In another place, not here, a woman might touch
something between beauty and nowhere, back there
and here, might pass hand over hand her own
trembling life, but I have tried to imagine a sea not
bleeding, a girl’s glance full as a verse, a woman
growing old and never crying to a radio hissing of a
black boy’s murder. I have tried to keep my throat
gurgling like a bird’s. I have listened to the hard
gossip of race that inhabits this road. Even in this I
have tried to hum mud and feathers and sit peacefully
in this foliage of bones and rain. I have chewed a few
votive leaves here, their taste already disenchanting
my mothers. I have tried to write this thing calmly
even as its lines burn to a close. I have come to know
something simple. Each sentence realised or
dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a
side. What I say in any language is told in faultless
knowledge of skin, in drunkenness and weeping,
told as a woman without matches and tinder, not in
words and in words and in words learned by heart,
told in secret and not in secret, and listen, does not
burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves.
- from No Language is Neutral (McClelland & Stewart)
How is it possible to inhabit a political environment that absolves itself of the responsibility to sustain life? For those constrained to the economic and racial margins, finding paths through a city or a language has always been a political act. This poem charts such fragile paths.
Here is language that honours the ethical impossibility of achieving a single position, and the necessarily vulnerable climate of that impossibility. In the face of irreparable injustice, the poem calls on the fragile dignity of the skin and the body, the fragility of the continuous present.
The title cites a line from Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s Midsummer. Elsewhere, in his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Walcott reminded: “The history of the world, by which of course we mean Europe, is a record of intertribal lacerations, of ethnic cleansings.” In such a world, “spiritual stubbornness, a sublime stupidity, is what makes the occupation of poetry endure, when there are so many things that should make it futile.” Dionne Brand is blessed with such spiritual stubbornness. Against the reductive and decisive expletives of mass-media language, her lines are thick, layered, and multivocal. They act out the self-interrogating dialectic of the dramatic soliloquy, rather than the symbolic clarity of the visual image. Like a soliloquy, they demand that we slow and extend the rhythm of our listening. There is no aesthetic consolation, no softening of the “hard gossip.” These lines ask us to enter into irreducible complexity as a form of attention.
Formally, that complexity expresses itself by pushing grammar beyond simple closure. From the fundamentally unstable ground “between beauty and nowhere,” “back there and here,” Brand crafts a descriptive density. Ambivalence flickers through it like a pulse. It negates as it names: “not here,” “not bleeding,” “never crying,” “not in words.” Out of this staccato negation, it forges the burning rhythm of the will to continue. But for Brand the will is not an accretion of power focused and exercised upon the other. Rather it quickens the register and resolve of perception as a meditative engagement with the world. Like “a girl’s glance” it gives the world its serious gorgeousness. And it shows the world as an irrevocable braiding of the sensual and the historical, a braiding repeated in the poem’s own stuttering patterns – “not in words and in words and in words learned by heart.”
“Each sentence realised or / dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a / side,” Brand writes. What side, then, do her sentences take? The side that, in order to live, must continuously reverse and thus witness itself, like a breath, or a spinning coin. That willful recognition of fragility is resistance.
Originally published in the How Poems Work series in the Globe & Mail, September 22, 2001
poem from Brand, Dionne. No Language is Neutral, Coach House, 1990