Monday, February 14, 2005

The first lines of the first poem in Claudia Rankine's second book, The End of the Alphabet are "Difficult to pinpoint // fear of self, uncoiled." Those lines are the cornerstone or master key to her intensely moral poetry, which constantly confronts the fear of the experience of selfhood both in individuals and in larger entities—corporations, the media, the military—that have a stake in diminishing the true value of our lives. The End of the Alphabet was probably the first really "difficult" book of poetry I encountered while an MFA student at the University of Montana; I can't exactly remember, but I was probably introduced to the book by my teacher Mary Jo Bang, whom Rankine thanks on the copyright page. Immersed as I was at the time in epiphanic lyric and poems full of tough-guy evocations of mountains and bars, I didn't really know what to make of Rankine's abstract-seeming, titleless poems (among other things, it was one of my first encounters with the serial form). What to make of the first poem of "Testimonial":

As if I craved error, as if love were ahistorical,
I came to live in a country not at first my own
and here came to love a man not stopped by reticence.

And because it seemed right
love of this man would look like freedom,

the lone expanse of his back
would be found land, I turned,

as a brown field turns, suddenly grown green,
for this was the marriage waited for: the man
desiring as I, movement toward mindful and yet.

It was June, brilliant. The sun higher than God.
Now this looks like a straightforward and lovely piece of epithalamion, but at the time it was hard for me to appreciate such rhetorically understated writing. (This also prevented me from appreciating another poet who combines erotico-religious intensity with understatement that I first encountered at about the same time—Donald Revell.) Other sources of relief exterior to language as such, like humor, are similarly missing, to the point that some friends and I used to make fun of the intense seriousness and sobriety in Rankine's third book, Plot, intoning made-up lines like, "Ersatz, the baby's femur / separated in dread!" But there's more to Rankine than sobriety: Plot is a kind of Gothic romance of the self in the course of transformation through the "plot" of nine-months pregnancy. Even more than Alphabet it's a tour-de-force of American écriture feminine: the story of a woman coming to recognize the other that she is and contains, for her husband, for society, and for herself. It also represents the move toward prose poetry, or a combination of the two, that culminates in the book that's truly moved me to nominate Rankine for Groodness, the astonishing and heartbreaking Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, which Jordan praised back in January. This book deserves much more attention than its gotten. It's tempting to classify it as a sort of high journalism or editorial, akin in its critical spirit (which also contains actual news and actual truth about current events) to Jasper's marvelous Etymological Excursion. Or you might call it a "lyric essay," the form described/defined by John D'Agata and the Seneca Review. The book includes photographs, Barthesian readings of films like The Wild Bunch and media events like Princess Di's funeral, as well as "hard news" (it's difficult to draw a line here) like the execution of Timothy McVeigh, the 9/11 attacks and the pickup-truck lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. This stuff is hard to quote but you can read the section referring to the latter here. Narrative is a much more overt presence in these pages than it is in Rankine's previous books (I should note here that I haven't read her first book, Nothing In Nature Is Private) as is Rankine's overt prose self, a black woman turning forty confronting private and public tragedies in a culture that denies the real meaning of the tragic. The first sentence here is, "There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died." That's American amnesia in a nutshell: we never remember death in this country, not those of our soldiers or those of the poor or those of communities who've lost their economic reason for being, or those of the nameless, faceless Iraqis whose deaths we've supposedly redeemed by the gift of democracy. And we certainly don't remember our own deaths—for Rankine, this forgetting is the source or nexus of our loneliness:
Or, well, I tried to fit language into the shape of usefulness. The world moves through words as if the bodies the words reflect did not exist. The world, like a giant liver, receives everyone and everything, including these words: Is he dead? Is she dead? The words remain an inscription on the surface of my loneliness. This loneliness stems from a feeling of uselessness. Then Coetzee's Costello says in her fictional lecture, "for instants at a time I know what it is like to be a corpse."
Heavy, yes, but useful in the sense she wants it to be—in assuaging loneliness, hers and hours. The paragraph on the following page is also worth quoting in full: it refracts O'Hara's Personism through the intense historical urgency that Paul Celan's writing always invokes and demands:
Or Paul Celan said that the poem was no different from a handshake. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem—is how Rosemary [sic] Waldrop translated his German. The handshake is our decided ritual of both asserting (I am here) and handing over (here) a self to another. Hence the poem is that—Here. I am here. This conflation of the solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence perhaps has everything to do with being alive.
Rankine's assertion of presence and hereness through the "touch" of the poem versus the bodilessness of words in the world's movement seems very un-Languagey and anti-postmodernist until you realize that what she's powerfully making a claim for is the imagination necessary to make the bodies (and particularly the faces) behind words real, and that it's the deficit of such imagination that we as Americans suffer from and force others to suffer through, in spite/because of being the world's number one exporter of imaginative imagery. Imagining the other, putting yourself in contact with them: that's the embodiment of/in language that I'm calling with Stevens Change. And the urgency of that change is felt through the power of the Abstract that poetry must be in order to present us with reality in apprehendable pieces. The Pleasure? No more or less than the touch of the poet's hand, something to grasp in the dark.

Those are my Five Grood Poets. There are many others, but I'm going to pull back from enumerating their virtues here for a while, at least in any programmatic way. I hope I've done these writers some good by pointing them toward new readers, and I hope I've done something to make my own values as a poet a little clearer. Avanti and out.

as she says on the following page, quoting Paul Celan in Rosmarie Waldrop's translation, "I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem." This is O'Hara's Personism in more dire circumstances, when friendship

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