“The bales have been piling up for years”

The Archival Pulse of Dionne Brand’s Work

• February 2022

It would be no exaggeration to pronounce Dionne Brand one of the most significant Caribbean writers today. Her work across the genres of poetry and prose and as a filmmaker have offered profound meditations on our vexed and complex presents and histories. At the same time, her work has reflected on the importance and role of the writer as chronicler of our times as well as engaged with questions of aesthetics in meaningfully deliberate ways. This special discussion section represents one attempt to grapple with some of the work that has marked the most recent phase of Brand’s writing.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose essay opens this discussion, reflects on Brand’s work in relation to archives—“witness and records”—and connects The Blue Clerk to “drafts of A Map to the Door of No Return written, sometimes even in blue pen, on the back of blue printouts of a document” that she finds in an archive.1 She also reminds us about the “blue airmail letter” passages in Brand’s novel At the Full and Change of the Moon, which Gumbs has written about so insightfully in “Deagelar Ma . . . Comère: Dispersed Daughterhood and Queer Desire—a Blue Airmail Letter,” a 2006 essay published in the pages of the now defunct Caribbean women studies journal MaComère.2 This early work by Gumbs bears some of the traces of what I would call her dialogic style, one that follows in the tradition of Brand’s own work evidenced in her epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in defense of Claudia.3 Gumbs’s practice of writing “after and with” others can be seen in her books that engage in relational thinking with the writings of Hortense Spillers, M. Jacqui Alexander, and Sylvia Wynter.4 Her discussion of Brand’s The Blue Clerk included here can be seen as a continuation and an extension of this practice. In noting these continuities, we might undertake a reading of both Brand’s and Gumbs’s work though an attention to archival accumulation. As The Blue Clerk reminds us, “There are bales of paper. . . . The bales have been piling up for years yet they look brightly scored, crisp and cunning.”5

Like Gumbs, Nalini Mohabir focuses on the question of archives. Her essay begins by invoking and ruminating on “bales of paper on a wharf somewhere; at a port, somewhere.” She uses this image from The Blue Clerk as an entry point to think more closely about the clerk—both her work and the way she and the papers hold history and memory.6 For Mohabir, Brand’s work offers vivid moments of encounter with the materiality of the archive. We might understand this attunement to the space of the archive in relation to Mohabir’s work as a geographer. But beyond that, she also allows us to think about the spatial dynamics Brand achieves in her writing through a keen attention to the recurrences of ports as sites of entry and departure, to representations of diaspora and dark waters, and to the problematic of return. Mohabir focuses specifically on an intertextual reading of The Blue Clerk and A Map to the Door of No Return, situating them in terms of textual reckonings with history. She importantly brings together archives of slavery and the archives of indentureship to think relationally about the colonial deathscapes that one might encounter in the small blue folders and ink-stained documents of the colonial archives.7 In thinking about Mohabir’s work alongside Gumbs’s essay, we might note how different interdisciplinary entry points also offer us different orientations in relation to a text. Mohabir orients us toward the patient work of the clerk, offering us a way of reading The Blue Clerk that asks how we might organize our reading “both experientially and materially.”

Kaie Kellough’s discussion, in turn, asks us to listen for an archive of sound. In his essay he centers on “Verso 14: Coltrane’s ‘Venus’ and the Ossuaries’ tercets” in The Blue Clerk, but he gives us clues about how and why we should also listen for the echoes of John Coltrane and jazz in Brand’s other works. Kellough utilizes listening as a praxis and as a way to think about poetry and music together. His thinking, in this regard, follows Paul Watkins’s theorization of Brand’s “jazz poetics.”8 Kellough’s discussion allows us to think not only across different texts but also across different artistic genres. For Kellough, this listening is not just about hearing the sounds but about a practice of keen attention through which we might attend to the intricacies of artistic method and through which we “can feel an artist striving to defy the limitations of one art form to access the freedom promised by another.” Kellough’s listening focuses on the tensions between “structure and freedom” that manifest specifically on the context of the creative collaborations between saxophonist Coltrane and drummer Rashied Ali. But he also posits that this dynamic interplay is central to Brand’s artistic practice, noting how it plays out in Brand’s long poem Ossuaries as well as in The Blue Clerk, particularly in the latter’s dialogues between the author and the clerk.9 Kellough’s intervention offers us an opportunity to explore more freely Brand’s intertextual engagement with a range of artists and works across different print and sound genres.

The Blue Clerk’s attention to a range of artistic practices also extends to visuality. In the text, the clerk and the author offer, for example, thought-provoking reflections on artists such as Basquiat (“Verso 3.1”), Wilfredo Lam (“Verso 17”), and Jacob Lawrence (“Verso 18: War Series” and “Verso 20”). Indeed, in exploring questions of intertextuality, we should also meaningfully think about Brand’s multiple engagements with visuality. Tzarina Prater’s discussion here traces the recurrence of the trope of photographs in Brand’s writing to raise questions about visuality and about “colonial representational discourses.” Prater notes how Brand’s An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading begins with a reference to a photograph: “There is a photograph of me taken when I was a child.”10 Prater moves on from there to trace Brand’s multiple returns and references to the photograph as a narrative trope across a number of texts, including in the short story “Photograph” from Sans Souci, and Other Stories, in the novel At the Full and Change of the Moon, and in the poem “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” from No Language Is Neutral.11 We might also add to this list the textual portrait of the character Odalys in Brand’s most recent work of fiction, Theory, in which the rendering of Odalys similarly begins with a reference to a photograph.12 Prater also significantly moves beyond a consideration of Brand’s writing to remind us of her important yet little discussed work as a filmmaker, recalling the documentary trilogy Older, Stronger, Wiser (1989), Sisters in the Struggle (1991), and a Long Time Comin’ (1991) and the film Listening for Something: Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand in Conversation (1996).13 Attention to these texts and films, Prater suggests, not only might enrich how we think about Brand’s contribution to cultural production beyond the page but also might layer how we read her writings about “systems of representation and specularization and . . . the power and impact of visual imagery/texts.”

Andrea Davis’s contribution focuses on Brand’s 2021 lecture “What We Saw. What We Made. When We Emerge.”14 Davis offers a consideration of Brand’s role as a writer but also as a public intellectual, noting the ways her work continues to address the horizons, foreclosures, and contingencies of the present. Even more significantly, Davis argues, Brand’s writing gives us language to narrate and navigate the times in which we live and exist. As Davis puts it, Brand’s lecture offers us “a grammar and tense to articulate this feeling, this sense of living in ‘momentous times.’” We might also reflect on Davis’s discussion of Brand’s lecture alongside Diana Brydon’s assertion that we should read Brand as a writer whose work can tell us much about “public sphere politics” and its relationship to questions of poetics.15 Brand’s work of reckoning with “the worry and the damp thoughts and the arid thoughts” that collectively mark our sphere of possibilities proves even more urgent in the context of the current pandemic.16 Brand, as Davis argues, “attends to the feelings of an aching city, country, and world” living with death. Davis closes by meditating on what we might call Brand’s grammar of emergence. This is not the rhetoric of the capitalist state that, in the face of the emergencies of our times, calculates the loss and value of lives against questions of the persistence and the thriving of the economy and continues to urge a return to work and a return to “normal.” Rather, there is a call here to “think and create new forms of cooperative and reciprocal human relationships.”

This tracing of continuities and departures across different works by Brand, in which our contributors engage, also urges us to take care in noting key transitions and returns in Brand’s oeuvre. In raising this issue, I want to think with our contributors across her poetry and her prose writings as well as her fiction and nonfiction works. Indeed, to look back over Brand’s body of work is to note not just transitions but also moments where there have been a clustering of texts speaking to each other in resonant and interconnected ways. We might consider, for instance, the volume Chronicles: Early Works, which brings together the poetry collections Primitive Offensive, Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia, and Chronicles of a Hostile Sun.17 Leslie Sanders, in her editor’s introduction, points to the proximal relationship of these works, noting that they were written “within three years of each other.”18 She also reveals something of Brand’s writerly practice that might invite consideration in relation to some of her later works: “Brand worked on Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in defense of Claudia at the same time as Primitive Offensive, partly for emotional relief.”19 In revisiting questions of the temporal relations of texts as well as studying their thematic and aesthetic affinities and departures, how might we talk about the interplay between works such as Sans Souci, and Other Stories and Bread out of Stone or between At the Full and Change of the Moon and A Map to the Door of No Return, where, in each pairing, the latter text explicitly reflects on the former?20 Or how might we think about the relationship between the texts Thirsty, What We All Long For, and Love Enough, which together offer a complex mapping and a “murmurous genealogy” of the city of Toronto?21

In bringing together the works discussed here, this special section asks us to consider, What might we make of the most recent phase of Brand’s writing? Here I consider the books Theory, The Blue Clerk, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading, and the forthcoming Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems (we might note that Theory and The Blue Clerk were published in the same year).22 In raising this question, I do not aim to offer specific or definitive answers; rather, I propose here one orienting point that might help guide our readings.

One tentative response might be found by turning to a consideration of the work of Kamau Braithwaite—especially given that his poetry is invoked in Brand’s The Blue Clerk.23 “Verso 13.1” offers a meditation on Brathwaite’s “The Black Angel,” while “Verso 13.1.1” offers the following brief but poignant reflection on Brathwaite and his poetics: “Brathwaite. Black equilibrium. Black spun.”24

In a recent discussion of Kamau Brathwaite’s work, Elaine Savory proposes that we should read Brathwaite’s body of writing, and in particular his later work, through a practice of “revision.” While noting how revision was part of his entire publication career, Savory asks us to reflect on how his later works enact a particular manifestation of this practice:

Kamau made revision into a superb art form. This was not revision as a progressive refinement . . . but as an amalgam of repetition and reinvention in the manner of oral performance. . . . His texts are not stand-alone, but integrative. His work benefits from a wholistic approach which embraces the idea of art as transformational and kinetic, not fixed and complete . . . . Process for Kamau is thus constant reimagining, rethinking, revisiting, seeing . . . connections between everything.25

Indeed, this complex “integrative” weaving and revising of texts and ideas to which Savory directs our attention is arguably summed up by Brand’s phrasing, “Black equilibrium. Black spun.” Much of Brand’s own work, I would suggest, should also be read as “integrative” and marked by different returns to ideas, aesthetic strategies, and key concepts and phrases. We might understand this practice as similar to the way jazz, for Kellough, engages strategies of melodic counterpoint that enable different relational soundings and forms of repetition with constant difference and variation.26

In Brand’s work we can consider different returns to a concept like withholding, for instance, across different texts. This is a term that Gumbs deploys in her essay here. Kei Miller has also taken up this key term from Brand’s work in his recent book of essays, Things I Have Withheld.27 These lines from The Blue Clerk, found in the opening “stipule” that precedes the versos and, in effect, introduces the book, offer us a meditation on withholding:

I have left this unsaid. I have withheld. What is withheld is the left-hand page . . . . I have withheld more than I have written.28

This is not the first time that we encounter a conceptual referencing of this term in Brand’s work. In her essay collection Bread out of Stone, Brand writes, “And quite possibly the most important things will be the ones that I withhold.”29 We might understand withholding in terms of a Brand praxis of recalibration and as linked with a Brathwaitean strategy of revision. In other words, this becomes one kind of textual enactment of “Black equilibrium.” Brand’s exploration of the aesthetic outcomes and possibilities of withholding, as well as Gumbs’s and Miller’s referencing of this term, allows us to consider this as potentially a useful keyword. It offers us a metatextual concept that we might use to think, in multiple ways, about her practice.30

This most recent phase of Brand’s work, I am arguing, is marked by revisioning but even more so by what I consider key moments and practices of recalibration.31 While Savory examines Brathwaite’s revisionary practice through attending to the ways he “revisioned individual poems and whole collections,”32 I would suggest that Brand’s praxis of recalibration manifests itself through more than moments of restatement and revision; it manifests also through a distinct metatextual and metacritical turn in her writing in which we encounter not just an interrogation of the possibilities of language but also a keen and artful interrogation of the possibilities and limits of our genres of articulation. The use of footnotes in the novel Theory and the metastructural use of the versos along with the inclusion of the referential index in The Blue Clerk are all indicative of this creative, metatextual turn. Yet I also hasten to note that, as the essays in this issue demonstrate, Brand’s textual line of publication should not be read in terms of a straightforward linear trajectory or a progressive accounting of thoughts, aesthetic practice, or ideas. Rather, as readers we should attend to the processes of “inspecting and abating,” “curtailing and marshalling,” “checking and rechecking” as strategies that constitute the poet’s (the author’s and the clerk’s) integrative practice.33

We close this special discussion section with Dionne Brand’s own writing. Here we present a fragment of Nomenclature for the Time Being from her forthcoming book Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems, introduced by a brief preface written for this publication. In her reflections on the new poem, Brand asks us to think about the temporalities of her writing as well as about the relationship between writing and temporality. Her discoursing of “the time being,” as relational temporality, and her reflections on time and being ask us to recall long and often treacherous histories and how these are copresenced in a conjunctive present. These reflections also ask us to consider the relationships not only between past and present but also between her past and current work. In this fragment from the longer poem she offers us both something for our times and “something for the time being.” While accepting the grace of this fragment, for now, we await this new work with anticipation.

 

Ronald Cummings is associate professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Hamilton. His work focuses on Caribbean literature and Black diaspora studies. He is the editor of Make the World New: The Poetry of Lillian Allen (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2021) and the book review editor of sx salon.

 


[1] Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2018), and A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001). Brand’s papers and materials are held at the Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa; see http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.redirect?app=fonandcol&id=206165&lang=eng.

[2] Dionne Brand, At the Full and Change of the Moon (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999); Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Deagelar Ma . . . Comère: Dispersed Daughterhood and Queer Desire—a Blue Airmail Letter,” MaComère 8 (2006): 21–34. The journal MaComère was published between 1998 and 2014. The final issue focused on Brand; see “Critical Perspectives on Dionne Brand,” ed. Leslie Sanders and Heather Smyth, special issue, MaComère 14, nos. 1–2 (2013–14). Issues of the journal can be accessed through the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLoC) at https://ufdc.ufl.edu/title-sets/AA00000079/results?page=1.

[3] See Dionne Brand, Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (Toronto: Williams-Wallace, 1983).

[4] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, M Archive: Archive after the End of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), xi; see also Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), and Dub: Finding Ceremony (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

[5] Brand, “Verso 1: The back of a leaf,” in The Blue Clerk, 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Brand, “Verso 25,” in ibid., 144.

[8] Paul Watkins, “Listening to a Listening: The Disruptive Jazz Poetics of Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries (A Call towards Freedom),” MaComère 14, nos. 1–2 (2013–14): 124–51.

[9] Dionne Brand, Ossuaries (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2010).

[10] Dionne Brand, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2020), 3.

[11] Dionne Brand, “Photograph,” in Sans Souci, and Other Stories (Toronto: Williams-Wallace, 1988), 53–78; “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” in No Language Is Neutral (Toronto: Coach House, 1990), 17–19. Brand also offers another return to the photograph as narrative trope in her essay “On Poetry,” in Bread out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics (Toronto: Coach House, 1994), 181–83.

[12] Dionne Brand, Theory (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2018).

[13] In addition to Prater’s discussion of photographs, we might examine the long intertextual dialogue between Brand’s work and that of the visual artist Grace Channer, whose works appear on the covers of the Williams-Wallace and Women’s Press editions of Sans Souci, and Other Stories; of the Coach House edition of No Language Is Neutral; and of the Knopf and Vintage editions of Brand’s first novel, In Another Place, Not Here (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). Channer is also one of the subjects of the film Long Time Comin’, and her artwork is featured in Sisters in the Struggle.

[14] Dionne Brand, “What We Saw. What We Made. When We Emerge” (Kitty Lundy Memorial Lecture, 11 March 2021, York University, Toronto).

[15] See Diana Brydon, “Four Contemporary Canadian Women Intellectuals Negotiate the Challenges of Public Sphere Witnessing: Dionne Brand, Samantha Nutt, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, and Janice Williamson,” in Aritha van Herk and Christl Verduyn, eds., HEAR! HEaR! Voices of Canadian Women, https://mta.cairnrepo.org/sites/all/libraries/pdfjs/web/viewer.html?file=/islandora/object/mta%253A27096/datastream/PDF/view#page=1&zoom=auto,-20,798, 40–51.

[16] Brand, “Verso 1,” 6.

[17] Dionne Brand, Chronicles: Early Works, ed. Leslie Sanders (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011).

[18] Leslie Sanders, introduction to ibid, vii. The collections were previously published by Williams-Wallace, Toronto, in 1982, 1983, and 1984, respectively.

[19] Ibid., x.

[20] In the first pairing, I am thinking in particular of Brand’s essay “This Body for Itself” in Bread out of Stone, which offers a really rich contextualization of the story “Madame Alaird’s Breasts” in Sans Souci. Dionne Brand, “This Body for Itself,” in Bread out of Stone, 25–49; “Madame Alaird’s Breasts,” in Sans Souci, 79–84.

[21] Dionne Brand, quoted in Sanders, introduction, vii. Dionne Brand, Thirsty (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002); What We All Long For (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2005); Love Enough (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014).

[22] Dionne Brand, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming 2022). We do not include a discussion focused on Theory in this special section, but Theory was reviewed by Laurie R. Lambert in sx salon 33, February 2020; see http://smallaxe.net/sxsalon/reviews/love-theory.

[23] Leslie Sanders also reminds us of the poetic conversations between Brand’s writing and Brathwaite’s work, noting that Brand’s early works bear “literary reference, attention and allusions to earlier poets of the Caribbean, particularly Aimé Césaire and Kamau Brathwaite” (introduction, viii). Brathwaite also discussed Brand’s poetry in a review essay; see Edward Kamau Brathwaite, “Dionne Brand’s Winter Epigrams,” Canadian Literature, no. 105 (Summer 1985): 18–30.

[24] Brand, “Verso 13.1” and “Verso 13.1.1,” in The Blue Clerk, 73, 74. Kamau Brathwaite, “The Black Angel,” in DS (2): Dreamstories (New York: New Directions, 1989), 14–42.

[25] Elaine Savory, “Kamau Brathwaite: A Commemoration” (virtual presentation for “Contemporary Currents in Caribbean Literature,” West Indian Literature Conference, 29 October 2021, University of the West Indies).

[26] We might also recall the importance of jazz to Brathwaite’s poetics, as seen in works such as Jah Music (Kingston: Savacou, 1986), Black + Blues (New York: New Directions, 1995), and Ark (New York: Savacou North, 2004).

[27] Kei Miller, Things I Have Withheld (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2021).

[28] Brand, “Stipule: A small leaf-like appendage to a leaf,” in The Blue Clerk, 3. Stipules also appear on 6 and 58.

[29] Brand, “Whose Gaze and Who Speaks for Whom,” in Bread out of Stone, 152–53.

[30] Brand offers further comments on the writerly implications of withholding in an interview with Canisia Lubrin in Quill and Quire: “The things one has left unwritten or unsaid would lead to a set of confrontations that would expose all the compromises, self-corrections, self-censorships, and sometimes nefarious and cowardly reasons for leaving the things unwritten and unsaid. So that’s a difficult process: to revisit the decisions of language, to revisit and critique the choices made even if those choices seemed, at the time, perfectly legitimate.” Dionne Brand, quoted in Canisia Lubrin, “Q&A: Canisia Lubrin Speaks to Dionne Brand about Her Two New Books, The Blue Clerk and Theory,” Quill and Quire, 13 September 2018, https://quillandquire.com/omni/qa-canisia-lubrin-speaks-to-dionne-brand-about-her-two-new-books-the-blue-clerk-and-theory/.

[31] I am grateful to Tzarina Prater for the useful conversations we have had about my use of the critical concept of recalibration.

[32] Savory, “Kamau Brathwaite.”

[33] Brand, “Verso 1,” 4. 

 

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