Thursday, January 5, 2012

Review: Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand

When it comes to the poetry of Dionne Brand, (as the title of one of her other books tells us), no language is neutral. And in the case of Ossuaries, her most recently released collection, no language is safe either. In this starling long poem, words and phrases become at once unshackled and conscripted– freed from their conventional meanings and complacent connotations, but also enlisted to serve a higher mission, a noble war. This poem is a brazen attack of free-form associations, an art meant to jar us from, as Brand puts it, “nights of insentient adjectives” and “a lover’s clasp of/ violent syntax and the beginning syllabi of verblessness.”

The poem is comprised of 15 “ossuaries”, a term meaning a depository for bones, and takes us ostensibly through the story of the book’s itinerant protagonist, Yasmine. From the first ossuary’s obsessions with prisons and steel and claustrophobia, to subsequent renderings of love and hate, explorations of technology and the re-sensitizing qualities of poetry itself, this collection dazzles us with its many layers and near-hypnotic voice. This is Brand at her most militant, her most brutally violent; Ossuaries is, at its heart, a relentless assault on our expectations of poetic imagery and language itself.

While the “narrative” of Yasmine stays aloof through much of the long poem’s successive tercets, Brand’s unmistakable style remains front and centre. She is a master of reoccurrence, using patterns of repetition to create music for the eye. Take, for example, this excerpt from “Ossuary VI”:

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

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

Or this, from “Ossuary III”, a passage about love as kinetic as any you’ll find in poetry:

... I tried love, I did,
the scapulae I kissed, I did

the flat triangular bones I filled with kisses, spumes
of kisses, gutters of kisses, postponed kisses,
and early new-born kisses

the curve of clavicles, I dug artesian wells of kisses there,
utensils of kisses,
spoons of kisses, basins of kisses, creeks of kisses

the jugular notch I ate in kisses
I devoured kisses,
teeth-filled kisses, throat-filled kisses, gullet-stuffed kisses

so don’t tell me how love will rescue me,
I was carnivorous above love, I ate love to the ankles ...

I do have to admit that during my first reading of Ossuaries, there were times when I felt somewhat outside of Brand’s imagery; and no matter how much I opened myself up to her guerrilla attacks on my expectations, there were passages that came off as kind of lyrical gibberish. (I don’t know, for example, if I’ll ever know what “povertous dowries wait at their landings/ scapegoat necklaces ring harbours,/ felonies of buses, and bars, and school” means.) But as I’ve dipped back into this collection to prepare for this review, I’ve found moments of illumination where I had only found confusion before. It’s a testament to the work when these revelations happen.

It is deeply satisfying, in the end, to read a collection of poetry that subverts so fully as this one does. No language is neutral, indeed; every phrases is called forth to serve. This box of bones is very much alive.