Friday, July 15, 2011

Dionne Brand's Ossuaries

Just finished reading Dionne Brand's Ossuaries, twice. That is, I finished this book-length (124 pages) poem, and turned almost immediately to the beginning to read it through again. It's stunning, difficult, tough, uncompromising, and wildly, unexpectedly, beautiful. The speaking persona, Yasmine, is unrooted, disconnected from the urban society that excludes her, unable to muster any sympathy at the tele-vision of the crumbling twin towers. She crosses borders of time and space, weaving together countless ossuaries of injustices around a central shocking event. A linear story can (barely) be assembled from the narrative, but to assemble it rather misses the point, and a reader does as well to pause regularly, startled by the most arresting images. The litany of collective nouns for kisses, for example, or the "rhetorical metatarsals," "the lit cigarette tip of the backbone." Despite the narrator's fierce despair about the poisoned state of planets, galaxies, the "fissile skies," she finds astonishing beauty, splitting syntax to express it.

The citation of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire in the acknowledgements at the end of the poem is a hint that this is not your Sunday lyric poetry. Although, Yas tells us, "the presumptive cruelties / the villages that nursed these since time, / it's always in the lyric // the harsh fast threatening gobble, / the clipped sharp knifing, it's always, in the lyric." Her despair at the constancy of cruelty throughout history and into the future is perhaps most pronounced in "ossuary xiii," the potential epistle to her younger self: "if only I had something to tell you, from here, ' some good thing that would weather / the atmospheres of the last thirty years."  Instead, she laments, she could only say "the brilliant future doesn't wait, / forget this, / I've been wasted, look, the chest like a torn bodice."  But if this is not an easily welcome "lyric," it is a poem that repays lavishly the effort of reading it. Indeed, the effort becomes pleasure if one reads aloud, although pleasure sits uneasily with the witnessing which is the reader's work here.

I will read this again now, working through to track down the many references -- Jacob Lawrence, for example, an African American artist whose cubist War (WWII) series are the focus of "ossuary xi." Probably have to track down the jazz pieces by Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Bird. I'll raise a glass, as well, to toast Brand winning the (Canadian) Griffin Poetry Prize for this book.  And I will begin to annotate my copy with the pencil markings that make a text my own. Can't do that with
an e-reader
my Kobo. *Thanks, commenter Fred, for the correction here
Nor asterisk favourite lines: "I, the slippery pronoun, the ambivalent, glistening, long sheath of the alphabet flares beyond her reach" OR "call it heron, great blue, long-legged migrating alone / north, it broke off, it took air, / flew into an apostropher, / heading to the wet marsh of another lake"
Nor put exclamation marks in the margins of the six virtuoso pages sans verb since "verbs are a tragedy, a bleeding cliffside, explosions , / I'm better off without" . . . .

For those of you who sometimes ask me to recommend Canadian literature, I'd say start here to defy any expectations of what that term might mean. And let me know what you think.

Again, please excuse the inadequacy of this response to a marvellous book, remembering that this blog is primarily intended for me to record my reading rather than attempt to review titles comprehensively.


  1. Love this review, F! The Jacob Lawrence paintings are well worth looking up, particualrly "Shipping Out," as the sight of it will change the way you read that section of Brand's book. (Or perhaps I should say that it changed mine.)

  2. Thanks, Tanis. I've found "Shipping Out" and most of the other paintings cited, although I'd love to see them in all their textures and IRL colours rather than reproduced on-screen.
    I'd especially like to listen to the "Bird" jazz, that avian imagery being so prevalent throughout the poem.
    And that dragonfly, the car . . .
    Wish we could have an hour together just to jabber over this one!

  3. Thanks for this, I'll definitely pick up a copy.

    When you say " And I will begin to annotate my copy with the pencil markings that make a text my own. Can't do that with an e-reader..." (or something like that) I'd have to disagree as most now offer exactly that ability. (Without the pencil of course.)

    Check out:

  4. Fred: I shouldn't have been so general in my dismissal of the e-reader. My Kobo, which is not the latest generation but was purchased earlier this spring, does not allow highlighting nor marginalia.

    Which reader do you use? And how satisfactory do you find it? I'm of mixed views on this, but hoping we don't lose the technology of the book any time soon -- I love paper pages for finding passages quickly!