Brushing the Silence: The Politics of Urban Articulation in Nicole Brossard’s Notebook of Roses and Civilization

By Hannah Weber

The space of the city: a moving, speaking mass, dense and ever-proliferating, systematically or organically without end. Ostensibly, by virtue of its concentration of diverse peoples, the urban space allows all; digital and physical worlds casually interlock, creating an opening for speech where it didn’t before exist. In Notebook of Roses and Civilization, Nicole Brossard scrutinizes the urban space for the female poetic voice, engaging in a dialectic on the politics of voice, articulation, and community building. She presents this work as a “poem to understand how/people bend/before an idea/their hair barely brushing the silence” and uses urban imagery and physicality to illuminate what it means to be silent or silenced within the urban space (Brossard 20).

On the process and effect of archiving, Daphne Marlatt claims that the movement of women from the private to the public realm (that is to say, from the homemaker to a subject with economic input and agency) has increasingly made the work of women collectable. She states that “language itself is a living archive”; what is archived is later retrieved and reconstructed into truth, or gestalt. This perception of the visibility or invisibility of women is rooted historically in the vast collections of writing by men – through the historical lack of writing by women and the abundance of writing about women, the feminine voice was removed from the body and the feminine became an exclusively somatic representation. The contemporary urban space, while having provided many openings for the so-called liberation of women’s voices, could not account for the politics of silence it created. Spaces proliferated, which were constituted by urbanity, but that also evaded or were deliberately cut off from attempts at institutionalization.

This dissonance between historical and lived experience is addressed by Brossard through an abundance of voices each attempting to articulate the natural and the urban simultaneously, the body and its attempts to navigate the city. Brossard’s attention to the body is essential to her understanding of articulation and meaning making; likewise, in a critique of Dionne Brand’s No Language is Neutral, Lisa Robertson suggests Brand’s poem posits the (Western) world as a “braiding of the sensual and the historical,” bringing the body to the foreground of women’s literary achievements.  Brossard’s focus on the mouth, especially the tongue, brings the most elementary understanding of articulation to light; for instance, she cognizes the tongue as the active agent in word creation, yet still appraises it as an object, not uncomplicatedly using romantic and sexualized language.

It is not a simple woman-made-object situation. To conceive of all female experience as a commonality, argues Donna Haraway, is to present a woman as “[owing] her existence as woman to sexual appropriation” (“Fractured Identities”). For if this is the constitution of women, what is there beyond objectification? Constitution by another’s desire, she states, is not the same as the violent alienation, which occurs as a product not only of closed masculine systems but also of the “ironic dream of a common language for women.” Further complicating the matter, we are no longer able to disengage from machines and instead have become hybrids of organic and technological material. Haraway’s contemporary cyborg is “not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust,” an apt assessment of the urban condition, which must address articulation as something beyond the strictly bodily, for any dream of returning to a condition rooted in the body has long been ruled out. Of course, the body can never be wholly discarded; Brossard writes, “repeat. memory/hold fast. The tongue/it calls/on us, on everything/curls up everywhere to feed/on silence,” giving the body the agency for the articulation of everything that is (34). It is only problematic if it cannot be articulated, in which case it is not. Integration into urbanity does little to flatten the difference between the Godard’s conception of women as “[inhabiting] a colonial space from which one perceives discourse as a form of power and desire” and the alienation from the bodily and subjective articulation (82).

Alienation is what brings me to the second sense in which I believe Brossard analyses the tongue, as speaking in tongues. Differences in language must either undergo translation or remain incomprehensible. It is a reference to what exists outside of the dominant narrative, even beyond the reach of established minor narratives, that is to say, beyond recognition. “Writers describe us as we are,” says Godard, but this kind of mirror theory cannot account for the women who occupy dangerous or precarious urban spaces, whose condition is not reflected back by any articulation. The self and subjectivity are made possible through articulation; literature “leads us to recognition of ourselves,” but how to articulate it without subjectivity (Godard 85)? And how might one achieve subjectivity without articulation? Here, Brossard asks the reader to consider this “cycle of shadows” and what it might mean to find “refuge in the mouth” from the spaces in the city that are shrouded in shadow, danger, silence, and ambiguity (51; 53).

The danger of the urban spaces – the most profoundly urban street corner at night, the darkened alley way – do not invoke a notion (nor affect) of community. In The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy constructs an image of community and literature as the polyphonic articulation and sharing of voices. For Nancy, it is not speech itself but the “articulation of speech” and therefore it is not silence but the articulation of silence that is my concern (77). It is not a matter of the content of articulation, the matter is only that silence begets silence and cannot form community. The community is what has been said or written – “the word it touched it shattered/shadow,” bringing the formerly private into the public sphere, thus making it historical (alternately: legitimate, real, Truth) (Brossard 31).  It is indeed the “puzzle of proper nouns”, the mass of individual subjects, and the bright and brash “barking city” that constitutes the urban space (Brossard 6).

The openness towards alternative discourse in the city is well documented and praised (or utilized, which may or may not also constitute a kind of praise) by women in the current and last century. Having considered the work of Jane Austen in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf stated that if her circumstances had hindered her, “it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her…[that] she never drove through London in an omnibus or had luncheon in a shop by herself” (Woolf 68). It is important to note that this remark was made in an institutional setting, given as a part of a lecture to privileged and educated female students at an English university, but nonetheless provides an accurate insight into Woolf’s adamant position on the possible liberation of women in the urban space. Woolf’s love affair with the city of London is apparent not only in A Room of One’s Own, where she references its bustling streets, anonymity, and the diversity of life often in comparison to the stifling atmosphere she endured at Oxbridge, but also through the migratory pattern of her life, continually drawn back to urban life in London in order to find a voice with which to articulate her position. Woolf’s concern for the non-urban woman was constructed out of an anxiety towards singularity, or sparseness, for “masterpieces are not single, solitary births,” she argues, “they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind a single voice” (65). This thought runs adjacent to Nancy’s conception of community, constituted by the polyphonic sharing and articulation of voices. Brossard, however much aware of the liberating quality of existence within the city, also makes a clear distinction between the inside and the outside, marking the privilege of an urban insider:

Inside, words let us invent, weave cords strong enough to hang by our wrists and help balance the body…But there’s outside, the cold the heat the violence doubled over in pain in a real bind at the edge of the city. (57)

In this excerpt from “Softlink 2,” the density, which is characteristic of the urban space injected into the form and the edge of the poem, is apparent. The line break no longer has a place in the poem, nothing is favoured over anything else and it seems to be a non-hierarchical list of urban objects and affects, evoking an “abundance of life burst to fullness/in a world and its niches of worn paths” (Brossard 17). Here, the worn paths are those things held in common, things which Brossard says only “lick at the shadow of bones” (17). It would be difficult to accept “bones” as a simple reference to the death of the subject, which can be accounted for by institutions or systems (yet still by tradition relegated to a space outside of, or skirting, the city). Instead, “bones” may be rendered terms of the invisible, the buried, the beyond, the remains to be seen.

And here we take a turn towards the accusatory, or the illuminatory. It is of curiosity, for amongst the endless noise of the “barking city,” there is “suddenly silence/on the far side of reality” and Brossard demands to know “who’s there?” (44). From Robertson’s reading of Brand as the interpreter of the sensual/historical, we come to see Brossard as interlocutor with the sexual/political, with “a woman in panties/half-spoken surrounded/by syntax and paintings” (Brossard 8). Through Haraway, we can see the way in which her body is accounted for, not totally but partially, by paintings or depictions or interpretations of her. This is no historical reckoning, nor will it survive to be archived; it is “the future,” the dilemma of an attempt to be recognized in a space determined by syntax (the city) without having the means of common articulation (Brossard 8). Brossard expounds, “you always think its fine/to count the words. Then you go quiet before all the deletions/and denouements,” and call upon some reactionary positioning of those who are beyond literary constitution, who exist not in the openness of urbanity but in danger of it (60). On deletions, she says: “you can’t bear to watch them/those conical women blue shadows,” whose silence (rather than condition) is what disturbs the urban ideal (Brossard 63). Godard illustrates this focus on silence versus speech by her reckoning of literature as having as its concern “not the life of society but the life of the enunciation” (94). This is in a dialogic sense for Godard, a sense of reproduction and of aesthetic transfiguration, which must occur and re-occur to form the urban community, which is to say, create the urban institution.

Running the risk of invoking Foucault, we now may address the proliferation of the institution as a singular urban system of critique and control. Godard, in particular, is interested in “publishers, periodicals, criticism, prizes, all the apparatuses that keep the literary institution going…by strategies of orientation and recognition” (96). What is most disconcerting to the urban is that the silent or silenced are absent from critique and control – this is the enigma with which Brossard grapples – a discourse that evokes the politics of falling outside the walls of the institution, literary or otherwise, and of “seeking the twilight zone at the edge of l’univers” (Brossard 78). Institutional recognition is unattainable, as well as the socio-economic means to articulate the need for recognition. It is essential for this dissonance to be addressed by contemporary writers, for “a politics that does not want to know anything about [community] is a mythology…literature that does not want to say anything about it is a mere division, or a lie” (Nancy 81). As she states near the beginning of the work, Notebook of Roses and Civilization is a poem through which to understand the bending of people towards an idea: the urban idea. Brossard has made it her task to enunciate silence into being, to say something about community through literature, so as not to divide or to lie.

“Finding paths through a city or a language has always been a political act,” Robertson says, and in the most tangible sense we might imagine a woman whose day is night, whose paths are shrouded in silence, whose profession (and existence) is denied validity, denied institutional integration, and denied recognition. Nancy addresses the seemingly hopeless task of breaking cyclical silence, stating,

community, in its infinite resistance to everything that would bring it to completion…signifies an irrepressible political exigency, and that this exigency in its turn demands something of “literature”, the inscription of our finite resistance. (81)

The act of articulation and the urban institution are mutually constitutional, making the insurgence of the silent a problematic silence. But nothing escapes the political, either by inclusion or exclusion. For the silent to achieve an urban space and a method for speech, the move must first be made inside where articulation is already realizable.

Brossard’s Notebook of Roses and Civilization is simultaneously engaged in the distinctly feminine and the traditionally masculine, a discourse of the civil and who or what may articulate urbanity. She recognizes the impossibility of the literary shedding politics and responds to Nancy’s demand for resistance in forging the articulated community, not simply content that “brush[es] the silence.” She presses on to enunciate the “deletions”; if in silence they are unable to speak, the poet must then speak silence for them.

Works Cited

Brossard, Nicole. Notebook of Roses and Civilization. Trans. Robert Majzels and Erin Moure Toronto: Coach House Books, 2006. Print.

Godard, Barbara. “Critical Discourse in/on Quebec.” Canadian Literature at the Crossroads of Language and Culture. Edmonton: Newest Press, 2005. Print.

Haraway, Donna.  “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991, 149-81. <>

Marlatt, Daphne. “Of Mini-Ships and Archives.” Lemon Hound. 17 Apr 2013: n. page. Web. 19 May. 2013. <>.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Literary Communism.”  The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991. 71-81. Print.

Robertson, Lisa. “How Poems Work: Lisa Robertson on Dionne Brand.” Globe and Mail [Toronto] 22 Sep 2001, n. pag. Web. 19 May. 2013. <>.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929. Print.


Hannah Weber is a student at the University of King’s College, studying English and Contemporary Studies. She has published poetry in The Philistine and have both reviewed and photographed for the Chronicle Herald (under the name Hannah Hiscock).