Thursday, October 20, 2011

Claudia Rankine @ Chicago Humanities Festival

Claudia Rankine speaking to a fan
Rankine (l) & attendee
It's been a tough few weeks--such are our quarters!--but I have a little breather today, so I thought I'd post on the Chicago Humanities Festival presentation, this past Sunday, of Claudia Rankine, one of the more original and to me, compelling, creative minds working today.  Rankine, a native of Jamaica, longtime resident of New York, and now the Henry G. Lee Professor of English at Pomona College, originally gained notice for a series of award-winning books of poetry, including The End of the Alphabet (1998) and PLOT (2001), which are highly innovative in terms of form and content, but it was her last book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely (Graywolf, 2004), which has perhaps garnered the most praise, not least because it manages to achieve so many things and in ways that, as with her earlier books, feel new and utterly particular to her vision.  Blending poetry, meditative essay, fictional narration, and visual images, Don't Let Me Be Lonely beguiles and provokes the reader into believing it is true, that it is autobiographical and memoristic, yet it creates and resounds with affective and social truths that anyone living and thinking about life in contemporary America, and particularly after 9/11, realizes sooner or later.
Claudia Rankine at the Chicago Humanities Festival
Rankine speaking at the Chicago Humanities Festival
The Festival had billed Rankine's presentation as a discussion of Don't Let Me Be Lonely, but in the years since that book appeared she has produced a range of other work, including short video films, a play, and essays, and she shared some of these with those present. First she showed three videos she had created with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, entitled Situation 1, Situation 2, and Situation 5. In the first, they utilized a video clip from the 2006 Soccer World Cup final, in which French star Zinedine Zidane infamously headbutted Italian player Marco Materazzi, and removed all of the other French players "to isolate" Zidane. They then slowed the clip down, and paired it with a cento-style text, read by Rankine, comprising snippets of prose by authors such as James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, Homi Bhabha, Frantz Fanon, William Shakespeare, and others. The effect of the slowed but still-moving images and Rankine's incantatory verbal performance was hypnotic, and the moment in which Zidane responds to Materazzi's provocations packed far more power than when I'd seen it before. Some of the lines I noted included: "Who is forced to snatch his humanity....out of the fire of human cruelty"; "he state of emergency is also always a state of emergence"; "I resolved to fight"; and "It is the white man who creates the black man, but it is the black man who creates."
"Situation 1," by Claudia Rankine & John Lucas
A still from Situation 1, by Rankine & Lucas
In Situation 2, a meditation on 9/11, Rankine and Lucas snapped still photos of people asleep on planes, with moving imagery of the clouds just beyond the frames, and paired this with a text Rankine wrote that managed both to feel ethereal and quite profound.  The video captures the physical and psychological vulnerability and innocence of human beings while sleeping, "the body at rest, inaugurating its form," especially while traveling by airplane or any other means of mass conveyance, which also entails trust, rationalization and faith in the pilot carrying them. For the passengers on the four airplanes that were transformed into missiles and weapons of destruction, however, this basic ontological understanding was upended. The oneiric style of Rankine's poetry here camouflages several parallel tracks, which included some of the horrifying calls people placed on 9/11 and a low human heartbeat, and thus, as anyone who travels must, the potential terror underlying this experience, but slowly it emerges, leading us to acknowledge that even on a perfectly safe flight, we surrender all control and, at a certain point if and when we close our eyes, "there is no self, just this falling off."
A still from "Situation 5," by Claudia Rankine & John Lucas
A still from Situation 5, by Rankine & Lucas
The third video, Situation 5, was also quite powerful. At first observation it appears to be a narrator's evocation of family ties, of "brothers" to and with whom the narrator is seeking to deepen understanding and affection. Yet the video is actually about two men who were imprisoned for years, and about whom Lucas is making a documentary, The Cooler Bandits (title?). In fact, the images showed them departing prison for the first time. Knowing this, Rankine's soundtrack text--"My brothers...have not been to prison, but they have been imprisoned"; "On my birthday...they say my name"; "We open our mouths to speak, and out come blossoms"; "I say goodbye before anyone can hang up. Don't hang up." etc.--assumes an importance, a weight, an ominousness, that continues to deepen in retrospect.
A still from "Situation 5," by Claudia Rankine & John Lucas
A still from Situation 5, by Rankine & Lucas
A still from "Situation 5," by Claudia Rankine & John Lucas
A still from Situation 5, by Rankine & Lucas
I was only partly aware of Rankine's collaborations with Lucas, and greatly appreciated that she chose to share them as part of her presentation. Aesthetically and technically they suggest productive ways that poets in particular might rethink and develop their work in light of new digital technologies. (My colleague John Bresland has done some fine work, along the video essay spectrum, in this area.) They also represent a logical and technological expansion of Rankine's poetics, combining as they do her playful and provocative approach to poetry with other forms and genres.  I was thinking of what it might look to read these situations as still images intercut with texts, and then to have an e-book that featured these videos as well, and how that would destabilize and reconfigure my reading and viewing of either. (With Apple e-books, this is possible.)

After the videos, Rankine talked about a memoir that she is currently working on, which she envisions as a history of Black people in America, or to put it in another way, a singular autobiography that is also a general one. She read from it and followed this with a poem, "The Health of Us," that was inspired by "the moment of the possibility of the public option." Among the lines I noted down were: "to know every other as another" and "we thought we were ready to see sanity inside humanity." She concluded with a poem with blues inflections, a work in which I heard a conversation with Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Margaret Walker, and Walt Whitman, a poem invoking "the body as the singing that knew," noting "each blues recalling there is a history no me can erase," and querying, "Oh father, how did I come to be so lost in America?"  I left the event more invigorated than I've felt on any weekend of late, and thank the Chicago Humanities Festival for bringing Rankine, who once again brought her brilliance to Evanston. Here's the video Situation 5, which I found on YouTube:

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