Dionne Brand: The reinvention of poetry | Closeup

Born in Trinidad and based in Canada, writer Dionne Brand has spent decades exploring the transgressive possibilities of poetry, says Shivanee Ramlochan — breaking through boundaries of genre in her quest to understand the shapeshifting self

  • Dionne Brand. Photography by Cole Burston
  • What We All Long For
  • Ossuaries
  • The Blue Clerk
  • Theory
  • Photography by Cole Burston

Don’t take it personally, but Dionne Brand isn’t gushing to tell you her life story.

The reason for this is its own poetry. “My biography is my books,” she tells me — and anyone who’s read her, across multiple genres, spanning decades of poetry, fiction, essays, and hybrid forms, is nodding and saying yes. Her newest books, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos and Theory, were launched on the same day in September 2018. How’s that for prolific?

Both books are radical genre-defiers, challenging a collective Western understanding of what poetic and prose forms can offer. They are audacious, shocking, and revealing in the best possible way. Brand, who lives and works in Ontario, Canada, has been publishing this kind of work, writing woven with threads of the brightly transgressive, since her first collection of poems, Fore Day Morning, published in 1978.

Before all of these stories were written, a young girl stood before a field blazing with bright orange blooms in Guayaguayare, in Trinidad’s southeastern county of Mayaro. Many Trinidadians would be hard-pressed to tell you how to drive there, but for Brand, the village’s urgency as a site of childhood imagination has never faded. “I remember as a kid walking from the house,” she says, “trying to get to these heliconia flowers, this sea of orange, repeatedly trying to walk towards it, never being able to get there, getting halfway there and crying.” When she returned to visit as a young woman, in her twenties, a part of her, one rooted in her earliest memories, was astonished at not being able to locate that field of flowers. That heliconia orange has “accrued significance as something unreachable, but quite beautiful.”

The writer took this blazing palette with her, departing Trinidad at age seventeen for Canada, where she attended the University of Toronto, graduating in 1975 with a BA in philosophy and English. An MA in the philosophy of education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education followed. Academia has been one rudder by which Brand has steered her legendary path: she is currently a professor at the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, and her name is invoked in scholarly circles with awe, frank admiration, and more than a little starry-eyed wonder. If universities appointed rock stars, Brand would command the stage with a six-string guitar, pealing out poetry.

Why verse first? You feel this vivid poetic gaze at work in Brand’s oeuvre, no matter the genre. In fact, poetry called to her before anything else. Brand’s relationship to the form is a bridge to how she began writing in other genres. “I like its complexity, its unstillness, its forward momentum,” she says of poetry, “its ability to shift you forward or backward, its aggression. I love the aggression of poetry. Then I thought, can I do that in any genre? Can I mean triply, plow forward and apply an aggressive imprint to a page in any genre?”

The short answer: yes. The more circuitous response: look to her living body of books, the place where she says all the answers lie waiting. No matter the form, you will find worlds within worlds, spaces of hunger and longing, sites of reclamation and remembrance, oceans as ineffable as the seas lapping on the Guayaguayare shore. Brand’s characters strive for an understanding of the world that surpasses dictionary definitions: there is no finer example of this than the character of Marie Ursule in At the Full and Change of the Moon (1999), a woman radically committed to the idea of her freedom, even in unspeakable bondage.

We first meet Marie Ursule in 1824, Trinidad, on the verge of unfurling a quietly defiant mass suicide: a way to refuse slavery at its rotten ideological core. As Brand tells me, this is Marie Ursule saying, “If I can’t live in this world, then I won’t.” To trace the genealogies of this warrior queen, Brand steeped herself in research, in a profound examination of the archive. There she found Thisbe, a Trinidadian enslaved woman who, at the point of her execution by hanging in 1802, reportedly declared, “This is but a drink of water to what I have already suffered.”

In Thisbe’s last, resolute drink of water, Brand’s Marie Ursule was born. Archival research revealed, in details that rival all the horrors of the imagination, how black people had the humanity extracted out of them through the punishments and systems of slavery. One example: a ball and chain around the leg for three years, as disciplinary action against revolt. Brand knows anything you can grotesquely imagine has been perpetrated against the black self: there is fire in her eyes and a nearly combative glee to the cast of her mouth when she says, “I don’t do black spectacularity. I just don’t.”

If this is one of the central covenants of Brand’s scholarship and activism, then it has served her writing well. The prize-bestowing academies all think so. Brand has won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Pat Lowther Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Harbourfront Festival Prize, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and holds honorary degrees from Thorneloe University and the University of Windsor. Earlier this year, she received the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature in the Fiction category, for Theory; the Trillium Book Award, for The Blue Clerk; and the Blue Metropolis Violet Prize, given in celebration of an established LGBTQ+ writer’s career. Yet these laurels aren’t quite what Dionne Brand is after. They don’t define the anatomy of her days at the writing desk, and there is nothing of the formulaic in them.

Just ask her if she’s ever written odes for the newborn babies of Canadian politicians, during her three-year tenure as Toronto’s third Poet Laureate, and gales of laughter will greet you. Instead, Brand focused on bringing poetry to the working, breathing world of the everyday, with a project called Poetry is Public is Poetry. In an address given to mark the first permanent pavement installation of a poem by Rosemary Sullivan, Brand said, “Poetry beautifies public space, pays respect to the intelligence of the citizenry, gives respite from the grind of daily living, and engages the city’s humanistic ideals.” Cast in bronze, embedded in the sidewalk leading to the Cedarbae Branch of the Toronto Public Library, Sullivan’s lines read: “a man packed a country / in a suitcase with his shoes / and left.”

Consider this: there is poetry pulsing under your very feet, if you walk through Toronto, and Dionne Brand was pivotal in putting it there. It’s a vital sign of Brand’s preoccupation with the city, a relationship as loving and symbiotic as a house built with adoration and concern.

Her novels What We All Long For (2005) and Love Enough (2014) offer the reader dynamic, unsettled (and therefore unsettling), imaginatively robust characters contending with themselves and each other throughout Toronto. Anyone who considers Toronto nebulous in the global literary imagination will find it mapped with a living curiosity here. Better still, Brand seats everyone at the table: people of First Nations communities, immigrants, refugees, queer citizens, alongside everyone. Brand’s work recognises that they are everyone, too.

Ferocious inclusivity articulates Brand’s politics and life in activism. You couldn’t separate this political animus from Brand’s work if you tried — in every genre, her commitment to her peoples, her places, would shun any smaller analysis. Brand returned to the Caribbean in 1983 to serve on the intellectual and corporeal frontlines of the Grenada Revolution, as information and communications officer for the Agency for Rural Transformation. Upon her return to Canada, critics noted a sea swell in her poems, published in Winter Epigrams: &, Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983). The language seemed to spark off the page, to incandesce. As a teacher, community organiser, and radical animator, Brand’s language has continued to fan flames, and generate them, enveloping generations of students, activists, mentees, and readers. As the St Lucia-born, Ontario-based poet Canisia Lubrin says, “Dionne Brand is just the greatest magician of language to me.”

It takes intentional, muscular crafting, to be certain, to release two books on the same day — and to have both those books be extraordinary, perched on the vanguard of the literary possible. Shazia Hafiz Ramji, writing for the Hamilton Review of Books, says of Theory that “Brand has continued to reinvent herself while staying true to an uncompromising vision that gestures towards the potency of the novel in the real world.” Ramji’s right: at every page turn of Theory, I felt I was reading a new form, generating itself. Teoria, the intellectually brilliant, interpersonally challenged narrator of the book, is often stumped by “love’s austere and lonely offices,” to channel Robert Hayden.

The difficult processes through which Teoria comes to a series of understandings — about her three very different women lovers, about her unwieldy thesis — every stage of this journey, was an intentional mapping. “It has to be her judging herself. She had to be self-aware, but she also had to fail,” says Brand, adding, “The actual thesis needed to layer itself in, too. It’s like kneading flour, like kneading a dhalpuri. I enjoyed writing that, incredibly, because she was so ridiculous, and so smart. Each of the chapters became a kind of theory and then the academic work became layered atop of it.” Brand pauses, then concludes her thought, saying, “To approach a new book is to approach a new method — not to repeat, but to reinvent the shape — so too with poetry.”

The Blue Clerk is precisely that — a remodelling of the poetic form. Brand doesn’t claim to have invented the essay poem form, but the unmistakable spirit of an archival ingenuity powers it. Certainly, the Trillium Book Award jury citation isn’t shy in crowning Brand a trailblazer for what she’s made here: “At once an epic poem, polemic, fragmentary novel, creation story, and grimoire, The Blue Clerk suggests an entirely new literary form, a magnificent literary achievement.” In this book, a sustained and complicated, complicating conversation between two personae unfurls. One, the blue clerk, keeps a ledger in minutiae of everything the second persona — the author — has collected. The clerk functions as shadow curatrix, as restless and hypervigilant accounts notary: in her own words, “I am the clerk, overwhelmed by the left-hand pages. Each blooming quire contains a thought selected out of many reams of thoughts and stripped by me, then presented to the author.”

Composing The Blue Clerk began in 2012. Brand says she swiftly realised “It’s my work. It’s what I’ve been collecting.” Despite her own adherence to blistering candour in her poetry, Brand found that the project of mapping the clerk and her author exacted a ruthless, often painful honesty beyond what she had known. The project of the clerk is to expose the author-poet, who burdens the clerk with constant raw material, then charges her with keeping everything, everything, everything. Brand says, “It was quite the fight in my own head, leaving the verse not smoothed and raw, leaving it unspoken. The book was difficult to lay out and difficult to finish.” There was urgency, too, in ending The Blue Clerk with a prime number — the 59 Versos of the subtitle — which required an engineering of specific mathematics, atop the book’s already remarkable form. It succeeds, in all its coruscating ambition — math and metaphysics dovetailing to create something unparalleled in poetry.

Yet Brand’s gaze is not, one senses, driven by the celebration of her ego. She’s too busy being hungry for more work, more poems, to bask in her own glow. In 2017, she was appointed poetry editor for McClelland and Stewart, the venerable Canadian publishing house. Her eye is trained to the rise of other voices, not hers. Of her acquisition ethic, she says, “My hope is to bring a bunch of new voices representative of living now. There is a real chorus of people talking into the world we’re living in.” These are the current and future biographies of others, their lives and the lives of their subjects, laid out in poems. In Brand’s hands, they will be much more than safe. Under her unflinching stewardship, they will be allowed to remain dangerous.