Don’t Let Me Be Universal: Or, the Postwar American Poem
At one point in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004), the poetic speaker (I’ll call her “Rankine”) relates a conversation with a Pakistani taxicab driver in New York City, shortly after 9/11. He asks what she does for a living and she responds, “I write about the liver.”1 Curious, he presses on. Is she a doctor? Not exactly. “I write about the liver/ because I’m thinking as if trying to weep.” She wants to work through abstract ideas as if trying to prompt and work through real feelings. Baffled, he’s game to comprehend. He wants to understand “these people,” Americans who “don’t know anything” but suspect he’s al Qaeda. Rankine, more skeptical about American citizens (“Be happy you can’t read their thoughts, I want to say to him”), also attempts to make quotidian interactions like this one breach “the space of loneliness,” but in a different way. The lonely space must be physically crossed. It is a conceptualized thinking space transformed into a real, felt space. That is, thinking as if trying to weep.
Recently elected a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Citizen: An American Lyric (2014), Rankine is a standard-bearer of postwar American poetry’s attempt to depict communitarian or other forms of social connection via the particularity of bodies—organs, chemicals, bile, and breath—in order to avoid universalism’s abstract terms. In the process, poetic accounts such as Rankine’s imagine not so much an alternative to liberal politics as a complete end to politics of any kind. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, this work frequently invokes its political aims. Contemporary poetry constructs these moves by misunderstanding, misreading, or simply ignoring some of the most important and interesting modernist discourses about how readers relate to art objects such as paintings and poems.
Discussing the manuscript with her editor, Rankine clarifies that Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about “hepatotoxicity, also known as liver failure” (53). She explains that much liver damage is drug-induced because the liver functions as a chemical purifier, stripping the blood of toxins by splitting poisons into less destructive chemical building blocks. The resulting toxins are excreted while the cleansed blood recirculates. When an overwhelmed liver fails to break down the blood’s contaminants (even beneficial ones, such as painkillers), the pollutants poison the liver cells instead. These anatomical details are important because Rankine focuses on Americans’ many remedies to ease the distress of living in twenty-first-century America, palliatives that inadvertently damage our actual or metaphorical livers.
Whether we ingest pharmaceuticals such as Tylenol, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft, and Lithium, or self-prescribe “therapeutic” television and DVD viewing to ameliorate feelings of isolation and despair, our medicated lives paradoxically trigger an American cultural condition of hepatotoxicity that will destroy us. Rankine’s suggestion that commodity culture is killing us is nothing new—modernism, as always, got their first. William Carlos Williams’s “To Elsie” (1923) laments the “young slatterns, bathed/ in filth/ from Monday to Saturday// to be tricked out that night/ with gauds/ from imaginations which have no// peasant traditions to give them/ character.”2 By the 1930s, Clement Greenberg denigrated kitschy pleasures, an argument reiterated a few years later in Dwight Macdonald’s invective against the “spreading ooze” of middlebrow culture.3 For Williams, Greenberg, and Macdonald, the remedy is the high modernist avant-garde.4
But Rankine’s medicine is a distinct variation on this theme, albeit common in postwar poetics. Her cure is not exactly high art (even if poetry is hard to envision otherwise at this cultural moment). Instead, she posits a form of poetry that aims to clean out America’s blood more thoroughly than any elite verse. Several times she inserts a diagram of this process, depicting the liver curiously detached from other organs (fig. 1).
Resting next to the stomach, the liver empties into the intestines, refigured as a silhouetted map of the United States. With the large intestines refigured as American territory, Rankine’s liver-writing aims to clean out the country of toxins by analyzing them and transforming them into benign substances. Her book about the liver is also a book that operates as a liver. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely reimagines the American lyric as an essential organ of the body politic, with her book of poetry serving as a node of attachment.
Liver-writing targets a particular kind of toxin: heinous events inflected by political or racial hatred. The civilian deaths on 9/11, the vicious murder of James Byrd, Jr., and the police brutalization of Abner Louima are documented with extensive, explanatory footnotes. Yet to capture the liver-poem’s purification process in action, Rankine’s lyrical essay does not merely refer to pop culture or describe the deleterious effects of American social dysfunction. Instead, she scrapbooks the images and records testimony of the events—collaging and transforming them. The book is filled with images copied and pasted from everywhere: a friend’s misdiagnosed mammogram, photographs of ash-coated surfaces from the World Trade Center, political cartoons circulating on the internet, and warning labels from medicine bottles, among other things. Each section of the book begins with an image of a television screening blotted fuzz, roughed up to resemble the texture of stone (fig. 2).
While relying on the historically opposed structure of the mass culture/high art dynamic—televised fuzz collaged into a book of artful poetry—Rankine and likeminded poets attempt to defuse the negative associations of high art’s elitism and detachment from the world by literalizing poetic meaning. The physical and bodily equate with the personal and political. “Think of breath on a mirror,” writes contemporary poet Peter Gizzi, from a collection Rankine co-edited: “Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can record this ‘other’ poem and make it my own.”5 For Gizzi, a poem succeeds when it records an uncanny poetic experience as a palpable, personal, bodily one. Poetry fails—even at being poetry—when it is abstract or merely thoughtful. So D.A. Powell insists (from the same edited collection): “Intellects don’t write poems. While they’re wonderful to have, they are no substitute for the body’s sense of the world.”6
The disdain for poems authored by the “intellect,” and the concurrent predilection for the collage-lyric the body writes, developed out of a rich set of transdisciplinary aesthetic debates occurring throughout the long modernist period (1914-1975). For poets such as Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and Williams, a poem’s literal incorporation of the world—or a work’s refusal to blend itself with the world—signaled a refashioning of what aesthetic autonomy and poetic use could mean. Observing the collages of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris, modernist writers pondered what it meant to include a piece of the world as such into an aesthetic object. Incorporating a “breath” into a poem seemed comparable to gluing a piece of wallpaper onto a painting. In either case, including a literal substance of the world, however ephemeral it might be, alters the work as a whole.
But from the start, artists, critics, and other writers advanced different interpretations of the aesthetic transformation collage produced. Literal elements in a painting or poem might be understood as scraps of the real, or satirical symbols of degraded mass culture, or parodies of illusionism, or strategies aimed to solve a formal puzzle about the picture plane’s flatness. Collage instigated radically divergent versions of an art object’s ontology—whatever type of art object it might be. These different accounts tended to gravitate to one or another of two opposing positions. On the one hand, collage could support a hopeful promise of a unifying, conceptual frame transcending its various challenges. On the other, collage could signify the work’s total dependence on the world, rendering aesthetic autonomy impossible.
From these opposed interpretive possibilities emerged two distinct understandings of the reader’s relation to a literary text. One posits the irrelevance of the reader to the meaning of the poem, with the aesthetic frame tested but intact; the other posits the collapse of the frame distinguishing the work from the world, declaring the inevitable involvement of the reader in the production of poetry’s meaning. Writers such as Gertrude Stein and Wyndham Lewis depict the former belief by suggesting that a text’s meaning can be separated from the reader’s job, a theory I have termed “meaning’s autonomy.”7 Another, more varied group poets, ranging from Charles Olson and Amiri Baraka, to Brenda Hillman, Victor Hernández Cruz, and Juliana Spahr, follow the latter, diametrically opposed notion of “meaning’s incorporation.” This view supports the idea that the reader’s body inextricably relates to an art object’s meaning.
Much postwar poetry, and especially twenty-first-century poetry, adheres to this latter view, derived from Olson’s and Baraka’s positions. As Olson writes, “there is simply ourselves, and where we are has a particularity which we’d better use because that’s about all we’ve got . . . Put an end to nation, put an end to culture, put an end to divisions of all sorts.”8 For Olson, particularity counts far more than political, cultural, ideological, or other conceptual distinctions, even if his paradoxical conception doesn’t permit counting abstractly, or any other abstract dividing up of the world. What is novel here is not the social role imagined for poetry, but the extreme literalism (a mutated Whitman) that locates in language’s materiality a political solution to eliminate “divisions of all sorts.” Even when Olson’s insights on incorporation are not explicitly cited, they linger unmistakably.
Thus Myung Mi Kim observes in Commons (2002) that “the lyric undertakes the task of deciphering and embodying a ‘particularizable’ prosody of one’s living.”9 Once that particular “prosody” is translated and embodied in poetry, a political or ethical process can be initiated “to mobilize the notion of our responsibility to one another in social space” (Commons, 111). Political and ethical action works through an embodied, poetic conduit, just as Rankine must think through her liver as if to weep. In Kim’s view, connections to others cannot emerge by thinking about others, or talking to them, or analyzing them, precisely because the words used to signify in these abstract ways leave out a part of language: “sound’s physicality” (Commons, 109). For Kim and Rankine both, only embodied poetry manifests political or ethical relations. Sound’s particularity challenges concepts articulated in language: “Counter the potential totalizing power of language that serves the prevailing systems and demands of coherence” (Commons, 110). Every word in Commons opposes abstract political terms associated with those systems of coherence (citizen, nation, liberalism, etc.), such that words like “America” appear rarely, and in particularizing scare quotes when they do.
Or consider Juliana Spahr’s “Poem Written After September 11, 2001” from This Connection of Everyone with Lungs (2005), which makes explicit the political aims—and the lack of political stakes—of incorporatist poetics. Taking the personal-is-political argument literally, the poem invokes breath to realize our commonality with all human beings, depicting a particularist alternative to human relations based on universalism. Ruminating on our thingness as living beings, Spahr focuses on small component parts of the body, our constantly dividing cells fueled by blood-borne oxygen. Gradually, the poem’s concerns expand beyond our “shape” to the “space” outside our bodies: between our hands, around our feet, between us and other people.10 We are not separate from this space but contiguous with it: “The space goes in and out of everyone’s bodies./ Everyone with lungs breathes the space in and out as everyone/ with lungs breathes the space between the hands in and out.” Invariably, we breathe in some of this same air from both near and far, “all of it entering in and out” of our bodies (“Poem Written,” 9-10).
If Spahr’s trope of air as universal connection were simply a metaphorical commonality, then there would be no need to point out, as she does, that breathing physically connects us all to one another, that because you and I both breathe from the same capacious, but ultimately limited supply of the planet’s air, we therefore physically connect to one another. The same ashy, WTC air we reluctantly breathe in Manhattan, Brooklyn, or (eventually) everywhere else is also, literally, the 9/11 victim’s last breath: “the space of everyone that has just been inside of everyone mixing inside of everyone…” (“Poem Written,” 9). We all are New Yorkers on September 12, 2001 not because we empathize or identify with the city’s residents, but because our bodies connect to all other bodies through the air we breathe. According to the logic of Spahr’s poem, we are connected to everyone and anything that ever did or ever will breathe for as long as basic chemical elements and molecules exist. And while Spahr does not carry her vision further, according to her poetics our unavoidable oneness with other inhalers and exhalers is precisely what makes it impossible to envision political or any other kind of subjectivity.
In making these claims, Kim, Spahr, Rankine, and other postwar poets rely on a particular revision—more accurately, a misreading—of modernism, often hinging on Gertrude Stein’s inventive poetics. Their literary critical work interprets Stein according to an incorporative poetics even though Stein’s work consistently rejected precisely this view.12 Rankine’s inclusion of Stein typifies these moves, as when Rankine ends her book’s first section (on death, dying, and terminal illness) with a passage from Stein’s Wars I Have Seen: “If everybody did not die the earth would be all covered over and I, I as I, could not have come to be . . .”13 For Rankine, Stein is noticing that our bodies’ uncontrollable thingness surprises us (the way cancer does its victims), yet such objecthood must be faced.
But that reading can’t be right. Stein is exploring how we are not things, and she does so through a thought experiment. Trying not to be herself, or to care about her identity and her existence, she notices that she cannot: “as much as I can try not to be I, nevertheless, I would mind that so much . . .” (Wars, 14). Since she must admit that her existence requires that she (and everyone else) come to an eventual end, she reasons, “then why not die[?]” Yet accepting death so easily looks too much like equating ourselves with things that cannot consciously know of or care about their existence: “and yet and again not a thing, not a thing to be liking, not a thing” (Wars, 14). Stein’s paradox works as follows: while only things are in a position to accept the cavalier possibility of “so why not die[?],” things can’t think this. People can, even though they reject the idea of their annihilation as “not a thing to be liking.” Thus, in Stein’s view, a person is distinguishable from a thing (“not a thing”) precisely because a person can imagine thinking as if she were a thing (or she can reject that thought), while a thing cannot imagine thinking (or refusing to think) like a person.
So much for Stein. Better for Rankine to invoke Williams. Acknowledged or not, he was her theoretical and intellectual ancestor, writing poetry that served as a crucial intermediary stage in American poetics’ transition from meaning’s autonomy to Olson’s and Baraka’s notion of meaning’s incorporation. His notorious motto, “No ideas but in things,” supported an intricate model of the poem as a written “thing” that only functions by acting on the reader’s body, creating a change in them and their cultural outlook.14 But the close affinity between Williams’s avant-garde poetics and Rankine’s also underscores the extent to which conventional accounts of twentieth-century poetry’s periodization requires revising. Not prewar versus postwar, or modernism versus postmodernism. Instead, postmodern debates pitting textual experience against textual representation can and should be refigured as only the latest, less nuanced iteration of a set of conversations about aesthetic autonomy, the role of different media and translations between them, the relevance (or not) of readers to meaning, and the political stakes of poetry.
In the process of misconstruing modernism, this contemporary poetry also fails to realize its own expressed political aims. At its most ambitious, Don’t Let Me be Lonely envisions a form of plurality in which the “me” of the title locates a collectivity of “me’s” without, on the one hand, creating a mirror world of narcissists or, on the other, creating a new category of the universal human. That is why Rankine’s discussion with the Pakistani taxi driver emphasizes the hypocrisy of terms like equality. Living in the U.S. for decades, both she and the driver have noticed that white, American citizens “think they are better than everyone else” (89). Egalitarianism and fraternalism are deemed a farce, so a different kind of collective relation must be envisioned, one focused on the “me” instead of the “I.” Rankine works hard to avoid the perceived falsity of grammatical abstraction in the singular nominative “subject position”: “Is ‘I’ even me or am ‘I’ a gearshift to get from one sentence to the next? Should I say we?” (54). How does one “say we” without meaning “I, I, I, . . .” abstracted, mechanized, and pluralized? The aim is to reach other liver-writers through the particulars of our bodies instead of through language’s “gearshift[s].”
To see both the hope and the impossibility of this endeavor, consider one instance of a moment that counts, for Rankine, as a (relative) success: “Or say a friend develops Alzheimer’s” (17). She proceeds to describe finding his slate chalkboard (after his death), permanently etched with the phrase, “this [thus?] is the most miserable in my life.” The statement is comprehensible but strange, missing a modifying phrase such as, ‘that I’ve been/felt.’ Apparently, he can’t say that he is experiencing a feeling or depicting a state of being, and that is part of his misery. As language becomes inaccessible, he feels he is becoming more like what Stein would call a “thing.” But for Rankine, taking the slate home with her serves as an ideal instance of interactive connection. She hangs it up in her study, so that “Whenever I look up from my desk it is there—” (17), and reinserts the image of that chalkboard, and its etched words, on the page of her poem (Fig. 3).
By incorporating—scratching, let’s say—an image into her own book of poetry, she connects to someone else’s body through their handwriting. Giving that image to her readers, she (as, presumably, do I, by giving it to you) provides us with a literal means of connecting with someone not as a neighbor or friend or citizen, but as a liver to the intestines. Repeating the above image of her friend’s handwriting four times, she even places two copies on the recto and verso of the same leaf, so that the images partially overlap if you hold them up to light. Page and etching are made palpable, with the page imaginatively transformed back into its engraved ur-form, a thing scratched “with some sort of sharp edge” (18).
Finally, this episode is introduced as a hypothetical possibility (“Or say…”), because it is meant to count as exemplary, but not as a universal truth. Rankine’s connection to an Alzheimer’s sufferer is not generalizable. It’s also not fully linguistic. When her friend begins exhibiting symptoms she can’t fathom what he means: he points to the television and says he wants “to see the lady who deals in death” (18). Eventually, she surmises he’s referring to Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. With language failing him, it’s not enough to quote him: his hand mark actualizes a tormented presence. As she explains in a different section, poetry has “to hold the pain, and then to translate it here” (57). Her hybrid version of writing as pain translation also appears when she glosses the word “here” at the end of the book as signifying both presence and a transaction. But it is also clear that this “writing” does not produce a viable political connection or even a social one. It produces a physical, felt relation.
The true politics associated with this position is a no politics: a “politics” of breathing or being a liver, of being “politically” connected to someone because the molecules in your lungs might eventually end up in theirs. In the epigraph of the book, Rankine quotes Aimé Césaire: “And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator…” Refusing the supposed “sterility” of spectatorship, poets following the path of Rankine (and Spahr, Kim, and Olson), refuse to allow that readers might be able to make sense of a poem while not literally or theoretically contributing to its meaning. In the process, these contemporary poets also withhold from their poetry everything but a declaration of presence: the presumably photoshopped “HERE.” on a billboard included at her book’s conclusion (fig. 4). “HERE” is the present particularity that cleans the world one slender book of poems, or one liver, at a time. A small, feeble liver it is. Postwar poetry that reads the moderns more carefully is—or will be—a more ambitious and interesting poetry, aiming for something other than the life of an organ.