Commentary, Essays

“Dismal Situations”: Loneliness, Racism, and Knowing the Present Through Verse

By Jack Chelgren | Special Projects Intern and Contributing Writer


As a word is
mostly connotation,

 matter is mostly


(The same loneliness
that separates me

 from what I call
“the world.”)

— Rae Armantrout, “A Resemblance”



It’s afternoon not long ago. I’m listening to music in my apartment, and “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” the closer from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, comes on.

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68
And he told me, “All romantics meet the same fate someday:
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café.”

When is this narrator speaking? Not right then as I listen, of course, but not necessarily in 1971, when the record came out, either. Mitchell could have performed the lucky cut that made it onto the album at any number of times before the release date, and in truth it doesn’t matter when she first spoke, recorded, wrote, or published those words. The song has a distinct temporality regardless of the moment of the original performance: it sounds like the 1970s (or how I, who wasn’t alive then, imagine the 1970s sounded).

As Mitchell coos and bangs on her piano, I think of Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There, Benjamin argues that mechanical reproduction destroys the aura of an artwork, prying it from the unique contexts and status that surround it. In another era one had to actually go somewhere to view a statue or listen to music; today we can conjure images, sounds, and replicas of images and sounds in books, on stereos, TVs, and laptops. That’s mechanical reproduction. Snatched from museums and performance halls and scattered throughout the world, art has lost the determinate surroundings, purpose, and framings that, in another era, were nearly inseparable from it. Behind the iTunes window in which I’ve queued up Blue, I have Édouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe as my desktop background.



Benjamin’s whole argument about aura strikes me as rather simplistic, if not outright mistaken.[1] Haven’t books and other written artworks been subject to mechanical reproduction for as long as they’ve existed, and haven’t they still managed to command unique and powerful auras? And now, listening to Joni Mitchell, I realize that nothing poses so forceful a challenge to Benjamin’s argument as a work like Blue, which elegantly and affectingly succeeds in evoking the aura of a particular moment. In fact, Blue evokes the auras of an entire set of moments: the historical moment of Nixon-era America; the personal moment of the speaker’s encounter with Richard; and other, more contextual moments linked to the speaker’s various roles in the world—social, political, economic, aesthetic. They are simultaneous and asynchronous, temporal and not, and located at various stations on the hermeneutic circle: moments associated with the artwork, the artist, and the audience.

We have the reference to 1968 in the opening line identifying the clock-and-calendar present of the song, a precise moment in time that situates the narration around that year, but long enough after so that the speaker could refer to ’68 with the distance that phrasing implies. There’s the mention of the Wurlitzer in the bar, restaurant, or “dark café” where the song takes place, which corroborates the circa-1970 feel. And then there are the “dishwasher and coffee perculator [sic]” that Richard buys for his figure skater wife as he sinks into enervated, domestic anonymity. As with the Wurlitzer, the significance the speaker affords to these appliances dates the song for many present-day American listeners. Their status as emblems of mass-produced middle class-ness may have faded somewhat; today’s “dishwasher and coffee perculator” might be an Apple TV and a gas fireplace.

The present can be geographic as well as temporal, “here” as well as “now.” When Mitchell sings, “The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in ’68,” she’s telling us that a place, Detroit, is as definitive of the song’s now as a calendar year. The present to which she refers—not the moment of the song’s performance, but the moment that was the present in ’68—conflates a spatial present with a temporal one. The prominence of physical objects in the text further defines the social landscape. The Wurlizter shows us the bar; the domestic appliances and subsequently mentioned “houselights left all bright” render Richard’s home, the site of his tragic married life. The song’s lexicon of objects thus fills out a variety of locations, giving its participants presence in space as well as time.

We can furthermore understand the present as structured by feeling: Lauren Berlant lobbies in Cruel Optimism that “the present is perceived, first, affectively.” The affective aura of “The Last Time I Saw Richard”—more baldly put, its tone—represents a kind of felt now, the medley of affects through which the speaker perceives and articulates her experience. Initially saddened by Richard’s melancholy, she ends the song grappling with the same depression: “I’m gonna blow this damn candle out, / I don’t want nobody comin’ over to my table, / I got nothing to talk to anybody about.” She retains a vestige of wild optimism—“Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away, / Only a phase, these dark café days”—but the over-the-top intensity of those final vows frame the speaker’s hopefulness as tragically naïve.

Fredric Jameson argues that the contemporary moment has witnessed “a waning of affect” in exchange for a more depthless sort of feeling associated with the postmodern. At least with Mitchell’s work, though, I think we are safe to retain the old, pre-postmodern term affect: hers aren’t the extreme, sudden, and historically ungrounded “intensities” Jameson describes. Ironically, while bending to Richard’s grim pronouncement that ‘All romantics meet the same fate,’ “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is without doubt a typically, aesthetically Romantic vehicle of emotional expression. It’s a song about the emotional life of the speaker, and the feelings it deals in, though haunted by confusion and doubt, are its most outstanding feature.

Returning to Benjamin’s claim, then, a work of art might not be unique with mechanical reproduction, but “The Last Time I Saw Richard” shows us that art nonetheless has the potential to evoke a rich and complex aura. Or perhaps aura isn’t the right term. Blue’s potent, intimate constellation of moments may be more aligned with Martin Heidegger’s remark that “To be a work means: to create a world.” The term world, which connotes the complexity, changefulness, and almost ecosystem-like contingency of art’s significance, may be more productive than a Benjaminian aura for thinking about how a work exists and means across historical, personal, and political settings.



However one chooses to describe the process, the moments represented in “The Last Time I Saw Richard” show us the present as thoroughly multifaceted. Experiencing the now is always in fact to experience a complex array of “nows”: temporal, spatial, affective, political, economic, and so on. I’m reminded of the introduction of Satan in the first book of Paradise Lost, which finds the fallen angel in a landscape where time, space, and feeling overlap:

                                    for now the thought
Both of lost happiness and lasting pain
Torments him; round he throws his baleful eyes
That witness’d huge affliction and dismay
Mixt with obdurate pride and stedfast hate:
At once as far as Angels kenn he views
The dismal Situation waste and wilde

The place into which Satan has been cast, as if in an allegory of Heidegger’s concept of Thrownness, is structured both spatially and temporally by feeling. The irrecoverable past is marked by an equally irrecoverable happiness, while the “now” and the future are synonymous with pain. Suffering is a subjective state, but it also has material existence, a duality affirmed by the multiple senses of “witness’d,” which denotes not only observing something but also, more archaically, displaying or reflecting it.[2] (One finds the same two-way significance at work in the word “look”—“look at” versus “look like.”)[3] Affect is both within the subject and without, structuring place and articulating the now. The poem leaves us with the conclusion that situatedness—“dismal Situation”—includes not only geographic or temporal presence but subjective presence as well, and with it all the trappings that invariably accompany subjectivity.

Even to isolated subjects like the exiled Satan or Mitchell’s speaker and Richard in their bars and dark cafés, the present is relational, which theorists from Hegel to Judith Butler have understood as a fundamental condition of subjectivity. Satan knows his defeat in contrast to the victorious God. The speaker of “The Last Time I Saw Richard” knows the moment of the song’s enunciation only as a foil for another moment: the last time she saw Richard. And returning to the world that the music evokes, the fact that I can talk about Blue as “sounding like the 1970s” reveals a consensus in our cultural imagination, however hazy, as to the significance and content (factual, political, affective) of that period. As individual it may seem, temporality is social, an insight nested in the plural pronoun in the opening line of Dante’s Inferno: “Midway upon the journey of our life.” We determine and negotiate the constitution of a now in retrospect through discourse and dialogue, through lyric and narrative. Both this moment and all the other nows that have come before it are ours, as are their reproductions in art and elsewhere.



But what happens when the relationality of the moment hurts, when the relationships that emerge take shape as violent, painful, or radically unequal? Art responding to the unbearability of the present, what Berlant calls the “too closeness” of the modern world, is of course not new. The image of the absinthe drinker, famously depicted by Manet, Degas, and Picasso, is an emblem of the struggle to subsist in the overwhelming and privative present of the late nineteenth century; Mitchell’s Blue could be the same for the late twentieth. Escapism—by which I mean simply an aesthetic movement of seeking asylum from the pressures of one’s “dismal Situation”—becomes an ever more salient touchstone of literature and art since Romanticism, reacting to a moment that feels ever more impossible to inhabit. And here again we note the centrality of feeling to our sense of the present. Whether in the ecstatic affects of longing and disgust one finds in Keats’s Nightingale Ode and Baudelaire’s “Ragpicker’s Wine” or the evacuated, mass-produced feelings incited by the TV and the supermarket in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, emotional experience is often the salient aspect of being in a given now.

With escapism comes loneliness, which crops up on its own thanks to the increasingly individual and mediated character of modern life. The alienating effects of technology have been well studied; more interesting is how conscious of our own alienation and loneliness most of us are. In “A Resemblance,” Rae Armantrout examines an isolation that seems to ooze from the very stuff of life. “matter is mostly / aura?” she wonders. “(The same loneliness / that separates me // from what I call / ‘the world.’)” Intriguingly, Armantrout gives us both Benjamin and Heidegger’s words for the nows that an artwork expresses, yet finds in these terms for the present a powerful distancing and separation. Where we look for matter, there is only aura; the moment intercedes between us and the other beings that inhabit it. Loneliness is thus a controlling feature of being in the present. One of the dialogue sections in Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is illustrative in this regard:

Define loneliness?


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 silence after these questions, the absence of a conclusive answer to their demands, reasserts the loneliness that prompted them to begin with. Loneliness is the realization that relationality, while necessary, everywhere falls short of our needs. Living, Rankine concludes later in the book, means waiting—even praying, as Emmanuel Levinas would say—for our connections to be fulfilled and our presence in the now to be recognized, ratified, and completed by others. Until that confirmation comes, and often it never does, the waiting is solitary. To use Armantrout’s phrasing, we have only resemblances, auras, and connotations to occupy us—we have mediations, but cannot fully take part in the world.



The loneliness inherent in being is not the same for everyone, since the subjective and embodied position one inhabits dictates in large part how one knows the present. Those who face structural and discursive violence—racism, sexism, heterosexism, and others—experience the moment differently and the loneliness of failed relationality more acutely than those who do not. Rankine’s newest collection, Citizen, is remarkable for the incisiveness with which it makes the lived experiences of oppression apparent. In numerous instances of macro- and microaggressions, the book’s speakers find the present they believed they were sharing with others, the present they ought to be sharing, rendered partial or painfully uninhabitable. “Perhaps this is how racism feels no matter the context,” Rankine reflects: “randomly the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply to you.” Oppression denies subjects an aspect of their being by denying them participation in a certain aspect of the now.

Citizen and Don’t Let Me Be Lonely advance a long meditation on the violences to which many people are subject in the now that is the present-day United States: post-Reagan, post-Clinton, post-Bushes, post-9/11, post-Iraq, post-Great Recession, post-postmodern, post-lyric, post-affect, supposedly (deleteriously) “post-prejudice.” In a moment so fixated on everything we believe we’ve surpassed, Rankine yanks us back to what’s still going on and trains our focus on the excruciating persistence of certain things we’d like to laugh off. Without reducing or simplifying her subjects, she demands we recognize the typologies of violence and hegemony that operate in this country, from the lineage of racist killings that runs throughout American history to quotidian flare-ups of prejudice from friends, colleagues, therapists, and others. Her American Lyrics seize on wisps of meaning that distill the whole climate of their moments, but they’re equally suffused with a sense of being irreducible, that what we’re reading here is just the beginning. They epitomize how a rejection of closure, to borrow Lyn Hejinian’s phrase, can have enormous political utility, producing art that, in its complexity and strangeness, speaks with tremendous insight to the lived present.

Citizen in particular has an urgency that makes it necessary for us at this moment, when the institutionalized targeting and vilification of black bodies commands the attention of the mainstream white media. The signature rhetorical formula of Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is “Or,” deployed to dizzying effect as the speaker, after unfolding a devastating fact or anecdote, pivots abruptly to a new topic. Citizen, by contrast, reclaims “Yes, and…,” a cornerstone of inoffensive communication strategies (and improv comedy), as a tool of politically mobilized discourse. These two phrases are metonyms for the project of each book: the former embraces equivocality, circling around its central concerns and coming at them from various angles, while the latter is focused and forceful. “Yes, and the body has memory,” Rankine muses in a longer section of Citizen analyzing racist discourses around Serena Williams; the phrase shows the speaker barreling ahead with her message, not regardless of but with intense regard to the appalling facts she displays. Refusing to collapse under the pressures of oppression, the book carries on, though not without profound misgivings about what is required to do so. “This is how you are a citizen,” Rankine writes in a moment of devastating clarity. “Come on. Let it go. Move on.”

Is it possible to live right now without failing ourselves and each other? Does citizenship, in the broadest, most ontological sense as well as the conventional, civic one, demand complicity in injustice and violence? It’s a question Rankine, Mitchell, and many others have taken up in their work, and a question that’s frequently, rightfully enough to drive one to depression and paralysis. Such overwhelming despair is precisely what’s under consideration when, midway through David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel Infinite Jest, Hal Incandenza wonders in a gloriously overwrought middle school film crit essay if the most fitting protagonist of the current moment might be “a hero of non-action.” Berlant likewise notes in the introduction to Cruel Optimism that our prevailing sense of the present is one of a profound impasse. The moment is getting harder to know as well as harder to inhabit as life becomes ever more hypertextual and global, to the degree that the absinthe drinker or “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” with their longing to retreat from the onslaught of living, might be emblems of the entire character of living in our worlds today. Many of us, given the choice, would fade with our dreams into the forest dim.

But there remains a current in art and discourse that, while affected by the pressures of modern life, still seeks to see, to engage, and to know, and whose desire to do so has not been coopted by hegemony or the market. Rankine is an exemplar of this trend, a poet who, compromising neither craft nor politics, has reached large audiences with a message at once timely and timeless: that our society is shot through with prejudice and inequality, especially in the places where some believe it to be most progressive and equitable. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen are important books because they admit the pain and desire for forgetting we find in Mitchell’s Blue and many other great artworks, but also foreground the imperative of returning to the fight.



Benjamin ends his “Work of Art” essay by predicting that mechanical reproduction’s destruction of aura could have valuable political potentials. Communism politicizes art, he concludes; a progressive approach to technology could take mechanical reproduction and turn it toward subversive, transformative ends. Certainly, if technological mediations truly could split art from aura, the significance of a work could be easily reclaimed from hegemonic centers of control. But as we have seen, aura has endured the intensification and digitization of mechanical reproduction. Some works, like Armantrout’s “A Resemblance,” may evoke an aura more complexly than we are accustomed to, but they nonetheless create something—an aura, a world, a “halo”—that hovers around and permeates their whole climate and reception. Art has changed; technology has helped it change; but technology has also changed us, the creators, receivers, and ignorers of art.

That aura has persisted through the changes in creative production and reproduction does not mean that art’s significance will forever rest in the grip of the powerful. Though aura remains, it is by no means fixed or unchangeable. Take Rankine’s retooling of “Yes, and.” That phrase’s transformation from a conciliatory gesture used to extinguish conflict (often where conflict is most needed) into a combustive trope for illuminating devastating realities points to the fact that, when a unit of language becomes so prevalent in discourse as to attain meme-like status, it can have enormous utility and revelatory impact. Herein lies the task of a progressive poetics: changing both what we are able to perceive in the world and the language in which we frame our perceptions.

We need art that can push us politically as well as aesthetically, and can show us that the two are not mutually exclusive. To date, the avant-garde has too often failed to promote social change: many have created formally progressive art, but far fewer have created works with political and formal progressiveness in equal shares. Aesthetic innovation creates its own kind of power, the power of being in the in-group and dictating “the next thing,” and often the innovators—who are themselves usually people of relative privilege—have fought for definitions of good art that keep themselves in power and keep others out. In Canto LXXXI, Ezra Pound wrote “Pull down thy vanity.” We all know he didn’t take his own advice.

Certainly, being pushed is not always pleasurable, especially when the dismal situation from which we’re dislodged is cemented by longstanding concoctions of custom, privilege, and inequity. Here’s Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own:

The very reason why [older] poetry excites one to such abandonment, such rapture, is that it celebrates some feeling that one used to have … so that one responds easily, familiarly, without troubling to check the feeling, or to compare it with any that one has now. But the living poets express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment. One does not recognize it in the first place; often for some reason one fears it; one watches it with keenness and compares it jealously and suspiciously with the old feeling that one knew. Hence the difficulty of modern poetry.

A necessary difficulty. It has long been art’s prerogative to imagine what’s possible, if not in the present, then at least in futurity. Pound’s famous injunction to “Make it new” may have grown tired, onerous, even harmful: indeed, “making it new” for newness’s sake is fundamental to the neoliberal ideology that helps make the moment corrosive for most and unbearable for many. And so, to challenge oppression, we must reclaim newness: we need new ways of conceptualizing the operations of power and social being, and new ways of imagining alternatives. Such is the value of art that’s accountable to lived experience while seeking to transform it. Poetry, after all, comes from making, and if we’re not satisfied with reproducing the injustices of the present, we have to figure out how to remake that present. Perhaps, then, we should give thanks for loneliness, for rooms of one’s own that are unfamiliar and terrifying, since it is in the discomfort of these cells, as long as we can stand them, that we are most able to conceive of other worlds.


[1] It’s struck other people the same way. In their preface to the anthology Mapping Benjamin: The Work of Art in the Digital Age, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan explain that the “realization that the central theses of Benjamin’s Artwork essay have not come true” was one of the driving impetuses for the book’s creation, prompting an investigation of whether and how we can make sense of its claims in a modern context.

[2] I owe this insight to Scott Elledge (Milton, p. 8, note 57).

[3] And I owe this one to my friend Cali Kopczick, who attributes it to a speech by Heather McHugh.