About the Author

Dionne Brand

 

Dionne Brand is internationally known for her poetry, fiction, and essays. She has received many awards, notably the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Award (Land to Light On), 1997), the Pat Lowther Award (Thirsty, 2005), the City of Toronto Book Award (What We All Long For, 2006), and the Harbourfront Festival Award (2006), given in recognition of her substantial contribution to literature. She is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph.

Leslie C. Sanders is a professor at York University, where she teaches African American and Black Canadian literature. She is the author of The Development of Black Theatre in America, the editor of two volumes of Langston Hughes’s performance works, and a general editor of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes. She has written essays on African American and Black Canadian literature.

 

Books by this Author
A Map to the Door of No Return

A Map to the Door of No Return

Notes to Belonging
edition:Paperback
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A Circumstantial Account of a State of Things

My grandfather said he knew what people we came from. I reeled off all the names I knew. Yoruba? Ibo? Ashanti? Mandingo? He said no to all of them, saying that he would know it if he heard it. I was thirteen. I was anxious for him to remember.

I pestered him for days. He told me to stop bothering him and that he would remember. Or stop bothering or else he would not remember. I hovered about him in any room in which he rested. 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.

I scoured the San Fernando library and found no other lists of names at the time. Having no way of finding other names, I could only repeat the ones I knew, asking him if he was sure it wasn’t Yoruba, how about Ashanti? I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be either one. I had heard that they were noble people. But I could also be Ibo; I had heard that they were gentle. And I had followed the war in Biafra. I was on their side.

Papa never remembered. Each week he came I asked him had he remembered. Each week he told me no. Then I stopped asking. He was disappointed. I was disappointed. We lived after that in this mutual disappointment. It was a rift between us. It gathered into a kind of estrangement. After that he grew old. I grew young. A small space opened in me.

I carried this space with me. Over time it has changed shape and light as the question it evoked has changed in appearance and angle. The name of the people we came from has ceased to matter. A name would have comforted a thirteen-year-old. The question however was more complicated, more nuanced. That moment between my grandfather and I several decades ago revealed a tear in the world. A steady answer would have mended this fault line quickly. I would have proceeded happily with a simple name. I may have played with it for a few days and then stored it away. Forgotten. But the rupture this exchange with my grandfather revealed was greater than the need for familial bonds. It was a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being. It was also a physical rupture, a rupture of geography.

My grandfather and I recognized this, which is why we were mutually disappointed. And which is why he could not lie to me. It would have been very easy to confirm any of the names I’d proposed to him. But he could not do this because he too faced this moment of rupture. We were not from the place where we lived and we could not remember where we were from or who we were. My grandfather could not summon up a vision of landscape or a people which would add up to a name. And it was profoundly disturbing.

Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast. In some desolate sense it was the creation place of Blacks in the New World Diaspora at the same time that it signified the end of traceable beginnings. Beginnings that can be noted through a name or a set of family stories that extend farther into the past than five hundred or so years, or the kinds of beginnings that can be expressed in a name which in turn marked out territory or occupation. I am interested in exploring this creation place – the Door of No Return, a place emptied of beginnings – as a site of belonging or unbelonging.

Maps
The rufous hummingbird travels five thousand miles from summer home to winter home and back. This hummingbird can fit into the palm of a hand. Its body defies the known physics of energy and flight. It knew its way before all known map-makers. It is a bird whose origins and paths are the blood of its small body. It is a bird whose desire to find its way depends on drops of nectar from flowers.

Water
Water is the first thing in my imagination. Over the reaches of the eyes at Guaya when I was a little girl, I knew that there was still more water. All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water.

To the south of this island on a clear day you could see the mainland of South America. Women and men with a tinge of red in the black of their faces and a burnt copper to their hair would arrive from the mainland to this island fleeing husbands or the law, or fleeing life. To the north was the hinterland of Trinidad, leading to the city which someone with great ambition in another century called Port-of-Spain. To the west was the bird’s beak of Venezuela and to the east, the immense Atlantic gaping to Africa.

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Fierce Departures

Fierce Departures

The Poetry of Dionne Brand
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
tagged : literary, canadian
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Grammar of Dissent

Grammar of Dissent

Poetry and Prose by Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip and Dionne Brand
edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

II

Observed over Miami, the city, an orange slick blister,
the houses, stiff-­haired organisms clamped to the earth,
engorged with oil and wheat,
rubber and metals,
the total contents of the brain, the electrical
regions of the atmosphere, water

coming north, reeling, a neurosis of hinged
clouds,
bodies thicken, flesh

out in immodest health,
six boys, fast food on their breath,
luscious paper bags, the perfume of grilled offal,
troughlike cartons of cola,
a gorgon luxury of electronics, backward caps,
bulbous clothing, easy hearts

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

lines of visitors are fingerprinted,
eye-­scanned, grow murderous,
then there’s the business of thoughts
who can glean with any certainty,
the guards, blued and leathered, multiply
to stop them,
palimpsests of old borders, the sea’s graph on the skin,
the dead giveaway of tongues,
soon, soon, the implants to discern lies

from the way a body moves

there’s that already

she felt ill, wanted
to murder the six boys, the guards,
the dreamless shipwrecked
burning their beautiful eyes in the patient queue

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let’s go to the republic of home,
let’s forget all this then, this victorious procession,
these blenching queues,
this timeless march of nails in shoeless feet

what people will take and give,
the passive lines, the passive guards,
if passivity can be inchoate self-­loathing

all around, and creeping

self-­righteous, let’s say it, fascism,
how else to say, border,
and the militant consumption of everything,
the encampment of the airport, the eagerness
to be all the same, to mince biographies
to some exact phrases, some
exact and toxic genealogy

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Love Enough

Love Enough

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tagged : literary
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Ossuaries
Excerpt

ossuary I
 
I lived and loved, some might say,
in momentous times,
looking back, my dreams were full of prisons
 
in our narcotic drifting slumbers,
so many dreams of course were full of prisons,
mine were without relief
 
in our induced days and our wingless days,
my every waking was incarcerated,
each square metre of air so toxic with violence
 
the atmospheres were breathless there,
the bronchial trees were ligatured
with carbons
 
some damage I had expected, but no one
expects the violence of glances, of offices,
of walkways and train stations, of bathroom mirrors
 
especially, the vicious telephones, the coarseness of
daylight, the brusque decisions of air,
the casual homicides of dresses
 
what brutal hours, what brutal days,
do not say, oh find the good in it, do not say,
there was virtue; there was no virtue, not even in me
 
let us begin from there, restraining metals
covered my heart, rivulets
of some unknown substance transfused my veins
 
at night, especially at night, it is always at night,
a wall of concrete enclosed me,
it was impossible to open my eyes
 
I lived like this as I said without care,
tanks rolled into my life, grenades took root
in my uterus, I was sickly each morning, so dearly
 
what to say,
life went on around me,
I laughed, I had drinks, I gathered with friends
 
we grinned our aluminum teeth,
we exhaled our venomous breaths,
we tried to be calm in the invisible architecture
 
we incubated, like cluster bombs,
whole lives waiting, whole stellar regions,
discoveries of nebulae, and compassion
 
from the cities the electric rains pierced us,
the ceaseless bitter days folded like good linen,
the phosphorous streets gave off their harmful lights
 
we bit our fingernails to blue buttons,
we staggered at the high approach of doorways,
plunged repeatedly to our deaths only to be revived
 
by zoos, parades, experiments, exhibits, television sets,
oh we wanted to leave, we wanted to leave
the aspirated syllables and villages, the skeletal
 
dance floors, the vacant, vacant moons that tortured us,
when the jailers went home and the spectators drifted
away and the scientists finished their work
 
like a bad dog chained to an empty gas station,
for blue blue nights,
I got worse and worse, so troubling
 
I would fall dead like a specimen,
at the anthropometric spectacles
on the Champ de Mars, the Jardin d’Acclimatation
 
the mobile addresses of the autopsy fields,
though I could see no roads,
I was paid for losing everything, even eyesight
 
I lived in the eternal villages, I lived like a doll,
a shaggy doll with a beak, a bell, a red mouth,
I thought, this was the way people lived, I lived
 
I had nights of insentient adjectives,
shale nights, pebbled nights, stone nights,
igneous nights, of these nights, the speechlessness
 
I recall, the right ribs of the lit moon,
the left hip of the lit moon,
what is your name they asked, I said nothing
 
I heard the conspiratorial water,
I heard the only stone, I ate her shoulder,
I could not hear myself, you are mistaken I said to no one
 
the chain-link fences glittered like jewellery,
expensive jewellery, portable jewellery,
I lost verbs, whole, like the hull of almonds
 
after consideration you will discover, as I,
that verbs are a tragedy, a bleeding cliffside, explosions,
I’m better off without, with vermillion, candles
 
this bedding, this mercy,
this stretcher, this solitary perfectable strangeness,
and edge, such cloth this compass
 
of mine, of earth, of mourners of these
reasons, of which fairgrounds, of which theories
of plurals, of specimens of least and most, and most
 
of expeditions,
then travels and wonders then journeys,
then photographs and photographs of course
 
the multiplications of which, the enormity of this,
and drill-bits and hammers and again handcuffs,
and again rope, coarse business but there
 
some investigations, then again the calculations,
such hours, such expansions, the mind dizzy
with leaps, such handles, of wood, of thought
 
and then science, all science, all murder,
melancholic skulls, pliant to each fingertip,
these chromatic scales, these calipers the needle
 
in the tongue, the eyes’ eye, so
whole diameters, circumferences, locutions,
an orgy of measurements, a festival of inches
 
gardens and paraphernalia of measurements,
unificatory data, curious data,
beautiful and sensuous data, oh yes beautiful
 
now, of attractions and spectacles of other sheer forces,
and types in the universe, the necessary
exotic measurements, rarest, rarest measuring tapes
 
a sudden unificatory nakedness, bificatory nakedness,
of numbers, of violent fantasms
at exhibitions again, of walks, of promenades
 
at fairs with products, new widgets, human widgets,
with music, oh wonders,
the implications
 
then early in this life, like mountains,
already pictures and pictures, before pictures,
after pictures and cameras
 
their sickness, eye sickness, eye murder,
murder sickness, hunger sickness,
this serendipity of calculators, of footprints
 
with fossils, their wingspan of all time,
at crepuscules’ rare peace time, if only,
like water, in daytime, no solace, so, so different
 
from solitude, all solitude, all madness,
so furious, so numerous, the head, the markets,
the soles of the feet, so burnt, so thin
 
and the taste, so meagre, so light-headed,
the cloud flashes, the lightning geometry,
the core of reflectivity so vastly, vastly vast
 
the wait now, lumens of aches, such aches,
the horizontal and the vertical aches of lightning,
its acoustics, loud pianos, percussive yet
 
strings and quartets, multicellular runnels yet and yet,
the altitude of the passageway, its precipitation
and grand arithmetic, the segments
 
the latitudes of where, where and here,
its contours, its eccentric curvatures,
so presently, angular and nautical, all presently
 
just fine my lungs, just fine,
hypothesis absolutely, but just fine,
why lungs, strange theory
 
oh yes and the magnitude of jaundice, trenches,
like war, continuous areas and registers, logarithms
so unexplainable, rapid scales, high notes
 
besides, anyway so thermal, atmospheric,
wondrous aggressions, approximately here,
elaborate like radiation and seismic, yes all over
 
the bodies’ symptoms of algebraic floods,
tiredness for one, weariness actually,
weary with magnetic embryos
 
petals, yes petals of sick balm please, now yes,
for my esophagus, analgesics of indigo,
of wires, of electric shocks, why eucalyptus leaves
 
of course lemon grass, labernum, please, lion’s claw,
remedies of cloves, bitter bark,
still birdless though, worldless
 
asthma with blueness, then music,
gardens truthfully, truthfully nauseous with
tonsured numbers, volumes of fibres, embroidery
 
and hair nets of violence, blue,
like machine guns, of course knives, extensions
of blueness, all right then wherever
 
same radiations, lines in the forehead,
tapers, electrodes, invisible to the eyes,
official hammers and corkscrews, official grass
 
official cities now for appearances after all this,
all these appearances, generous, for certain
scraggly, wan, and robust appearances
 
assignments and hidden schedules of attendance,
a promise of blindness, a lover’s clasp of
violent syntax and the beginning syllabi of verblessness

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The Blue Clerk

The Blue Clerk

Ars Poetica in 59 Versos
edition:Hardcover
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Selah
 
In retrospect, I loved Selah for reasons anyone can understand. First, she loved herself more than she loved me. And this led me to think that I would get some respite from the world, and at the same time receive the little affections I required to complete my life’s work: my dissertation.
 
I wanted Selah to spare me only a few glances and gestures while she took care of her most singular concern—her body. I imagined her thoughts passing over me briefly while she did her eyes or painted her nails red. I believed this oblique affection, like the affection one has for landscapes or animals, would be sufficient for my needs.
 
I don’t require much in the way of attention, you see. All my life I’ve sat at an angle, observing the back and forth of other people’s lives. Even as a child I found myself on the diagonal to events in the living room and the kitchen. I used to sit crouched with my arms around my knees, trying to watch and listen and not be noticed. I used to summon all my stillness to do this because if I were observed, all events would cease and I would become the object of commands to do some job like cleaning a shoe or finding a book to read. Or worse, I would be upbraided for listening in on conversations beyond my years, which it seemed was a sign of immorality. My childhood was spent inhabiting this angle nevertheless, at the risk of beatings and other sanctions. I enjoyed this vantage point because it provided me with a view of the tumult of people’s lives without the involvement. And so I perfected this geometry, I excelled at finding just the right distance from actions and conversations. From there, I learned a great deal about human beings, first at home and then in the world where, I discovered, it was much easier to conceal oneself.

Anyone would be forgiven, I think, for loving Selah. After all, in this world there is a shared aesthetic, however oppressive, however repetitive, of loving a certain manifestation of a woman, and Selah inhab­ited that manifestation. One finds oneself compelled to take part in the aesthetic, no matter the tedium of its repetitions. It is so anaesthetic—well, actually, it is like a hammer and a crowbar, opening your skull and your heart. You can see its manifestation all over the world on billboards—interpretations of a certain symmetry, or to be exact, an asymmetry. Although Selah, I must admit, was not an interpretation; she was the object, the object of interpretation. She was voluptuous, truly. That word—Selah was its owner. A smooth, sumptuous human being. Even-fleshed, tall, athletic, bracing, supple. Her skin, a burnt almond, yet smelled of cinnamon. I do not mean here to invoke the Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove, et cetera. And I don’t mean to dissociate Selah, the body, from Selah, the intelligence, in the way that most people do. We are mainly body after all, and the body is intelligence. We turn it into this petty panto­mime of gender, so its beauty is lost on us. I try every day to break out of the pantomime. Nevertheless, I spent hours smelling Selah’s right shoulder. Her skin is so smooth there. She didn’t appreciate my dog’s nose sniffing her, but the cinnamon is most noticeable there, warmed in the bowl of her clavicle. I asked Selah if she rubbed herself in cinnamon. Did she roll around in cinnamon powder each morning, or did she walk through burning branches of cinna­mon trees at night? She looked disgusted with me. Of course not, she said.

Back to the body as intelligence: the body is, after all, a living organism—with its own intention, sepa­rate from the parsed out, pored over intentions that one can say come from the mind. The mind’s inter­pretation of the body is irrelevant. The body pursues its own needs and its own desires with fibre optic precision not even yet detailed by scientists. Selah’s body, for example, has decided on cinnamon and it has, to my way of thinking, synthesized all of the atmosphere around it to the smell of cinnamon. Or let me withdraw that previous statement. Perhaps it is my body, my olfactory nerve, that decided on cin­namon at the appearance of Selah, and so it collected the smell of cinnamon around the presence of Selah. On the other hand, there might be a third theory unknown to both Selah and me that accounts for the cinnamon. Whatever the truth of this, Selah smelled of cinnamon.

Let me say at the beginning that I do not know anything about Selah. I do not know where she was born, I do not know about her upbringing or her schooling. Nor do I know any detail about her father or mother. Selah kept all this a secret from me—or not so much a secret as she thought it was none of my affair. I would pry and poke around, asking her about her life before me—to which she would give elliptical answers, not filling in the true details. When I inquired further, in that way I have of forecasting that I am trying to dig out a secret, Selah immediately grew suspicious and stared at me like a star from a distant constellation. It was as if she already saw my plan for superficial analysis and found it boring. Selah also did not care that I analyzed her silence in this same pathetic way. At least, she said, there was nothing in the silence except my imagination, so I could specu­late all I wanted.

Back again to the idea of the body itself as intelli­gence: when I made love to Selah—for that is what she said I did—Selah’s body was discerning in every (for want of a better word) touch. In those moments she could tell if I was sincere or not in my life and in my intentions. In those moments life is truthful, it has a core, an honesty; it is a plain act and there is no deception. The body then is like a surveillance machine with nerve endings and light scanners, sound detectors and particle analysis. Whatever is transmitted cannot be reinterpreted or taken back. Selah pointed out to me that it was on her body that these acts took place, not on mine. That is, I made love to her, she did not make love to me. This euphemism, make love, is not how she put it. She said, “It is my body that is at work.” This statement was at once stunning for its clarity; somewhat embarrassing for me, as it pointed out an unobserved tendency on my part; and truthful. My embarrassment at these words is still present even a decade later. Selah’s body was the body at work. I preyed upon Selah’s body. Her body was the central terrain and I, like some bird with taloned feet and beak, attacked her flesh and bones. Or I was like a forensic scientist, but a scientist of love, or an undertaker or a surgeon of love—whatever I may call it, I was dissecting her muscle from her blood vessels in my experiment of love.

I thought Selah liked my lovemaking, my atten­tions to the most minute areas of her skin. It had seemed this way to me until her declaration. I said as much to Selah, in an unavoidably wounded tone. I did not catch myself before that tone emerged and so I foreclosed whatever else Selah had to say. I regret this, but her declaration had confirmed a doubt I always had, namely, What did Selah see in me? Why had she acquiesced to being with me at all? Still to this day I cannot fathom why Selah took me on as a lover.

I am not avoiding the question of why Selah rarely made love to me, but there is so much more to say about her and about our life together that it would be unworthy to dwell on that or to suggest that it was in any way pivotal to the outcome. Selah always told the truth. That is certain. I, however, never truly listened to her until I was faced with my self-delusion. And meanwhile, I always lied to Selah. I thought I was saving her from the harshness of situations. She, to her credit, never believed me. She went on in her own reality. Selah was much better at being in the world than I was. She knew and assumed the conventions of normalcy that I only paid lip service to, which brings me once again to the question of why I was in love with Selah. I cannot confirm that Selah was in love with me; I could never tell. Sometimes she dis­played a great warmth for me. She would leave off her preening and embrace me, especially when I brought her a gift of some kind, or when I suggested, desper­ately, we go on a trip to a warm place.

Once we went to Seville in August. Selah fought me the whole month, but she also picked figs in the mornings and walked through the Sierpes in the late afternoons looking gorgeous. In Seville, we house-sat for a professor of mine, a professor of philology with whom I had taken a graduate course and had become quite close. Selah and I would emerge each day from our house-sit at the wrong hour—the hour when the sun was strongest and all of Seville was asleep. We drifted through the orange-hot streets trying to find a café, the sun baked us, we felt glorious and invin­cible. Then, finding a shaded resto, we would eat pes­cado a la plancha and I would drink a beer while Selah examined her skin. I would try to engage Selah in some talk about Spanish colonialism, or the obvi­ous Arab qualities of Seville, and she would barely respond, as if to say, What does that have to do with my holiday? Selah, of course, was right: it had noth­ing to do with it. My overbearing teaching often leeched the pleasures of the moment. Selah merely wanted to “be.” And how could I blame her? I wanted to “be” also.

Selah had a beauty that was unanswerable, unlearnable. After all, what is the response to beauty? I had nothing to offer in response to this beauty. How do you answer the smell of cinnamon? How can smoothness have a reply? What do you do when you glimpse Selah in a far-off store window crossing a cobbled square with a gnome beside her? You see Selah, she is wearing black, she has dark glasses, she is carrying a bag, she is like a sharp dagger or a bolt of lightning striking the air and you are struck in the forehead, you lose sight in one eye. And then you observe the gnome beside her, the gnome who is you, and the gnome is arguing with Selah. “One month,” the gnome is saying, and the sight makes you shut up. But the gnome goes on nevertheless, “One month, you cannot give me one month of peace!” The gnome is haranguing Selah and Selah is indifferent, so the gnome shuts up and creeps along beside Selah. Why is Selah walking with that gnome, you remark out loud to no one. Our days in Seville invariably con­tained a moment like this. Selah had the dissatisfac­tion of beauty, because of course beauty can never be satisfied and can never be satisfactory to the beauti­ful. The imperfect is always more rewarding, more active, since it is striving for perfection. So Selah always seemed dissatisfied to me. Though I could be wrong and perhaps it is my probing personality that casts a doubt on beauty. Yes, my own dissatisfaction infected Selah’s contentment.

Selah was content, I realize now. I came home sometimes to find her singing along with the radio, the sound of some inane popular song booming against the walls. Ashanti, Mary J. Blige and Nelly. Selah would be cooking one of her specialities—the pots bubbling on the stove, the smell of smoked corn, fried grouper, all the aromas I loved—yet I could not help myself, the stupid songs dominated my atten­tion. They annoyed me immediately and I could not resist asking Selah how old she was, and when would she let go of that teenage stuff? Clearly I loved Selah much more than I loved her ways. Though, to take that back, I loved Selah’s ways, despite my objections to them. I loved how Selah remained attentive to pop­ular things while I made up theories for them. Selah ignored me. She said how old-fashioned I was, how out of time, how queer. She was right. I know I am out of time. Everything about our different tastes made me question why we were together, but I still ignored this question.

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Thirsty

Thirsty

edition:Paperback
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Excerpt

I

This city is beauty
unbreakable and amorous as eyelids,
in the streets, pressed with fierce departures,
submerged landings,
I am innocent as thresholds
and smashed night birds, lovesick,
as empty elevators

let me declare doorways,
corners, pursuit, let me say
standing here in eyelashes, in
invisible breasts, in the shrinking lake
in the tiny shops of untrue recollections,
the brittle, gnawed life we live,
I am held, and held

the touch of everything blushes me,
pigeons and wrecked boys,
half-dead hours, blind musicians,
inconclusive women in bruised dresses
even the habitual grey-suited men with terrible
briefcases, how come, how come
I anticipate nothing as intimate as history

would I have had a different life
failing this embrace with broken things,
iridescent veins, ecstatic bullets, small cracks
in the brain, would I know these particular facts,
how a phrase scars a cheek, how water
dries love out, this, a thought as casual
as any second eviscerates a breath

and this, we meet in careless intervals,
in coffee bars, gas stations, in prosthetic
conversations, lotteries, untranslatable
mouths, in versions of what we may be,
a tremor of the hand in the realization
of endings, a glancing blow of tears
on skin, the keen dismissal in speed

A Word about the Poem by Franca Bernabei
“This city is beauty.” With this striking affirmation Dionne Brand opens her text to the city and immediately places the reader in the scenario of Toronto. In the long poem thirsty, Toronto will become the absolute subject and agent of her spatial critique. This critique connects the lyrical “I,” the city, and the poetic text through a sapient play of prosodic rhythms and phonetic, syntactic and semantic trajectories. In its turn, the polarized — but intersecting — social contextualization of the multi-ethnic urban site both shapes and pulverizes the discourse of the self. A self whose inner, reflexive itinerary will crisscross the restless, tragic route of Alan, a West Indian immigrant killed by the police; those of the women making up his family; and the daily routes of the suburban dwellers and the inner-city immigrants.

In the first two stanzas of this introductory poem, the self “declares” both its “innocent” condition of liminality and suspension with respect to the “fierce departures” and “submerged landings” that occur in the streets of Toronto, and its will to speak and make the city known. The shifts of grammatical subject (“this city,” “I am,” “let me,” “we,” “I”), the different speech acts and verbal modes, and two distinct but converging constellations of images — one referring to the body (“eyelids,” “eyelashes,” “breasts,” “brittle,” “gnawed lives”), the other to features of the city space (“streets,” “thresholds,” “elevators,” “doorways,” “corners,” “shops”) — mark above all the porous boundaries between the “unbreakable” and “amorous” beauty of Toronto and the surrendering “lovesickness” of the speaker’s body. This porosity then invests the “I”’s relation to the other urban dwellers, with whom it shares a peculiar form of intimacy: the spatial specificity of a city — as we will learn later — “that never happened before.”

In the third stanza it becomes even more evident that this particular urban site is a space of contingency which not only captures the “I” with its beauty but also holds it by means of its heterogeneous singularities which constantly intrude on and question the “private” space of the self. Furthermore, the shift from object (“blushes me,” a transitive verb) to subject (“I”) prepares for the move from indicative to interrogatory in stanza IV, in which the present tense of the “I” is related to a past that perhaps might have had a different outcome in another context. Once again, a chain of bodily images transmits the reception (actually, the “embrace”) on the part of the “body-self” of an “iridescent” medley — note the purring of alliterations and assonances here — that composes the city. Note also how the puzzled mood of the speaker is modulated through the use of repetition (“I am held and held,” “how come, how come,” “would I…would I”). And this special form of availability/vulnerability is further qualified in the last stanza. Here the “I” becomes “we” again, in order to emphasize that Toronto’s urban milieu is composed of the distribution and dispersal of people’s everyday paths and routines, their contingent and fugitive encounters, unsatisfactory translations, and acts of camouflage or discardings of previous identities. The city is a composition which simultaneously absorbs and dispels, binds and loosens.

As we will learn in the course of this long poem, the collective “we” is made up of a recalcitrant multitude which contributes to the city’s “murmurous genealogy” and refuses to coalesce. Gathered under the all-encompassing figure of a “vagrant, fugitive city,” and reinforced by the metaphors of “thirst” and “falling,” these intersecting, disenfranchised bodies breach the “I”’s singularity and compel it to confront itself through its own alteration and embrace a conflictual ethics (a politics?) of accountability and compassion. As the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has pointed out, the modern city is not so much a civitas (a community of citizens) as it is a place in which something takes place that is different from place. And yet, Dionne Brand’s remapping of the metropolitan paradigm suggests that the uneasy and volatile proximity of Toronto’s (im)possible citizens, their mobile geography of looks and glances, or even of bodies brushing up against one another, and “hyphenating” the streets in which they transit, may be capable of establishing new and perhaps incommensurable spaces of negotiation, transformation, and representation.

Franca Bernabei — University of Ca’Foscari, Venice

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What We All Long For
Excerpt

ONE

This city hovers above the forty-third parallel; that’s illusory of course. Winters on the other hand, there’s nothing vague about them. Winters here are inevitable, sometimes unforgiving. Two years ago, they had to bring the army in to dig the city out from under the snow. The streets were glacial, the electrical wires were brittle, the telephones were useless. The whole city stood still; the trees more than usual. The cars and driveways were obliterated. Politicians were falling over each other to explain what had happened and who was to blame — who had privatized the snow plows and why the city wasn’t prepared. The truth is you can’t prepare for something like that. It’s fate. Nature will do that sort of thing — dump thousands of tons of snow on the city just to say, Don’t make too many plans or assumptions, don’t get ahead of yourself. Spring this year couldn’t come too soon — and it didn’t. It took its time — melting at its own pace, over running ice-blocked sewer drains, swelling the Humber River and the Don River stretching to the lake. The sound of the city was of trickling water.

Have you ever smelled this city at the beginning of spring? Dead winter circling still, it smells of eagerness and embarrassment and, most of all, longing. Garbage, buried under snowbanks for months, gradually reappears like old habits — plastic bags, pop cans — the alleyways are cluttered in a mess of bottles and old shoes and thrown-away beds. People look as if they’re unravelling. They’re on their last nerves. They’re suddenly eager for human touch. People will walk up to perfect strangers and tell them anything. After the grey days and the heavy skies of what’s passed, an unfamiliar face will smile and make a remark as if there had been a conversation going on all along. The fate of everyone is open again. New lives can be started, or at least spring is the occasion to make it seem possible. No matter how dreary yesterday was, all the complications and problems that bore down then, now seem carried away by the melting streets. At least the clearing skies and the new breath of air from the lake, both, seduce people into thinking that.

It’s 8 A.M. on a Wednesday of this early spring, and the subway train rumbles across the bridge over the Humber River. People are packed in tightly, and they all look dazed, as if recovering from a blow. There’s the smell of perfume and sweat, and wet hair and mint, coffee and burned toast. There is a tension, holding in all the sounds that bodies make in the morning. Mostly people are quiet, unless they’re young, like the three who just got on — no annoying boss to be endured all day. They grab hold of the upper hand-bars and as the train moves off they crash into one another, giggling. Their laughter rattles around in the car, then they grow mockingly self-conscious and quiet, noticing the uptightness on the train, but they can’t stay serious and explode again into laughter.

One of them has a camera, she’s Asian, she’s wearing an old oilskin coat, and you want to look at her, she’s beautiful in a strange way. Not the pouting corporate beauty on the ad for shampoo above her head, she has the beauty a falcon has: watchful, feathered, clawed, and probing. Another one’s a young black man; he’s carrying a drum in a duffel bag. He’s trying to find space for it on the floor, and he’s getting annoyed looks all around. There’s an enviable loose physical allure to him. He has a few days’ growth on his face, and when he smiles his eyebrows, his eyes — his whole face can’t help its seduction. The third is another woman, she might be Italian, southern. She’s bony like a mantis in her yellow slick plastic coat, except her mouth has a voluptuousness to it, and her eyes, the long eyelashes weigh them down. The Asian woman points the camera at her, coaxes her for a smile, and the flash goes off and she looks startled. It’s obvious they’ve been out all night. They’re talking now about some friend of theirs whom the young man loves. But all three are finally subdued by the taut silence around them, as if succumbing to some law they’d broken. Who wants to hear about love so early in the morning?

Mornings are like that on the subway trains — everyone having left their sovereign houses and apartments and rooms to enter the crossroads of the city, they first try at not letting the city touch them, holding on to the meagre privacy of a city with three million people. But eventually they’re disrupted like this. Anonymity is the big lie of a city. You aren’t anonymous at all. You’re common, really, common like so many pebbles, so many specks of dirt, so many atoms of materiality.

Now that conversation has entered everyone’s heads, and will follow them to work; they’ll be trying to figure out the rest of the story all day. Now they’ll be wondering where those three were last night, and someone will think, Why isn’t my life like that? Free like a young person’s. Someone will go off into a flight of imagination as to where they’d been — probably the railroad tracks, probably High Park, probably smoking dope at a party, drinking beer and dancing. Definitely dancing. And some other jealous rider will think, That bunch of free loaders! Never worked a day in their lives! Life will get them hard some time, don’t you worry.

And jammed in a seat down the car there’s a man who hardly understands English at all, but he hears the tinkle of laughter, and it surprises him out of his own declensions on fate—how he ended up here and what’s to be his next move, and how the small panic that he feels disgusts him. He rouses himself from going over the details of his life, repeating them in his head as if to the woman reading a newspaper next to him. The laughter pierces him, and he thinks that he’s never heard laughter sound so pure, and it is his first week in this city. Only when he was very, very little — a boy — then he heard it, he remembers.

What floats in the air on a subway train like this is chance. People stand or sit with the thin magnetic film of their life wrapped around them. They think they’re safe, but they know they’re not. Any minute you can crash into someone else’s life, and if you’re lucky, it’s good, it’s like walking on light.

There are Italian neighbourhoods and Vietnamese neighbourhoods in this city; there are Chinese ones and Ukrainian ones and Pakistani ones and Korean ones and African ones. Name a region on the planet and there’s someone from there, here. All of them sit on Ojibway land, but hardly any of them know it or care because that genealogy is wilfully untraceable except in the name of the city itself. They’d only have to look, though, but it could be that what they know hurts them already, and what if they found out something even more damaging? These are people who are used to the earth beneath them shifting, and they all want it to stop — and if that means they must pretend to know nothing, well, that’s the sacrifice they make.

But as at any crossroad there are permutations of existence. People turn into other people imperceptibly, unconsciously, right here in the grumbling train. And on the sidewalks, after they’ve emerged from the stations, after being sandpapered by the jostling and scraping that a city like this does, all the lives they’ve hoarded, all the ghosts they’ve carried, all the inversions they’ve made for protection, all the scars and marks and records for recognition — the whole heterogeneous baggage falls out with each step on the pavement. There’s so much spillage.

In this city there are Bulgarian mechanics, there are Eritrean accountants, Colombian café owners, Latvian book publishers, Welsh roofers, Afghani dancers, Iranian mathematicians, Tamil cooks in Thai restaurants, Calabrese boys with Jamaican accents, Fushen deejays, Filipina-Saudi beauticians; Russian doctors changing tires, there are Romanian bill collectors, Cape Croker fishmongers, Japanese grocery clerks, French gas meter readers, German bakers, Haitian and Bengali taxi drivers with Irish dispatchers.

Lives in the city are doubled, tripled, conjugated — women and men all trying to handle their own chain of events, trying to keep the story straight in their own heads. At times they catch themselves in sensational lies, embellishing or avoiding a nasty secret here and there, juggling the lines of causality, and before you know it, it’s impossible to tell one thread from another. In this city, like everywhere, people work, they eat, they drink, they have sex, but it’s hard not to wake up here without the certainty of misapprehension.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Unpublished City, The

Unpublished City, The

Volume I
edited by Dionne Brand
edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback Paperback
tagged : canadian
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