Letting Go

February 2022


There it was, if you had looked, says the clerk.

                                                                                       With. Holding?

The first time I heard about the book that would become The Blue Clerk I was in Dionne Brand’s office at the University of Guelph, Ontario.1 “I have a novel coming out, but the next book I’m working on is a different form,” she said to me, a complete stranger whom she had generously offered to meet with based on one e-mail. “It’s about the left-hand page.” I happened to be at Guelph speaking at an International Women’s Day event, and she had made time for me during my one day on campus. I didn’t really know what “left-hand page” meant, but I said, “Oh!” excitedly, then mentioned something I had noticed some years ago when I had gone to do primary research in her papers at the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.

“Do you remember this?” I asked. “In the archive there are 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 about your home.2 The contract from when you were buying your house? I thought it was such an interesting juxtaposition.”

Brand looked at me, confused. Not because she didn’t remember her own draft-writing or home-buying process but because she hadn’t known of my visit. “No one,” she said, “is supposed to be able to go into those papers without my permission.”

To this day I don’t know what the loophole was. I had quite simply learned that Brand’s papers had been processed at the national archives and had arranged a research trip to spend time with the papers. The fact that a dear mentor and friend lived in Ottawa made it easy and relatively inexpensive for me. The archivists handed me everything, so long as I kept my belongings in the locker and wore the white gloves they provided. I had done the same thing at a number of academic, public, and community archives in the United States, but in most cases, the authors were no longer living. I remember thinking at the time that it was generous and unusually brave for a living writer to make her archives publicly available to researchers. Turns out, it wasn’t bravery, it wasn’t choice. That was the realization that fell upon me while I awkwardly held a paper cup of tea and looked across at one of my favorite writers. One more example of an institution not being accountable to a Black woman’s choice, boundaries, and possible (or evidently impossible) right to consent or not consent. Maybe my trip to the archive and its process of establishing the boundaries happened during the same time period. Looking back, I think it was important for Brand to know about this handling, or mishandling, of her archival papers, despite my embarrassment at the revelation. In the moment, I felt like I would choke. I wished I hadn’t said anything.

Brand describes The Blue Clerk as a book made from “the tension between the written and the withheld.”3 The archival papers I accessed should have been withheld from me unless I had permission. What if I had withheld the fact that I went to the archive? Sometimes I wish I could live in the passive voice of that construction—“the tension between the written and the withheld.” But I am living in the interrogative. Why did I do that? Why did I say that? Who am I with? What and who am I holding?


My life became always standing outside of my life.


I was fourteen years old and it was Christmas morning. I was obsessed with the group En Vogue and their new single “Don’t Let Go (Love).” The harmonies, the guttural sounds that weren’t words, the range of women, the drama. When they said, “You’ve got the right to lose control,” they were talking to me about my rights, right? The only gift I remember from that Christmas morning was the Set It Off soundtrack that included the song. I was not allowed to watch Set It Off the movie because it was rated R, but I listened to that soundtrack until I memorized it. My parents were already divorced, but my father came over for Christmas morning and I played my new CD on our intergenerational stereo system: a record player, a tape player, and a cd player, all linked to the same set of speakers. I threw myself around the living room singing along, picking and choosing between different parts of the arrangement. I was, alternately, Dawn, Cindy, Maxine, and Terry as they collectively sang out an ultimatum to an imaginary lover. “I live in misery when you’re not around, ’round, ’round,” we echoed.4 I was on the floor singing to the ceiling. Suddenly my mother interrupted. “Don’t ever tell a man you feel that way,” she said. “What?” My father was looking at my mother like he often looked at her, as if she was incomprehensible. “Why would you say that to her?” he asked. He was not really seeking an answer.

Part of the reason I wished I could have withheld the details of how important Brand’s work was to me (important enough, for example, to drop everything and go to the National Archives of Canada) was because I learned a long time ago that it is dangerous to let other people really know their impact on me. Too much vulnerability there. I didn’t want to seem desperate.


If I could not read I would have drowned.


But the truth is, and maybe I should have told you this earlier, Dionne Brand’s work has had an outsized impact on my life. By the time I showed up at her office at Guelph (with permission) I had written several semesters’ worth of seminar papers and multiple published articles about Brand’s writing. The first of these was my first scholarly article ever, based on my first academic talk ever: “Deagelar Ma . . . Comère: Dispersed Daughterhood and Queer Desire—a Blue Airmail Letter.” It was an essay about Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon. Despite all the punctuation in that title and everything that I just said about it, it appeared in MaComère, the journal of the Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, as “creative nonfiction,” right between the “fiction” and the “articles,” in their “Migrant Writing” issue.5 That piece was important for me, and not only because right from the beginning it signaled the fact that my work needed a different space from all the other scholarly articles, and not only because it was the first place I articulated my own theory of diaspora. It was important most of all because it gave me the space to learn something about the silence between my mother and my grandmother, who like many of the characters in At the Full and Change of the Moon had lost each other across chasms created by capital, or for the purpose of recreating capital. My grandmother had left my mother and her siblings in Jamaica in an abusive situation while she worked in the UK and the US and sent money back.6 They both spoke to me about the pain of that separation obliquely, but they never spoke about it to each other at all. It was At the Full and Change of the Moon that taught me that even if the language is garbled, or maybe especially because the language is garbled, it deserves space and attention. I started what I now realize was an art project of listening to and recording and making audio and visual poetic work about the technology their words, gaps, and breathing gave me to decipher the silence between them and share it with both of them. Over the years I watched the relationship between my grandmother and my mother change. Before At the Full and Change of the Moon changed me, my mother would count the seconds until her mother would leave after obligatory holiday visits. But by the time I met Brand my mother and grandmother were talking and laughing with each other so much during visits that one time they both happily let my grandmother miss her plane home.

I didn’t come here to explain Brand’s work. I can only promise to be changed by it. To let it go backward and forward and change all my possible generations. You can count on me for that. I can also promise you that I am holding more gratitude than I can ever articulate. Can you thank a writer you have never met for the gift of a missed plane? Can you take the time to describe the unlikeliness and abundance of a particular laughter when there are actual students here for office hours waiting? I’m always overwhelmed by my gratitude. For Brand’s body of work, for Ronald Cummings’s instructions all those years ago in Jamaica to start reading Brand and his current assignment to write this essay, and beyond that for generations of Caribbean women writers writing across. I am with you, holding so much.


A heavy bag on you.

                                                                               Holding With?

Two months before she died at home in St. Croix in 1992, Audre Lorde wrote a letter to her dear friend and fellow lesbian feminist poet Adrienne Rich. In that letter she responded to poems Rich had sent: “Those poems are so beautiful and resonant and shining for me. I carry them and pieces of Essex Hemphill and Dionne Brand around inside me wherever I go.”7 Fifteen years ago, as the first person to visit the Spelman Archives once Lorde’s papers were processed (I know, it’s a pattern), I took note of that note. Is there extra meaning to “wherever I go” if the poet knows she is dying?

In 2020, early in the pandemic, I was overwhelmed by how many people I knew who were dying. I found the letter again as I began writing a new biography of Lorde. And I wondered, Am I withholding this? I thought about the possibility that Lorde might never have told Brand that she “carried pieces” of her work “around inside.” Maybe Rich, who outlived Lorde by decades, had never mentioned it either.8 And who was I? Some kind of external clerk, archival snoop, afterlife errand girl carrying Lorde and Brand and Hemphill and Rich “around inside” without anyone’s permission? Were they nested like dolls in my chest? Neither I nor Brand could expect to live forever. And I really shouldn’t be holding this by myself, right? Was any information truly given to me to hold? Or was it just to pass along? In addition to the tension between “the written and the withheld,” there is my longing for something like holding with.

So I swallowed my nerves and wrote Brand another e-mail.


Since what I might be is uncontainable.

I am terrified by the possibility of being held. And so I preemptively study and prepare for the even scarier inevitability of not being held. I dream of the hold. I hold the nightmare close.

That day at Guelph, Brand mentioned her recent trip to Elmina, Ghana. Or at least it sounded recent. But it sounds recent again whenever I hear her talk about it in lectures. She described the experience of pouring out rum in the holding cell for the captured women, the space immediately before the single-file line through the door of no return, the passageway into the hold of the enslaving ship, into the belly of capital, the womb of modernity, some people would say. She speaks often about the “astonishing fact” that anyone could actually return to witness. Return to say, “We are still alive.”9 Which is different from saying thank you.

And now I understand differently why it was such a violence for enslavers to pretend that enslaved people were grateful. To create systems of punishment that forced enslaved people to pretend to be grateful. To infer in conversations with other White people that such gratitude was relevant. To produce mass media images in which the noble savage follows the hero around forever in humble servitude because of the bottomless gratitude he feels toward the colonizer for saving his life. This is why I don’t know what to say.

All this time I thought gratitude was slavery.

It is not. And. All this gratitude is still more than I can hold by myself.

In a world in which everything breaks to the touch, it is more than a notion or a sentiment to try to hold-with.10 What if The Blue Clerk is a text on holding, being held, being beheld? What if this book is a place to study the possibility of holding, an inventory of instances of holding and possible holding-with and also holding out?


And it ends yes as you say, but it doesn’t conclude.

What kind of holding can we learn from the clerk stowing cargo when we know the brutal forms and legacies of cargo in the hold? Or when we know that fists are full of women’s bodies? Is all holding violent, or is there a holding that doesn’t leave its broken claw in your neck bone?11

Wouldn’t we have to shrug off the dresses that behead us, the constriction of the agreements everyone else had made? What is the difference between being held and being unpinned? Is there a holding-with that releases us? Would the spores know?12

Maybe this is why we are learning how to say, Let us go home? Is holding-with the work of holding the other end of the telephone? Even when twenty mobile phone companies own the electromagnetic spectrum?13 Or to place each other on hold, while we ask someone for directions? Can we bring each other home with all this freight? Maybe by describing what is in the bookbag of the nine-year-old at the top of the street?14 Or what was held with the fibre in the yellow washed house with the hibiscus hedge?15 Could we remember how to gather each other like the words that would collect Brand’s cousins and sisters into an orderly file?16

It must be something to do with care. Is it the same care that keeps us withholding, just reorganized? The blue handling it takes to get to a poised blue?17 Focusing our violet arms into violet hand[s] with violet thumbs?18 Learning to offer violet ambulances that don’t result in violet incarceration?19 Or are our arms already armament? Bullet-made and bullet-ridden like golden slippers?20

Would we experiment with forms of holding? See what we could learn from beautiful bottles that hold blue watercolour?21 Is it depicted there in the 900 petroglyphs of our embraces? From the bit of thread around [the] waists of the butterflies?22

Or do we need to practice letting space hold us? The earth . . . beneath [our] feet? Would its being fresh ploughed make it better (or worse) at teaching us to hold each other?23 Is there a lesson in how the Gulf of Mexico holds brown pelicans and hermit crabs and a deluge of oil at the same time?24 Does holding-with mean acknowledging that we can never be clean here, that all our homes are borrowed here, that all our mouths are gaping now? Is every space a chasm? Or is that only true about this place where I hold forth with you, hold back from you? If we knew how wires braceleted the great music of the ocean, could we bangle the uncontainable?25

The way ants carry what’s possible? The way a brief brown post office waits for what might be coming?26

The distance in witness and records? What a logbook does to dream them across the abysmal roads? The exemplary inventory, holding the manifest of heartaches?27

Is it just the being here in the face of history? Reaching across time. Standing in the dungeon, we washed their faces, we sewed their thin skins.28

How can we not hold our breath when we depend on something so thin?29

Is it here in the small difference between the ladybird land[ing] and how I felt when someone touched my hair?30

Or maybe the best clue is the clerk. Humming and laughing like somebody’s daughter, holding with, being with, and letting go at the same time.31


Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a cousin, a daughter, and a writer holding multitudes and reaching for more. She is the author of several books, most recently Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (AK, 2020) and Dub: Finding Ceremony (Duke University Press, 2020). Alexis was a 2020–21 National Humanities Center Fellow and is the cofounder of Mobile Homecoming Trust, a Black LGBTQ experiential archive in Durham, North Carolina. She is also the creative writing editor for Feminist Studies.


[1] Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018). All quotes from The Blue Clerk in this essay are in italics; this formatting is my own and does not reflect the original. The six quotes used in the subheads are found here: “Verso 2,” 12; “Verso 4,” 36; “Verso 1.1.01,” 11; “Verso 16.3: Museums and corpses,” 92; “Verso 11,” 68; and “Verso 14,” 78.

[2] Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2001). For information on Brand’s papers and materials held at the National Archives of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), Ottawa, see http://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.redirect?app=fonandcol&id=206165&lang=eng.

[3] Dionne Brand, at a reading of The Blue Clerk followed by a conversation with Saidiya Hartman, “The Sojourner Project: Dialogues on Black Precarity, Fungibility, and Futurity,” a convening curated by the Practicing Refusal Collective, 31 October 2018, Paris. The event was recorded; see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mt-yRZgrCOw (accessed 1 December 2021).

[4] En Vogue, “Don’t Let Go (Love),” from Set It Off (Music from the New Line Cinema Motion Picture), CD, East West Records, 1996; written by Ivan Matias, Andrea Martin, and Marqueze Etheridge, produced by Organized Noize.

[5] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, “Deagelar Ma . . . Comère: Dispersed Daughterhood and Queer Desire—a Blue Airmail Letter,” MaComère 8 (2006): 21–34; Dionne Brand, At the Full and Change of the Moon (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1999).

[6] A.k.a., “I live in misery when you’re not around.”

[7] Audre Lorde, letter to Adrienne Rich, 20 September 1992, box 1, folder 4, Audre Lorde Papers, Spelman College Archives, Atlanta.

[8] Both of those possibilities are now confirmed facts.

[9] Brand, reading of The Blue Clerk, Paris. In The Blue Clerk, see “Verso 5.1,” 40, and “Verso 55,” 223–24.

[10] Brand, “Verso 20.2,” in The Blue Clerk, 123. All quotes from The Blue Clerk in this essay are in italics; this formatting is my own and does not reflect the original. See note 1 for citations to the quotes used in the subheads.

[11] “Verso 2.2.1,” 16; “Verso 3.1,” 23; “Verso 3.2,” 25.

[12] “Verso 5,” 37; “Verso 5.5,” 43; “Verso 6,” 45.

[13] “Verso 3.8,” 33; “Verso 18.3,” 105; “Verso 3.7,” 32.

[14] “Verso 4,” 34.

[15] “Verso 33.1,” 171; “Verso 4,” 34–35, 35.

[16] “Verso 4,” 36.

[17] “Verso 18.4.1,” 106; see also “Verso 13,” 72.

[18] “Verso 18.4.2,” 107, 107, 108; see also “Verso 48,” 214.

[19] “Verso 18.4.2,” 107; see also “Verso 36.1,” 184, and “Verso 48,” 214.

[20] “Verso 19.01,” 114.

[21] “Verso 5.1,” 40.

[22] “Verso 6.3,” 48; “Verso 33.1,” 171.

[23] “Verso 5.1,” 40; “Verso 28,” 159.

[24] “Verso 5.5,” 43.

[25] “Verso 16.3: Museums and corpses,” 93; “Verso 41.1,” 204.

[26] “Verso 18.2,” 104.

[27] “Verso 10.1,” 61; “Verso 10.2,” 65; “Verso 32.2,” 168.

[28] “Verso 55,” 224.

[29] “Verso 34.1,” 178.

[30] “Verso 33.3,” 176; “Verso 58,” 227.

[31] See “Verso 19.2,” 117, and elsewhere.


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