There is a button on the remote control called FAV...
There is a button on the remote control called FAV. You can program your favorite channels. Don’t like the world you live in, choose one closer to the world you live in. I choose the independent film channel and HBO. Neither have news programs as far as I can tell. This is what is great about America—anyone can make these kinds of choices. Instead of the news, HBO has The Sopranos. This week the indie channel is playing and replaying Spaghetti Westerns. Always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow, and just before he dies he says, I am not going to make it. Where? Not going to make it where? On some level, maybe, the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. Occasionally, you can imagine, it means he is not going to make it to Carson City or Texas or somewhere else out west or to Mexico if he is on the run. On another level always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death. Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy for our generation. Perhaps this expectation lingers there alongside the hours of sleep one should get or the number of times one is meant to chew food—eight hours, twenty chews, and seventy-six years. We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is not to have made it.
Claudia Rankine, “There is a button on the remote control called FAV...”, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric, 2004.
I like this poem because it is about preservation.
First, preservation from the outside world: one gets home, turns on the TV, and selects what one wants to watch. Rankine says this has to do with choosing a world closer to the one we live in; in her case, a world without the interference of news programs. We might assume she would be avoiding violent events, but considering the week the poem describes, Rankine’s favorite channels play movies and series as violent as any news program: “always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow”. This is not the kind of violence Rankine is trying to get away from; at the same time, the world to which she feels closer to seems to be an America inhabited by Italian immigrants.
Then, there is preservation from death by watching people die (at least that seems to be the assumption). Nonetheless, these are fictional deaths, where people have the time and the presence of mind to utter sentences that end up in poems. Those who get shot or are pierced through the heart with an arrow still manage to say: “I am not going to make it.” From not being able to reach a certain destination to not being able to die in the duly accorded time, Rankine leaps at the opportunity to connect both ideas, a chance which allows us to understand the world she lives in. Her remark concerning how great America is due to the FAV remote control button does the same – we get to know that she is able to think about this sort of things, choose to get away from the outside world, and establish comparisons between the violent history of Italian immigrants and the violent history of black people in America.
I am familiar with what Rankine writes about the life expectancy always lingering in the back of our minds: if all goes according to plan, I am due at least the same number of years I have had until now. In order for that to happen, some may think that one should keep doing exactly what one has been doing up until this moment – it seems to have been doing the job, after all. Others may argue that the prescribed eight hours of sleep and the certified number of chews (thirty, and not twenty, back in my time) should start being taken into account. Rankine levels both sides, places both stances “alongside” (interestingly while mentioning only what one should do, not what should not be done), but I believe that to be able to achieve the number of birthdays one is meant to, we have to follow the aforementioned criteria. The man that says that he is “not going to make it” was not able to grasp that the life expectancy of a runaway cowboy is not the seventy-six years asserted by Rankine – those belong to herself, as a woman, as someone who gets to sleep eight hours, and gets to watch only the TV channels she chooses. The only preservation a cowboy can hope for is in the story that is told about him; the irony lies in the fact that stories with cowboys (and Italian immigrants) are made of permanent fights for survival, even when one is able to reach Texas or Mexico – even there, one is never sure to be safe from a bullet or an arrow.
This poem preserves a part of Rankine, and a part of the world, even if she does not blow the number of candles she is supposed to. Even if she does not make it, she already has, and did it by writing poems. Surely there must be different ways to do it, but all of them will ultimately rely on other people – that is why so many of us make plans for the day of our funeral.
Helena Carneiro completed her Master at the Program in Literary Theory (University of Lisbon). She works as a redactor and as an editorial assistant at Imprensa da Universidade de Lisboa. She is also the editor of the arts review’s section of the online magazine Forma de Vida. People in her life have explained poetry to her. And she does enjoy Phillip Larkin, who, in his tombstone, has described himself as a “writer”.