On the plane on the way back from the Great White North, I had the good fortune to pick up and read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. If you haven’t yet read this strange, genre-busting “lyric essay/poem,” you simply must. It’s the first great book I’ve read this year.
A tall, narrow volume, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is an asociative series of musings on subjects and issues as varied as racial profiling, prescription drugs, Mahalia Jackson, death and grief, notable film performances by Tom Cruise, forgiveness, terrorism, depression, and the liver. It’s simply an arresting book—Rankine’s prose strips away all our culturally performative bullshit surrounding our deepest and most sacred issues and gets right at what’s wrong with us, as a nation and as individuals.
“I’m writing a book about the liver,” she insists several times thoughout the book. The liver, she explains, is responsible for breaking down anything ingested that is not soluable in water. Oftentimes our liver is put into jeopardy by the simple fact that it is frequently handed the most toxic things entering the digestive system. In a lot of ways, Rankine’s book breaks down the most toxic aspects of our culture to the same degree. It’s this initiative that makes the work both fearless and unflinching—and yet, for all her digestion, Rankine avoids passing judgment, even as she recounts the most horrifying judgments that have been made in our name or as a culture. In the most powerful way, she leaves final judgment up to the reader, which in turn draws our attention to the fact that our natural inclination is to assess and judge each other (and ourselves).
Collaged into the book are several graphical elements—diagrams, photos, maps, etc. The most common of these begins each otherwise-unidentifiable section: a television showing “snow”—that indicator that no signal is being clearly received by the machine. The image becomes a visual mantra as Rankine leads the reader through her strange musings and naturally begs us to ask: what is it that we receive? What do we broadcast? What makes sense? Other important images are the body’s digestive system—esophagus to stomach, with a map of the U.S. placed where the intestines would go and a representation of the liver in its natural place in the body cavity. Is Rankine implying that the U.S. is the ultimate mulching ground for things at work in the world?