Dionne Brand and the Making of Language
Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, 2018, subtitled an Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, has two characters, the author and the clerk. Their interaction is an inventory of complex disagreements and antagonisms. In verso 21.1 the author begins talking about Gabriel García Márquez and moves quickly to Wynton Marsalis. When the clerk asks about the shift, the answer is, “All are in relation.”
We come to realize that Brand’s version of relational aesthetics is a fluid one, where her consideration of one artist or art form invariably moves to a comparison with a different artist or art form. She begins verso 18 with the painter Jacob Lawrence and “the call to the future” depicted in his “War Series” and moves to Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” and Charles Mingus’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” both examples of the art of jazz composition that allow an escape from “the brutal imagination” and “the toxicity of representation.”
Verso 19.2 starts out with a triangulated complication: “Alice B. Toklas on Gertrude Stein on Picasso on Gertrude Stein.” The author is prepared to honour the conceit that Toklas wrote the autobiography when everyone knows that Stein was using her lover in the way a ventriloquist uses a dummy. The quotes from “Melanctha” in Three Lives, 1909, Stein’s novel in three parts, make reference to the “simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people” and offers the assessment that while Melanctha “had not been raised by white folks, she had been half made with real white blood.” Here, the devastating response comes from Dionne Brand, the author of the book and not the author in the book: “Each sentence is a razor blade.” The effect of the discussion that follows is a powerful reworking of our understanding of canonical modernist literature. In rendering an old reading impossible, The Blue Clerk explodes the canon.
When the clerk asks, “Is it possible to reshape all kinds of understandings?” she is asking a rhetorical question and providing a way for that new awareness to come about. Brand is interested in everything, and the resulting writing is rich in associations. The Blue Clerk is the single book that can stand in for the whole of Brand’s sensibility; it is a kind of aesthetic and philosophical synecdoche. It contains references to philosophy (Plato, Marshall McLuhan and Noam Chomsky) as well as religion. She starts verso 20.1 with the dismissive declaration that “I have nothing to say about God” and ends with the ironic observation, “Let us be honest, women never talk directly to God.” She writes about music, painting and, most often, other writers. The list is extensive: Apollinaire, TS Eliot, Walter Benjamin and Ralph Ellison; the latter is “the only writer who has written a book entirely of left-hand pages.” In the stipule that opens The Blue Clerk, we are told, “What is withheld is the left-hand page.”
Often, Brand’s explanations of how language does its work settle on metaphors of making, so in an online reading and conversation in September with Harryette Mullen called “These Tyrannical Times: Poetry as Liberatory, Poetry as Undoing,” she describes poetry as “a kind of metallurgy; it is constructing a material language through pressure.” In No Language Is Neutral, 1990, a title she borrowed from Derek Walcott’s Midsummer, 1984, she addresses both the weight of language she inherits and the weight of language she makes. “I have come to know something simple,” she says. “Each sentence realized or dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a side.” Neutrality is not possible, and her pulse turns again to the process of metallurgy when she talks about “the heat of meaning-making” and about the lines in No Language Is Neutral that “burn to a close.”
All this heat is generated in resistance to social and political conditions that she characterizes in a range of registers: “the ongoing colonial reality show,” “the catastrophe of chattel slavery” and the “chronic fever of antiblack racism.” In response, her writing is a reshaping, a way of drawing our attention to what has been said and what remains unsaid. Dionne Brand has an acute awareness of how language means and re-means, and how it continues to persuade us—or compels us—to commit to an informed rereading. “We know what’s been written and I cannot write without knowing what’s been written,” she says in the following interview. In Inventory, 2006, she wrote about the need “to understand the whole immaculate language of the ravaged world.” In the way she has written through her understanding of that ravaged world, she has made her own ravishing and immaculate language.
Dionne Brand is the author of 18 books of poetry, fiction and essays. She has won numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Award for English- Language Poetry, the Trillium Book Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and the Blue Metropolis Violet Prize. In 2006 she was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the world of books and writing. From 2009 to 2012 she was Toronto’s Poet Laureate. In 2019 she was named to the Order of Canada. This interview was conducted by phone to Toronto on September 3, 2020.
BORDER CROSSINGS: In verso 51 in The Blue Clerk you write that there were only so many plot lines and the ones that we have are not ours. This makes me think that one of your central tasks as a Black writer is to come up with plots that are yours, in which your visibility is a given.
DIONNE BRAND: I was interrogating the whole idea of plot, just the word “plot,” and how that comes about as a concept that we work with at all. Plot is something that one may see after, not before. I am not trying to invent new “plot,” but to look into the word “plot” as it exists. There is a concept, solidified in the Western novel somewhere around the 19th century, of who was the “subject,” what happens to the subject, how the subject operates, what set of sensitivities or sensibilities the subject operates out of and how the subject emerges. There is a subject that is made in that moment of canon making. The thing called “subject.” And there is a template in literature for the location and tracking of that subject, whose taken-for-granted motivations and desires we are compelled to enjoin. And given the coincidence of that subject’s emergence and affiliation with the colonial project, as I’ve said in The Blue Clerk, that subject is not Black—Black people do not enter white plot as subject. “Plot” is a certain concept narrated through colonialism, if you will. Sylvia Wynter has written cogently on this. Finally, I don’t think it’s a question of visibility; I think it’s a question of viability, by which I mean livability. Black people living on the page.
In your response to Kurt Vonnegut you say, “Nobody gets the girl” and “There are only rags and no riches.” That rephrasing is inscribed within the conventions of existing plots and you use them against themselves. Is that reversal a strategy that allows you to construct the new plots that are necessary to make visible the Black body?
In The Blue Clerk I comment on Vonnegut’s six basic plots: the rags to riches, the riches to rags, the man in a hole, the rise and the fall, Cinderella, Oedipus and so on. If these are the bases for the English novel, then Black being doesn’t exist there. That pattern is based on a narrative that leans on and owes too much to the colonial. It’s an impossible working for Black being. What I’ve tried to write is not the single subject working, usually, ‘his’ way in the world, but the multiple subject allowing for multiple narrative strategies, as well as narrative trajectories. But again, it is not a question of visibility. Because the question then is, visible to whom? Black people have been, are and will continue to be visible to themselves/ourselves, to me.
You admitted to being surprised when you reread your essays from 25 years ago when you were preparing them for republication.
What was surprising was the repetition of language where I suppose I had thought that language itself changes things, that language changes the intellect, or language, as a translation of the intellect, changes the physical and changes the social in some way. I guess what surprised me is that the situation remained. There would be different names, but that present reality was a repetition.
Let me ask a big question. What makes you write?
It’s the perennial question. I’m looking out at my garden and I’m thinking what makes me write is what makes me go and do the garden, which is to perpetuate and reiterate life, or perpetuate and reiterate its possible beauties—I don’t know if the thing I’m doing will grow, but it is my intention to recapitulate the life that I’m living; to see something that I have not seen and to know something that I don’t know. It’s simply that. There are other things, too, like the way in which language makes one; language makes a being. Language deployed, hopefully well, constructs being. Language isn’t the only force that does that, but I found it to be very generative in what it can do in that regard.
It’s telling that you mention the garden because you were friends with Adrienne Rich. In 2007, she sent you a letter that closes with, “Anyway, one refuels as one can from history, love, the beauty of a day with low-skimming hummingbirds and sunflowers.” What is it that refuels you?
One, it’s my existence. If I exist, I have to keep doing it. It’s compulsive. As the world continues to exist and as my sight continues to see, I must see, and my breathing continues to breathe so I must breathe. Writing is never something that I think I should give up doing because it’s not separate. I’m sure that happens to a lot of other artists, too. You think of yourself as simply the instrument that produces these works. And I don’t know any other way of expressing being in the world. I think that being in the world requires this kind of expression. I don’t even know about the word “require” anymore. I am a language-making machine of some kind.
One of the essays in Bread out of Stone refers to the intrusiveness of verbs. So you deal with that intrusive verb in 10 remarkable verbless pages in Ossuaries. You also say in “Dualities” that you had the central idea for Theory 25 years earlier. I can even see in the collecting character of The Blue Clerk a response to Edward Said’s call for an inventory of traces. Your ideas seem to have a lengthy gestation period and will sit around until you find a use for them.
That’s probably true. I think of it as the untying of a certain intellectual knot or a certain existential knot. In the 10 pages of Ossuaries, I experiment with what the absence of a verb may accomplish with meaning. And yes, I found that verblessness addressed a particular philosophical problem that I’m trying to work on. Traces. How to lift traces to lines, to tangibility. The Americas are full of traces that have been erased by regimes of governance or regimes of power. So, where I find myself located as trace, trace becomes vocabulary. In my novel At the Full and Change of the Moon (1999), I wanted to look at how the traces of both personal and political history are left in people. I wanted the characters to meet each other only in liminal ways, even though they were connected deeply, familiarly. They pass each other without knowing each other but knowing each other. In some senses, they’re passing through the world and through history in their untraceable trace. Yes, I’m interested in those qualities precisely because of the histories of the Americas from which I’ve been generated. I find affinities with a writer like Gabriel García Márquez in his wonderful book One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is full of tracing because he describes these undone, unspoken, but absolutely present relations of people to things in the Americas—time, history, element, cosmos—of people to family, to landscape and to the incredible violence that inaugurated the temporal phenomenon we live in. I wanted to think through what people do with the time they spend in violence. The whole of the Americas has been overlaid with violence. Perpetuated by it, constructed through it. And I’m interested in how people live through violence and in how they salvage themselves.
You say that even “elegance” is a violent word and conception and that it is the only word you can use.
I was looking at the works of the artist Josephine Turalba, particularly her use of bullet casings in “Scandals.” In The Blue Clerk it reads “elegant with violence, as elegant as violence.” My leap is from her work to the ways in which ruling regimes close off or limit the appearance of people whom they subject to that violence, but I think that the people who are subjected to that violence don’t live it entirely and totally. That is, we are not the creatures of the violence. The creatures of the violence are actually the people who perform the violence. So, I want to describe in my work how it is to live against that violence, how to bring into the world things that are completely against it.
The palimpsest is the measure of the trace. But when we look at palimpsests, what they dredge up is not just what’s been buried but what is also consistently working itself through society and the structures that society creates. Trace is a complicated measure. It frees us to invent a new history and it also confirms the nightmare of history that we’re living in already.
You’re right. The trace is of something and the something doesn’t not exist. It exists and to bring it into view is the matter, is the question.
You go to a metaphor of digging where you say that poetry has the capacity to deposit and unearth plural meanings. Then you say it is “pressure on verbal matter.” It physicalizes poetry, as if it’s something visceral that you can hold in your fingers as you sift through its meanings.
I do think that is what happens with poetry, that it is pressure on this matter—language and therefore ideas. And that pressure can be exercised anywhere, on the page or verbally, or just in terms of the auditory. In The Blue Clerk, where the clerk resorts to the lemon language and the blue language, she says “lemon engine” and she changed the nature of something. It’s not merely the colour, but it’s a quality, right? So, this capacity that language has, and that poetry employs, is very interesting to me. You can change all ways of seeing in that instant. It seems to me that’s the project. Well, the project I take up, anyway.