Trying to understand the tragedy of New Orleans, my mind reaches for poetry and brings me back to a passage from Claudia Rankine’s book-length prose poem Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In the passage reprinted online as an excerpt in Boston Review, Rankine writes about James Byrd Jr., the black man who was dragged from the back of a pickup truck in Texas during George W.’s governorship. While publicly talking about the brutal killing, Bush could not recall some of the most basic facts about the crime. Through images combined with the clearest of prose, Rankine explores the deep connection between Bush’s poor memory and his racist apathy. She brings us into the dead center of Bush’s not caring about black people. There, she reveals a profound nihilism. What does life mean when individual lives, erased through sanctioned hate, do not matter?
Rankine raises enormous, painfully pressing questions throughout Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. One of them is “Define loneliness?” This question comes as a delayed response to a request made four pages earlier when a voice says, “Define loneliness.” This dialogue between two inner voices – one quietly demanding, the other possibly in shock, trying to respond – is palpably lonely. Heightening this feeling is what comes in between the request and the reply: on one page, we find a picture of a static-filled television; on the next comes a scene in which the poet is listening to her sister, who has just lost her children and husband in a car accident. When we then turn the page to discover the words “Define loneliness?” we are immersed in a lonely state, one which seems too large to define, but because Rankine’s voice goes directly to the heart and conscience, we are connected too. We are with the poet and her voices, and we are all terribly alone:
It’s what we can’t do for each other.
What do we mean to each other?
What does a life mean?
Why are we here if not for each other?
The final question provides the last print on the page. It hangs above several inches of white space. In that space, these questions repeat themselves, forever defining the infinite loneliness of this world.