Poetry News

Kate Zambreno on Grief, Marlene Dumas, & Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely

By Harriet Staff
Claudia Rankine, Don't Let Me Be Lonely, cover

At Affidavit, Kate Zambreno responds to Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, Marilyn Monroe's death, and Marlene Dumas's paintings as part of an essay about death, grief, and longing. "I want to think about images of sadness that we borrow from," Zambreno writes. From there: 

Marlene Dumas’s series of crying women in cinema reminds me of that moment near the beginning of Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, when the speaker visits the Museum of Emotions in London, and is supposed to answer Yes or No to the question in an installation: “Were you terribly upset and did you find yourself weeping when Princess Diana died?” The speaker steps on the tile for “No” and is not allowed to continue the quiz. She then wonders if Princess Diana was ever really alive to anyone outside of those who knew her. Perhaps mourning her death was in some ways a projection. A still from a TV, the thousands of mourners leaving flowers in front of the palace. Rankine writes, “Weren’t they mourning the protection they felt she should have had? A protection they’ll never have? Weren’t they simply grieving the random inevitability of their own deaths?”

These blocks of texts like film stills or the static of TV screens. A contemplative space to gaze into. In both Dumas’s paintings and Rankine’s text, a repository of constant images from the media. The speaker sits in her room and watches TV. An early memory of watching movies as a child, and always wondering if the actor on the screen is now dead. “The years went by and people only died on television—if they weren’t Black, they were wearing black or were terminally ill.”  She feels oversaturated by a collective grief, what she sees through the screen, black men murdered or beaten by police, the events of 9/11. National images of mourning. Which reminds me of Marlene Dumas’s series of African women whose husbands were political prisoners or assassinated—like her paintings of Pauline Lumumba, inspired by that newspaper photograph of her walking through the street, chest ritualistically bared, mourning her slain husband, the former prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a museum of sadness, both private and collective. In the first passage, a block of text in its own page/wall, like an installation, two layered childhood memories, her mother’s stillbirth when the speaker was eight, and her father sitting on a stoop outside, his face leaking, as his mother had just died. The book begins, “There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died. This is not to suggest no one died.” These juxtaposed portraits of private grief—the speaker’s depression, her sister’s tragic loss of her entire family in a car crash, a friend dying of breast cancer, another friend’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, another friend’s even more severe depression. In that scene, the speaker narrates going over to her friend’s house, where they watch Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. As they watch the film her friend begins weeping. A still of Klaus Kinski. The next section/installation, after a blank page and another blank page, with an illustration of the static of a TV screen, an image of Timothy McVeigh’s empty electric chair (Warhol?), a consideration of Jacques Derrida’s writings on forgiveness. The speaker decides that forgiveness is not a form of madness, as Derrida claims, but instead a sort of death. “It is a feeling of nothingness that cannot be communicated to another, an absence, a bottomless vacancy held by the living, beyond all that is hated or loved.”

Read more at Affidavit.

Originally Published: March 13th, 2018