, race, and privilege are particularly important. When the speaker says, “In third world countries, I have felt overwhelmingly American, calcium-rich, privileged, and white,” Rankine is addressing the privilege money and class afford her. While the idea that a black woman feels white initially confuses, given the historical and ongoing mistreatment of black people around the world, the comparison of the nursing home and the third world country works particularly well. While I could paraphrase Rankine’s words, it is important to share the exact quote. I read these words to my friend while they bake at a café, on the phone to my best friend, I copy them down for you:
Here I feel young, lucky, and sad. 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 cultures 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. It meant dignified, grave; it meant trustworthy, it meant exceptionally bad, deplorable, shameful, it meant massive, weighty, forming a compact body; it meant falling heavily, and it meant of a colour; dark. It meant dark in colour, to darken. It meant me. I felt sad. (108)
The first time I read Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, I had just made the choice not to fly to the Middle East (I later rebooked my flight due to convincing on my sister’s part). I had grounded myself here in Montreal, in the appearance of safety. In what appeared to be living. Having meant to fly to Lebanon that day, with a layover in Turkey, I sat staring at my phone in my new and empty apartment, wondering how I might have just missed death. A couple of hours before I was supposed to fly into Turkey, a bomb went off in the Istanbul Atatürk airport, killing forty-five people. At the time, I didn’t feel much. But later, questioning my continued mourning, my survivor’s guilt started to sink in. This phenomenon happened a lot during 9/11; a documentary was made about people who weren’t on the plane that day, who were supposed to be, who missed their flight, and also missed their death. They felt immense guilt. While initially you may read this and wonder how someone willfeel bad when they have been afforded the chance to live, but imagine the weight of death hanging over you the way it hung over them. The weight of death hung over me, hung over the 9/11 survivors, hangs over Rankine’s speaker throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. Rankine’s speaker, addressing the loss around them, seems to feel survivor’s guilt. Maybe this is the speaker’s sadness. And loneliness. However, despite the death permeating through Rankine’s book, the poems are alive, and the feeling one gets when reading them is a moment of alive.
But isn’t being alive just holding on to something that will keep you going and spark some feeling in you, whether you understand it or not? Another way of thinking about being alive is being grounded. When your partner holds your hand while you’re having a panic attack, when you drink water after crying, when your best friend tells you “I am here for you,” when you make a decision that feels right for you. Rankine’s book uses these same grounding methods, the end of the lyric articulating this sentiment. The speakers says, “Here. I am here,” grounding their body in the immediate, an image of a billboard stuck into the ground with the word HERE on it accompanying the text. The speaker continues, “This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive” (130). The lyric is ends saying, despite all of this, despite the fatigue and the loneliness, the hope, the family, despite capitalism and racism, I am here. You are here. “Why are we here if not for each other” (62).