Poet laureate of Toronto from 2009-2012, winner of a Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 1997 and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award in 2003, Dionne Brand was born in Guayaguayare, Trinidad in 1953. She moved to to Canada in 1970 to attend the University of Toronto. This Quill and Quire profile reveals that “She went to Grenada for the revolution.” The Athabasca University website elaborates: “In 1983 she went to Grenada and worked as an information officer for the country’s Agency for Rural Transformation — her book of poetry Chronicle of the Hostile Sun (1984) is a response to the U.S. invasion of Grenada, which occurred while she was working there.” Since then Brand has travelled for her writing, such as going to South Africa for the New Nation Writers Conference in 1991, the same year that she was in England and Scotland with other writers. Brand was a Distinguished Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University in New York.
Her poetry book Ossuaries won the Griffin Poetry Prize for 2011. She has also written fiction (most recently Love Enough in 2014) and non-fiction (A Map to the Door of No Return in 2001), which is according to the Canadian Encyclopedia “a self-reflexive meditation on memory, identity and the history of the African diaspora.” Brand is also an activist and filmmaker (see NFB). You can hear her read her poetry at Brick, among others. Scroll to the bottom for information about the reviewer, Irene Marques.
Dionne Brand, Ossuaries, McClelland & Stewart: 2010, 124 pages.
Reviewed by Irene Marques
Ossuaries, by the acclaimed Canadian poet Dionne Brand, was awarded the Griffin poetry prize in 2011—and for good reason. We are in the presence of a long poem, divided into fifteen sections or “ossuaries,” which rings in our ears as a dark, lyrical, persistent and profoundly yearning melody. Before opening the pages of the book, such a title may evoke in many of us (at least those with a less cheerful spirit) desolation, destruction, annihilation, death — for bones are what we become when we die. Ossuaries are the houses that shelter what is left of us when we die — and in the metaphorical sense, “ossuaries” are the bones we become when we lose the incendiary flesh of hope. Bones also break: they become brittle, fragile as we age. But they also produce marrow, that miraculous substance that generates new blood cells.
The metaphors and allusions that permeate this haunting book of poetry are complex and generally dark, bringing to our mind the perilous, fragmented and painful life of humanity. To live is to be disappointed. There is love sometimes or the idea of it flaunting itself at you. There are some spring days and Cuban seashores that are worth experiencing when Yasmine, the main voice that speaks in this book, wears an orange dress or a green skirt, and becomes light, light and aware, entering another zone of being, experiencing a beingness that reminds her that she is not a machine, that she is whole and connected: she is the sea and the air and the land.
Havana, Yasmine arrived one early evening,
the stem of an orange dress,
a duffle bag, limp, with no possessions (62)
being alive, being human, its monotony
discomforted her anyway, the opaque newness,
the awareness, at its primal core, of nothing (63)
and there the urban sea washed anxiety away from her,
her suspicious nature found,
her leather-slippered foot against a coral niche (65)
But essentially, Brand tells us, Ossuary after Ossuary, our lives are fragile bones, abused over and over again. We — our minds, souls and bodies — are consumed by debris, pollution, disappointment, exploitation and oppression of different sorts. We yearn for another world, always, “now and then”:
drive, man, I’m sick of back then
fucking straitjacket, man,
then and still now, get me to another world
another time when time isn’t measured
like now, look, man, this ain’t for me,
let’s go on, find another world, some elevation, cool? (95)
The language we encounter in Ossuaries is often strange in the sense that poetic language ought to be to awaken in us, the readers, a sense of novelty and urgency — an urgency that demands a good look at the world we live in, the pain and disappointment that assault us all, and which are caused either by our own doings (whether we are conscious or unconscious of it) or by the very absurdity, incongruousness and complexity of existence. Strange also in the sense that the words and imagery put together by the author defamiliarize the world before us — thus demanding from us a concentrated attention in order to attain a fresh insight and understanding:
lived and loved, common oxymoron,
if I have lived, I have not loved,
and If I have loved, I cannot have lived (33)
to love is an impediment to this hard business
so I cannot have loved, not me
I rented secretive rooms to see what was like,
no denying, I spread prickling sheets on narrowing beds.
stretched out beside one person and then another (34)
Why do we live rather than love? That is the question the poet is posing. It is an accusatory query that demands from us, making us interrogate our existence and actions. Such a question bashes the typical sayings of a dead, defeated and unreflective language (and rhetoric), which we constantly, carelessly and unconsciously repeat, only perhaps to evade the responsibility that real living and loving and thinking call for. And so distractedly we say: “I have lived and loved.” But to really love, for Dionne Brand, demands going beyond the straitjacket that this world has put us in, finding (creating) another one, move toward an “elevation” that does not destroy or numb our humanity, as the speaker in the previous citation tells us. It requires that one does not become a boss but a human being, that one does not become a man or a woman but a true love(r), that one does not become a black man or a white man, a bourgeois or a proletarian, a colonizer or a colonized, but a being of existence, in existence — a subject acting consciously and responsibly trying to break the chains that separate us from the potential of our own selves and from a better (renewed) world.
Through her unfamiliar, unsettling, disquieting and accusatory language, Dionne Brand forces us to leave the habitual and tap into our superior forces of feeling, emotion and spirit, what the French writer and feminist Hélène Cixous has called the “non-rational intelligences” which allow us to gain a greater insight about truth and suffering and existence — and in that very process, recall to ourselves our responsibility toward the world, toward our own lives and the lives of others. With her imagery, Brand is calling us to see anew and outside of a dissecting, predatory, isolating episteme favoured by a purely rationalistic mind. She urges us to see all the ligaments that tie us to one another and to the earth and to the cosmos, and in that act envisage another (better) way of living and being. She wants us to notice the “cosmic orange flowers [that] are waving [at us] in their distance” (110), because we should not (cannot) ever become used to disgraces.
Mostly through the voice and eye of Yasmine, the book brings to the page many places, events, and intellectual, political and artistic world personalities, all trying to understand the world, make it better perhaps, or just understand life, make it bearable, because its weight constantly presses us down. Sometimes you are in Algiers seemingly fighting a resistance war against the French guided by the ideals and ideologies of Frantz Fanon, or Marx or Lenin or Trotsky, or Rosa Luxemburg, then you are in Havana being a compañera or in Albany or Syracuse or the ancient city of Utica and then you cross the Niagara River to enter Canada and go work in the Maple Leaf Farms where you mechanically and coldly eviscerate chickens. The imagery of water and sea voyages is also very present, evoking the trans-Atlantic slave with the direct reference to Olaudah Equiano, the Nigerian (Igbo) who was kidnapped in the 18th century and brought to Virginia as a slave.
Dionne’s narrative is heavily political. Humans appear as wanting to fight the body-politic, wanting to cut the cords that tie them down, make this world shareable, liveable, and bearable. Stunned by the existential absurdity of life and after living for a while and having seen and experienced all the violence and disappointments of life, they seem to give up, to feel they have no power to change much. The book reads like an enumeration of the many things we do, the many things we want to do, become and feel. The Yasmines of Ossuaries are errant creatures who want to change the world, engaging in political acts: they are comrades in Algeria or other places, bank robbers who know the world is not set up well and the corporations are killing us, soldiers soldiering against a modus vivendi that breaks us all down. They try, they rebel, they act against this ossuary that is our world, our life. But by Ossuary VIX, when Yasmine comes back to the Maple Leaf Farms in Canada, the hope for a better life, a better world is eviscerated, like the chicken under the knife that she and the other women manipulate so well:
she steps into another country, another
constellation of bodies,
her compass reset to watch reckonings
at the Maple Leaf Farms, Yasmine signs
to get in, signs to get out,
this is not a nuclear installation but a killing farm
she lines up, as each woman does,
on a steel plank, each woman with a knife
to dissect, as each woman knows how,
viscera, fat, muscle, tendon.
this daily killing, this daily eating (120-121)
This book is powerful mainly because it allows us to see, as if through an accusing mirror, the world we live in and the killing, the annihilation of the other (and ourselves) that continually takes place — and that we allow to take place. But how can we live like that? This is a question that Brand poses toward the final lines of her long pleading Ossuaries.
they ask sometimes, who could have lived,
who could have lived each day knowing
some massacre was underway, some repression,
why, anyone, anyone, could live this way,
I do, I do (122-123)
Can we really stop this massacre, this ossuary that we ourselves engender and become used to? That is the other question that Dionne Brand seems to be asking. And despite the negativity that prevails in her narrative, there is also a light (a sort of solution) that she wants us to see, to take note of. The very end of Ossuaries reads: “were this a painting, it would combust canvases,/ this lunate pebble, this splintered phalanx,/ I can hardly hold their sincere explosions” (124). Here Brand may be telling us that art (poetry, literature, painting) depicts life to us so that we can see it more clearly and then mourn what we don’t have, and in that very mourning that hurts and makes us feel, be moved to make something else out of this world (our world), out of this life (our life): let us “explode” and “combust” what we have and create something better, more liveable and bearable to our souls and bodies. She urges us to find (rediscover) in the resilience of the earth and the elements, our own resilience, our own marrow, because we are beings of this earth, this universe and are made of the same elements, and thus can recreate ourselves. We too have powers that are “everything”:
the only thing that amazes her now is the earth
its ubiquitous snows and lights,
and waters, its combustible air, its nocturnal
beeches and beeps, its miraculous
what to say about that, everything (116-117)
It may be then that we are broken bones but we yearn to be whole, to make everything better because it hurts to live like this and we can never get used to it. It may be that we are hopeless and tired of this bloody life, tired of believing only to have to undo our belief over and over again, but still there is a living marrow in our tired and broken bones that keeps going in faith, with faith. Brand’s reference to the novel The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by the Portuguese writer José Saramago may in fact be another indication that the artist ought to be political and insert him/herself in the bloody arena of the world, unlike Fernando Pessoa’s original heteronym Ricardo Reis whose famous verse reads “Wise is the one who contents himself with the spectacle of the world.”* For Brand then, as for Saramago, wise is the one who does not content her/himself with the spectacle of the world. Wise is the one who paints the sad spectacle of the world in agonizing stunning beauty so that we may see in it a reflection of our own doings, and in that process recognize our responsibility to create a better home to live in. Perhaps then we have marrow in us that can give birth to a new bone, a new flesh, a new world.
*Saramago, José. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Trans Giovanni Pontiero. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.
Irene Marques is a bilingual writer (English and Portuguese) and academic. Her poetry has been published by Mawenzi House (formerly TSAR Books): Wearing Glasses of Water (2007) and The Perfect Unravelling of the Spirit (2012); and by Guernica Editions: The Circular Incantation: An Exercise in Loss and Findings (2013). Her novel My House is a Mansion (Leaping Lyon Books/York University 2015) will be followed by Uma casa no mundo, a historical fictional work about the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa soon to be published in Portugal. To read more about her work visit her website Irene Marques.
See also Carnival and Of Goats and the Lyrical.