Thursday, December 31, 2015

9th Canadian Challenge - 12th Review - Ossuaries

Dionne Brand is another one of Toronto's Poet Laureates, along with George Elliott Clarke.  In fact, she was the third, while Clarke was the fourth.  Judging from her 2010 book, Ossuaries, I am much more in tune with her than with Clarke.  I don't know how many of her other collections I will actually read, but I'll certainly consider delving into them occasionally, particularly as I still go to the City Hall library every few weeks, where they have many of her books on a special shelf with those of the other Poet Laureates.  Ossuaries actually won a major poetry prize, the Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2011.

While I was fairly sure what it was, I did check and an ossuary is a box or other storage container to hold holy relics, particularly the bones of a saint.  They aren't terribly common in North America, but Europe is littered with them.

Unlike many other poetry books, Ossuaries is conceived of as a book-length poem.  While it is often intentionally vague, the story-line such as it is, concerns a young female revolutionary, Yasmine, who sort of drifts back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border (near Niagara) though I think I remember she was in Quebec at one point.  This woman is in Cuba for a while but then seems to return to the U.S.  There's even a bank robbery at one point to raise money for the leftist groups she supports.

Each section is labelled as a different "ossuary."  I'm not entirely sure why that would be, unless Brand means to hold up different aspects of the story, sort of like different kernels of a legend-in-the-making, and figuratively deposit each one into a different box.  I found the poetic form more than a little distracting and personally think that the story would have worked better as a novella or even a full-length novel.*  (Of course, in the end I didn't like Fanny Howe's novels, and those were a kind of fusion of poetry and prose, though they fell much more on the prose end of the spectrum.)

Of the different sections, I preferred the ones where I had some inkling of what was actually going on.  For me the highlights were Ossuaries IV, VI, XII, XIII and XIV.  In Ossuary IV, you got a sense of where this woman came from.  She got caught up in the Black Liberation movement but was subservient to a fairly abusive older man in the movement.  Jazz music and revolutionary tracts seem to mingle.  While she still can listen to Mingus with some apparent pleasure, she can't stand Miles Davis: "Pharoah's Dance" had been playing for thirteen / of its twenty minutes. Owusu lies on the floor digging / Miles, he love Miles, the thin mean horn she hated ..."  Also, "here's the difference, she told him, / between Miles and Bird, / Miles kept living, till life was rancid..."  Incidentally, this may be one of the places where Brand is trying to introduce a bit of space between herself and this character.  There is clearly a nihilistic streak in many revolutionaries, preferring martyrdom to life with all its messy compromises.  Frankly, this is a juvenile attitude, and Brand seems to be calling her out on it, ever so slightly.

In Ossuary VI, she has separated from Owusu.  It appears she is in upstate New York somewhere east of Buffalo, though the "exact location must remain vague," and Yasmine is quite paranoid, like a true revolutionary figure.  In this section, I am more drawn to the language than the "plot" such as it is:

where was she, that again, which city now,
which city's electric grids of currents,
which city's calculus of right and let angles

which city's tendons of streets, identical
which city's domestic things,
newspapers, traffic, poverty

garbage collections, random murders,
shoplifting, hedge

(Given the emphasis on urban poverty, I am not entirely convinced that this isn't Buffalo, but perhaps it could be Albany or Syracuse...)

Things get fairly unclear in the poem in Ossuaries XII and XIII.  She is in some gang or revolutionary cell that is going around upstate New York (Utica, Corinth, Syracuse).  There doesn't seem to be any point to these wanderings, other than they are on the run from the authorities; perhaps that is reason enough: "the car's got endless fuel, they drive on."

Again the poetic language is powerful, even though the metaphors in Ossuary XIII don't advance the plot:
who will see the bedraggled gawping doorways,
the solitary deaths of finches that winters strand,
before smiles were wire, and before knives

were food and teeth were asphalt,
before sunlight was acid, on cedar porches
and hair was exiled beneath gas stoves,

the shawls strewn everywhere, sightless
walks in cities, the bony sands, the acidic
shorelines of skyscrapers, the seething airwaves all over

the starving boats and lithic frigates,
stingless bees, the canvas shirts,
the bright darkness, the clotted riverbeds...

(And so on.)

In Ossuary XIV, Yasmine is on a train with a forged passport.  She has to stay cool, keep to herself ("she talked to no one, found and kept a lone seat") and assume that the forger was competent.  It isn't clear, but I think she has crossed the border back into Canada.

While this has more "plot" to it than many sections, it also has a knowing reference to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land ("April is the cruelest month"): "inhale the tentative air / of this April, / supine, cunning month, or perhaps / fickle, or perhaps out of control, / or perhaps this damp new month will / share out its thirty days, in its usual rain / and gasps of sunlight, / and occasional blisters of snow...".

Yasmine nears her destination: "what did this arriving city know of her, / her recumbent violence, her real / name like a music, with perfume on the end / Yasmine, some long-fingered horn player, / could blow confessions over those two cool syllables...".

She is not stopped, perhaps is not even suspected, and leaves the train unhindered: "Yasmine gathers her legs, her perfunctory luggage, / scythes the train car with her lethal gait, / stands first at the door when the wheels stop / she steps into another country, another / constellation of bodies...".

The poem is fairly open-ended in the sense Yasmine sort of melts away into the new setting.  There is no shoot-out, not even a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  (Of course, that might come at any point in the future, particularly if someone in her cell sells her out.)  It's sort of a typical post-modern poetry ending, lacking closure.  It's probably appropriate, given that the main character is so used to hiding out and being constantly on the move.  There is no pat ending for someone gone underground, unless, of course, Brand decided to end on a shoot-out as in Bonnie and Clyde, which would be a different sort of clich√©.  I don't think this book would be for everyone, but I thought it was fairly interesting and some of the metaphors were well-done.

On a second and third rereading, I really liked Ossuary XIV (the next-to-last one) and think it really stands up quite well.  While it is probably too long to be included in its entirety,** I'll think seriously about excerpting it if I ever make more progress on my transportation poetry anthology.  After all, there are not all that many poems set on trains, at least post-1950.

* According to this review, Brand is also a novelist, and perhaps she simply thought the storyline would be too thin and she could indulge in more flights of fancy in a long poem format.  There's an interesting, positive extended review here, and a review that focuses on the desolate beauty inherent in the poem and considers it a dirge for contemporary society.  (Final linked review is behind a partial paywall at the Globe and Mail.)  My take is that there is more distance between Yasmin's perspective on life and Brand's.  However, I must admit that I haven't read Brand's other works, but I suspect I'll get to that in 2016 (along with the thousand other things I am hoping to do...).

** At least in a printed anthology.  An on-line anthology could contain almost anything.  I have been sorely tempted to just pull my proposed anthology together and put it on-line, but that would violate so many copyrights -- and burn so many bridges -- that if I ever did go legit later down the line, I would find many doors closed against me.

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