Ben Bonyhadi's Reviews > Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
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M 50x66
's review
Oct 11, 2010

did not like it
bookshelves: poetry

Consuming some works of literature is like eating bacon, delicious, guilty, and heart-clogging. It is tender in some places, resilient in others, and is at once overpowering and irresistible. Reading Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely is like chewing on a live pig. It tastes of gristle and sweat and extended stretches of wallowing. You know that somehow, with a cutting up and cooking, what you're eating has the potential to be delicious, but right now it squeals and thrashes, and you ask yourself whether entering the sty was a good idea and hope, quietly, that nobody is watching.
I maintained a state of suspended disbelief for the first several sections, telling myself that she had to be building up to something; that the moping was simply setting a mood, that the confused writing was meant to draw us into the mind and struggles of the narrator. By maybe the twentieth poor-quality photoshop (John Lucas's, not Rankine's fault, I admit) I realized that she must be in earnest. That indeed, she thought I might get something out of telling me of her unhealthy television habits, that simply narrating an ennui-filled event in a "poet's voice" renders it worth reading. I feel she has written this poetry for herself, a livejournal spasm of prose-poetry with which she tries to make sense of the vague feeling of dissatisfaction she gets from being unable to conflate her problems with the world's.
I'll admit, I was biased. Referring to Emily Dickinson as "my love" puts you in my bad book pretty quickly, but I tried to give Rankine the benefit of the doubt. I'll admit, there were some things I liked. Extensive footnotes make me happy, although less so when they are not actually cited in the text; I feel that with Rankine's text blocks and formatting, endnote-indicating numbers would not have been significantly distracting or unaesthetic. Likewise, I loved the shape of the book, and the vibrant cover picture; granted, the title text looks kludged-on and slapdash.
The work seems like it is trying to be poignant, and some images and ideas (e.g., a girl escaping the heat being mistaken for a suicide attempt, choosing between "happiness" and "happily") have the potential to be moving and profound. These concepts, however, are obscured by language that tries to toe the line between poetry and prose and succeeds only in scuffing it badly. As poetry, the work is full of unnecessary fillers, fluff language, words that do little more than take up space. For such a sparsity of unique ideas, I expect very economical language. As prose, the book is aimless and meandering, not in itself a crime, but when it is not compelling I am no longer interested in following, and I watch it stumble on away from me. I keep grasping at wonderful ideas but they flee from me and hide in unresolvedness and decidedly unmoving imagery. It's actually a shame to see Rankine do this to herself; her pig is growing fat and ponderous and you can see the lean rashers of bacon waiting to be sliced free and served sizzling.
I suppose you could say this work is very affective, as I was thoroughly frustrated by it, and if that was Rankine's intentions, she is a master of her craft, and I applaud her for it. I can tell she is well-read, highly observant, and recognizes obscure patterns in reality, but her inability to convey these traits effectively is her downfall. Robert Creely writes of her work "Claudia Rankine here manages an extraordinary melding of means to effect the most articulate and moving testament to the bleak times we live in I’ve yet seen. It’s master work in every sense, and altogether her own.” I am forced to agree. There is no more moving testament to the bleak times in which we live than the fact that Dont Let Me Be Lonely claims to articulate and represent them, and thank God it is "altogether her own" because if it weren't, it might be mine.

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