Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

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Read 08/03/2019-10/03/2019

Rating 3 stars

Claudia Rankine’s reflections on American society and the advent of loneliness is a strange and wonderful thing. I have no recollection of why I reserved it at the library other than that I read an article that I can’t now find in which the writer of the article referred to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely in a way that made me want to read it.

Originally published in 2004 and released in the UK by Penguin in 2017, this series of microessays that might be prose poems responds to a change Rankine feels in herself and in others around her in the years immediately following George W Bush’s election to a second term as US President and the 9/11 terror attacks. She frames the change in relation to the terror attacks.

It strikes me that what the attack on the World Trade Center stole from us is our willingness to be complex. Or what the attack on the World Trade Center revealed to us is that we were never complex. We might want to believe that we can condemn and we can love and we can condemn because we love our country, but that’s too complex.

Rankine considers death, loneliness, old age, physical ill health and depression, examining how medicated everyone is becoming and questioning what people are inuring themselves against. She puts a finger on it with her ruminations on the British reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. “Weren’t they simply grieving the random inevitability of their own lives?” she asks, framing it against the belief people have that those in the public eye should be more protected from the randomness of life, and if even they can’t be protected, then what chance do any of the rest of us have.

Other things she talks about, such as her choosing not to watch news channels any more but instead hide in the safety of HBO and the independent film channel, chime with how I feel about the world in 2019. I no longer watch the news because UK news has ceased to be the serious, informative journalism that I remember it being and is instead a series of increasingly hyperbolic broadcasts aimed at whipping people up into frenzies of anxiety about things that don’t matter in order to distract us from what’s actually going on. If I sound like a conspiracy theorist, it’s because Brexit and Trump have made me so.

Mostly Rankine talks about loneliness, though. About how, despite the modern culture of over-sharing, revealing the inner pain that simultaneously paralyses and drives people, confessing their weakness in order to make a connection, Americans are still lonely because they never connect. Instead, they have confused confession with intimacy. They listen while others share their deepest troubles, waiting patiently for it to be their turn, each one isolated in their self-obsession. Presumptions are made about people’s behaviour, such as the young woman who went onto the roof of her building to cool down in the shade of the water tower one hot summer day only to be talked down as though she was suicidal and taken by the police to a hospital for assessment. She just wanted to sit in the shade up high where there might be a breeze.

There are moments of deep, dark humour in Rankine’s analysis of who Americans are today, but mostly I found Don’t Let Me Be Lonely a somber read. I enjoyed the structure of the book. It felt like a series of disjointed conversations, with me dropping in and out of Rankine’s stream of consciousness processing of the world around her. If this book had been a straight work of nonfiction, full of data and analyses, it might have been disheartening. In the hands of a poet, as a series of opinions expressed with language that plays with meaning, it felt more ruminative, open and free. It deals in hopelessly worrisome things but its poet’s demeanour takes a step back from the detail of the worry and regards it like a curio in an exhibition. It’s a different way of looking at the world, and I’m thankful that we have poets whose work helps us to see differently.

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