Dionne Brand is well represented by Nomenclature, a collection of eight volumes of her poetry accompanied by an important new work. Beginning with Primitive Offensive (1982) and ending with Ossuaries (2010), the book confirms that Brand has always been a meticulous but dynamic stylist for whom form is motivated by the desire to take “history’s pulse…with another hand”—to replace orthodox understandings of time and place with an art that speaks “the whole immaculate language of the ravaged world.” It’s an ambition that has gradually drawn her away from the more oracular, incantatory mode of her earlier work toward sharp, self-directed poems that are as rooted in the details of everyday life as in the abstractions of political philosophy. The details become the stuff of theory, and the abstractions are made concrete by Brand’s exemplary sensitivity to the pressure they exert on our lives.
Born in 1953 in Guayaguayare, Trinidad, Brand has taken the colonial history of the Americas not just as a theme but as an ethical imperative. She is interested in silence, loss, and dispossession, and in refiguring historical absence as aesthetic presence. Simply put, she writes about the people and experiences that don’t make it into the textbooks from a point of view that is decidedly critical and subversive. In Land to Light On (1997) she drives through Canada looking for “something…written as/wilderness, wood, nickel, water, coal, rock, prairie, erased/as Athabasca, Algonquin, Salish, Inuit,” matter and culture packed tightly together in a short square block of text. In Primitive Offensive she recalls a political awakening brought on by a book with “no preface and no owner” that describes a white Frenchwoman in Haiti throwing
a black woman,
into the hot oven because
the hens were not baked
to her liking.
“Toussaint,” she writes, addressing the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture, “i learned to read for you/from that book.”
Brand wants a literature that opposes white supremacy, not just by doing away with the so-called value system it uses to sort human beings into subjects and objects, bosses and workers, those who own and those who are owned, but by cultivating an expansive alertness to the ways life might be different. “I have tried,” she writes,
to imagine a sea not
bleeding, a girl’s glance full as a verse, a woman
growing old and never crying to a radio hissing of a
black boy’s murder. I have tried to keep my throat
gurgling like a bird’s.
These lines, from the 1990 volume No Language Is Neutral, give some sense of the texture of Brand’s poems, which often suggest the acoustics of overhearing. Here, radios hiss and throats gurgle; elsewhere, hands rustle, voices hush, shush, and “whisper into telephones,” and you can just make out “the scratching of a needle on a record.” This muffled soundscape might make you think of the old saw—first warbled by John Stuart Mill—that lyric is overheard speech. A better precedent, however, would be the title of a poem by Aimé Césaire, one Brand often quotes when asked about the relationship between her politics and her art: “La Justice écoute aux portes de la beauté”—justice listens at the gates of beauty.
Brand moved to Canada at the age of seventeen. She attended the University of Toronto as an undergraduate and took a master’s degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in 1989. This last detail is telling. All of Brand’s work has a pedagogical drive that is less didactic than sibylline. She writes to inform but without rigidity, and her language has the weight and sonority of prophetic utterance without a hint of melodrama or caprice.
Take, for example, her 2001 memoir, A Map to the Door of No Return, which begins with a scene of failed or rather impossible teaching that turns into a moment when something terrible is understood for the first time. A thirteen-year-old Brand asks her grandfather “what people we came from”—“Yoruba? Ibo? Ashanti? Mandingo?” He assures her that he will know the right name when she stops pestering him. “I was anxious for him to remember,” Brand says.
I followed him around asking him if he wanted me to do this or that for him, clean his glasses, polish his shoes, bring his tea. I studied him intently when he came home. I searched the grey bristles of his moustache for any flicker which might suggest he was about to speak. He raised his Sunday Guardian newspaper to block my view. He shooed me away, telling me to find some book to read or work to do. At times it seemed as if Papa was on the brink of remembering. I imagined pulling the word off his tongue if only I knew the first syllable.
It’s impossible to access what cannot be put in words: the catastrophe of enslavement and “the end of traceable beginnings” for the African diaspora. One can head to the library, as the young Brand does, or look hard into a relative’s face; one can “find some book.” And yet not even the first obscure syllable of a fact about where one comes from can be retrieved from this “rupture in history,” which is also, Brand says, a “rupture in the quality of being.” The situation is both inconceivable in its magnitude and completely ordinary, a part of black life as unexceptional as making tea or reading the paper.
The Door of No Return is the name of an archway built into Cape Coast Castle in Elmina, Ghana, through which captive Africans were led to the ships that took them across the Atlantic—if, that is, they survived the journey. For Brand, it symbolizes both “that place where our ancestors departed…the Old World for the New” and, more broadly, “a site of belonging or unbelonging” that is the origin point for her own poetic project. In the first of the fourteen cantos of Primitive Offensive, she turns her conversations with her grandfather into lines of verse that are not so much enjambed as estranged:
ancestor old man
skin and cheekbone
why didn’t you remember,
why didn’t you remember
the name of our tribe
why didn’t you tell me
before you died
you made the white man
Discontinuities of lineage—lost names, lost languages—appear on the page as discontinuities of the line, as Brand’s insistent questions fall off the cliffs of answers that don’t exist. The poem’s emotion is as varied and ample as its design is uncluttered, moving between anger, contempt, and the desperation of detective work. “Like a palaeontologist,” Brand says, “like/a papyrologist” or
like a geopolitical
any evidence of me
even that carved
in the sky
by the fingerprints of clouds
Since African voices have been all but erased from the historical record, any literature of the diaspora has to reckon with what M. NourbeSe Philip calls “the many silences within the Silence of the text,” where “the text” is not just one book or another but the whole lopsided legacy of the written word. Brand finds alternative sources of self-knowledge in clouds, rocks, rivers, or “something else/like a note, musical/ting ting!” But they are fragile, not to mention hard to come by in the unforgiving environment of the Canadian metropolis.
In No Language Is Neutral, she describes her first impressions of Toronto as a newly arrived immigrant—carrying “a passport full of sand and winking water,” “hair between hot comb and afro, feet/posing in high heel shoes”:
It don’t have nothing call beauty
here but this is a place, a gasp of water from a
hundred lakes, fierce bright windows screaming with
goods, a constant drizzle of brown brick cutting
dolorous prisons into every green uprising of bush.
No wilderness self, is shards, shards, shards,
shards of raw glass, a debris of people you pick your way
through returning to your worse self, you the thin
mixture of just come and don’t exist.
Brand’s “dolorous prisons” recall the città dolente (woeful city) and genti dolorose (suffering people) of Dante’s Inferno, likewise a poem whose protagonist must navigate the sharp edges of humanity. Yet this ordeal, unlike Dante’s, leads not to renewal or transcendence but to a personality in decline, a “worse self,” ghostly and ungrounded. Then, a discovery: “This city,/mourning the smell of flowers and dirt, cannot tell/me what to say even if it chokes me.” That revelation, recorded over thirty years ago, is echoed in “Nomenclature for the Time Being,” a defiantly sorrowful poem that kicks off the new collection. “I refuse to reproduce whiteness,” Brand writes. “All the cities are violent with time.”
There is an uncensored quality to these poems, which often channel the exasperated momentum of someone eager to pull the wool off the reader’s eyes. This is never truer than when Brand addresses the fallout of neocolonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the systematic stifling of progressive political movements flies under the banner of “economic liberalism and democracy.” In “Guatemala,/Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Grenada, Costa/Rica, Colombia, Chile, Mexico,” Brand finds human beings abandoned
in trucks’ dust clouds,
at water holes on the edges of deserts, at moonlight
waiting for crabs to march on beaches, settling into
a doorway’s shawl, thinking at last a cup of water, thinking
the blanket stuck around the window will keep the rawness
out, thinking of shoe factory jobs, button factory jobs,
thread, at lines for work, at zones metamorphosing at
borders, moving as if in one skin to camps, smelling
oil wells, sugar burning, cathode smoke, earth drained
of water, earth flooded with water, rivers of slick,
overloaded ferries, all belongings bursting in suitcases….
The unrhymed couplets suggest at once containment and irresolution, a sense of being trapped in unbearable circumstances and the insistent belief that it cannot end like this.
That conviction brought Brand to Grenada, where she moved after a revolution in 1979 turned it into the only socialist country in the Commonwealth of Nations. “I could not live,” she later said, “in the uneasiness of conquest and enslavement…[and] I could not choose to do anything else but fling myself at the hope that the world could be upturned.” The progress of the Grenadian Revolution was swift. Under the leadership of Maurice Bishop, the People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) introduced free public health care along with paid maternity leave and equal pay for women, and abolished school fees. Within three years, the infant mortality rate was cut in half.
One thing the PRG did not do was hold elections. Bishop doubted that a parliamentary approach to democracy could be effective in a country where the vast majority of people had never enjoyed the basic human right “to live a life of dignity.” Over in Washington, the Reagan administration was worried—perhaps about the Grenadian right to vote, perhaps about the fate of the region’s large deposits of oil and natural gas, especially with Bishop’s government cultivating diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union. After Bishop, Minister of Education Jacqueline Creft, and several others were executed in a military coup, the United States invaded Grenada on October 25, 1983.
Brand had been there ten months, working as a communications officer for the Agency for Rural Transformation. Within four days of their arrival, US troops and a coalition of Caribbean forces had toppled the government and reaffirmed the authority of Governor-General Paul Scoon, an appointee of the British Crown who had secretly encouraged the invasion. As for Brand, she was airlifted to safety, but not before experiencing firsthand the terror of “American warships” eager “to fill our mouths/with medium range missiles.” Back in Canada, she recoils at images of US secretary of state George Shultz—lately featured as a lovable oldster in the Hulu miniseries The Dropout—“celebrating the day Columbus discovered Grenada”:
he shades his eyes with his hands
at Queen’s Park
he sees colonies and slaves
like the celebrity of 1498
now we know our place.
Even with her Canadian passport, Brand finds herself “stateless,” a person without a country “sick of feeling the boot/of the world on [her] breast”:
they think that I’ll forget it
but I won’t
and when they think that I’ve forgotten
they will find a note in the rubble
of the statue of liberty.
In her elegant and uncompromising introduction to Nomenclature, Christina Sharpe describes Brand’s poetry as “filled with people whose ordinary and extraordinary lives signal collective moments of our past and present and also move toward what futures are possible.” Brand, she says, refuses “the spectacular,” neither setting black people up to be gawked at nor forcing them into an intelligibility that would diminish their “full range of being.” Instead she pursues a poetics of recognition that allows black women in particular to be both specific and exemplary. “Those women, who are often or even usually the ‘I’ or the ‘we’ of her poems,” Sharpe writes, speak of love, sex, desire, loneliness, and the thrills and disappointments of being an artist and an intellectual not as an antidote to politics but in the very same breath, as an expression of self-knowledge that is inherently incendiary.
“I anticipate nothing,” Brand writes, “as intimate as history.” This idea—that private life will never be safe from public crisis—locates her within what Sharpe calls “a cosmology of influence” among poets like Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser, and Claribel Alegría, as well as musicians like Sun Ra and John Coltrane. It also helps us understand her style, which combines philosophical intensity with the familiar rhythms of everyday speech and the vertiginous, unresolved melodic lines of free jazz.
Very often Brand’s poems turn on an interjection, pulling the reader close for a tête-à-tête at once urgent and informal. A section of thirsty (2002)—a poem set in Toronto and orbiting around the police murder of a young black man named Alan, whose story is based on that of Albert Johnson, a Jamaican-born immigrant shot to death in his home on August 26, 1979—starts off like this:
So, a cop sashaying from a courthouse,
his moustache wide and bristling,
his wool coat draped across his body
and carefree, his head centred in the television
scales of justice, he would strike
a match on the bottom of his shoes,
light a cigar in victory of being acquitted
of such a killing, and why not
Think, for a minute, about the word “so,” and about the comma that cocks it like a gun. It is conversational, even chatty, but also portentous, coiling around the speaker’s fury and the moral contempt that drips from the lines that follow. We could be in a number of places. We could be sitting in Brand’s kitchen as she describes the scene with cinematic flourishes—the cop walks “with the sexy swagger of a male model”—and mordant despair. We could be in a lecture hall, feeling the discomfort build as everyone realizes the professor is going off script, or at a poetry reading where the audience is caught off guard by the poet’s frankness.
As Brand discovered years earlier, Toronto cannot tell her what to say. When we read her poems, we cannot choose but listen to what the city wants to silence. Brand is interested in scenes or moments where people are forced to hear things that disturb or madden them, as when they’re startled by an abrupt swerve from intimacy to emergency:
so I’m the only thing you care about?
well what about the incursions into Angola,
what about the cia in Jamaica,
what about El Salvador,
what about the multi-national paramilitaries
in South Africa,
and what do you mean by “thing” anyway?
Two unnecessary words—the filler of “so” and “well”—launch a competition between two kinds of necessity. We need to be loved, and also we need to be aware, at all times, of how the world is being destroyed. Structured something like a pastoral dialogue, in which the passionate shepherd addresses a lover who answers accommodatingly back, this exchange in Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983) shows the prospects for painless love wrecked on history’s shoals. The person who dreamily asks if “I’m the only thing you care about” was not expecting to be cut down to size by way of a comparison with current events. Pastoral becomes tragedy in a world where nothing is simple, and where even a casual reference to oneself as a “thing” is a reminder of all the lives out there that are treated as junk.
Moments like these, which make art and ethics out of how people really talk, are designed to counter what Brand calls “the hard gossip of race”—to oppose, that is, the ruinous but no less trashy fantasies of the bigoted imagination (“how imprisoned we are in their ghosts”) with the richness, specificity, and truthfulness of her own sense of existence. Very often this requires a dedicated attention to the worst that is done on and to this planet, piled up with “burnt clothing, bloody rags, bomb-filled shoes” and wracked by “the militant consumption of everything.” But it also requires believing that poetry can speak the broken world’s immaculate language, and, in speaking it, stop it from going extinct. “What would the world be,” Brand wonders, “with us fully in it”? Poetry can’t answer the question but, on a good day, it makes it impossible not to ask.
In 1996 Brand made a short film featuring herself and her friend Adrienne Rich. Shot in alternating sepia and full-color tones, Listening for Something is a lyrical study of harmonious disagreement, as Rich’s earnest but sometimes canned opinions are picked up and gently polished by Brand, the younger poet by nearly twenty-five years. On the question of why she was never a Communist, Rich says that in the 1950s everyone thought such a position entailed disloyalty to the United States.
Brand approaches the matter from a rather different perspective, which she explains by way of a story about her uncle taking a fishing boat from Trinidad to Cuba in 1959, to see the revolution for himself. For her, communism never meant the Soviet Union. It simply meant “that there was a way out, for the masses and masses of people that I knew” who worked in cane, coconut, and oil fields every day, always for “big bosses” and never for themselves. “So,” she says, “I became a Communist before I even read Marx.”
The whole of Listening for Something goes more or less like this: Rich says something true and Brand pulls an entirely new thought from it. In the film’s first few minutes, the two poets discuss an oft-quoted passage from Virginia Woolf’s antiwar polemic Three Guineas: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” Rich observes that both she and Woolf enjoy considerable benefits from having been born where they were, and that it is naive if not pernicious for Woolf to imply otherwise. She is trying, in other words, to charge Woolf (and herself) with being what we would today call a white feminist.
Sitting across a small wooden table from Rich, Brand quickens. “I feel that in fact,” she says, nudging the air with her hand, “she may be right.” It’s not Woolf’s pompous universalism Brand agrees with but rather her attempt, wrong-footed though it may be, to get beyond the nation as a site of belonging. “The word ‘nation,’” she explains, “is no longer useful.” After all, all nations are “constructed by leaving out” even those who nominally belong to them; when it comes to black people living in North America or in the Caribbean, Brand explains, “you can still see where that notion doesn’t function for us.” Later, she returns to the thought: “I have no concept of what it would be like to live from inside.”
This exchange is helpful for a number of reasons. First, it reveals the limitations of a progressivism that is mainly comfortable arguing against versions of itself. Of course, it’s important to criticize ideas for not being better than they are. But criticism of this sort reacts to what is already there rather than, as Brand suggests, imagining what else there might be. The scene therefore also reveals the deep connection between Brand’s politics and her poetry, and why it’s impossible to talk about one without the other. They are each part of an attempt to create a joyous, habitable society for those who have always been at once excluded by the nation, the state, and the empire and trapped within them, and who find themselves, with Brand, “heartsick for the true world.”
This true world, in Brand’s account, is available only in glimmers, which does not make it less legitimate or vital. We live “each day knowing/some massacre was underway, some repression,” and as soon as we wake up we “deliver ourselves/to the sharp instruments for butchering” by some “government god.” A lot of poetry either does not see this reality or else it sees no further. Brand’s takes us to a new place, in a different key.