- The Archival Poetics of Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely:An American Lyric
The X-ray image of a cancerous breast lump, warning labels from assorted prescription medication bottles, still shots of well-known movies, and photographs of unused stretchers at Ground Zero in New York City are among the visual materials in Claudia Rankine's volume Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004). The images of memorial artifacts mix with those from U.S. news media at the turn of the twenty-first century, which highlight, for example, TV coverage of the death of Princess Diana, the execution of Timothy McVeigh, and the acts of racist police violence that caused the death of Amadou Diallo and the near death of Abner Louima. A constellation of photographs and text―prose poems extending into an expansive set of endnotes―the volume provides a repository for details about these and other recent historical events. Don't Let Me Be Lonely actively archives, gathering distinct forms of documentation that testify to contemporary incidents and facts. At the same time, the book reflects a pointed investment in narrativizing and thus making the contours of its archive visible. Rankine's collection attests to various models of documentation and accentuates the limits of their representational strategies.
Archival form is integral to the book's function as historical record and to promoting various modes of poetic documentation. As a collection structured by visual and textual documents that engage the question of what it means to live through and chronicle [End Page 173] the present, Don't Let Me Be Lonely is an essential case study for an archival poetics.1 I argue that this mode of literary assemblage and inquiry draws attention to the politics of knowledge, memory, and efforts to account for the contemporary moment―especially those aspects of the present in crisis. Archival poetic approaches like Rankine's ground themselves in historical events and facts, but they do so self-reflectively. In other words, they evidence the kind of reflexivity that Joseph Harrington has described as a possibility for more traditionally documentary poetic forms: "a self-consciously archival or documentary poetry might interrogate itself―cop to its own violence and bad faith―while at the same time owning and reveling in the imaginative desire that drives it" (n. pag.). An archival poetics partially resembles a documentary poetics―especially as Adalaide Morris describes the latter designation: "less a systematic theory or doctrine of a kind of poetry than an array of strategies and techniques that position a poem to participate in discourses of reportage for political and ethical purposes" (372). By using the word "archival" in place of "documentary," I emphasize how such poetry makes visible its management of the tensions inherent to documentary work. In assembling visual and textual forms of documentation and presenting their gaps and breaking points, an archival poetics directly addresses the instability and sensitivity that Trinh T. Minh-Ha deems central to any documentary practice. Minh-Ha writes: "[a] documentary aware of its own artifice is one that remains sensitive to the flow between fact and fiction" (89).
Rankine's archival approach "remains sensitive to the flow between fact and fiction" in its depiction of the tensions between methods of documentation that purport to be objective or journalistic and those that are framed explicitly as subjective or affective. This contrast is most striking between news media coverage and detailed prosaic records of everyday feelings. Through visual and textual forms, the book frames news media and descriptive accounts of [End Page 174] ordinary affective experiences as ways of mediating current events without entirely separating the methods of mediation. In this way, the volume illuminates Kathleen Stewart's description of "ordinary affects" as "public feelings that begin and end in broad circulation … the stuff that seemingly intimate lives are made of" (2). Particularly in its focus on racialized violence against black men in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century, Rankine's archival poetics reveals how news media coverage shapes ordinary affects and how descriptions of such feelings in turn might be understood as potent forms of present...