- Dionne Brand (Author)
Thirsty. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Heather Smyth
Dionne Brand’s latest work is a long poem set in Toronto. Thirsty revisits the moment in May, 1980, when Alan—Jamaican-Canadian immigrant, prophet, and representative echo of similar incidents in the 1970s and 80s—is shot by police at his home and falls, whispering “thirsty,” sending out ripples of horror and beauty that touch the city. The memories of Alan’s daughter, wife Julia, and mother Chloe become a yearly cycle of mourning into which the poet steps. These three women describe an “orbit” that passes through other peoples’ lives and stories, prompting the poet to reflect on the ways that gesture, proximity, and pain bind strangers into a community.
Alan’s thirst—for passion, flowers, a “calm loving spot” even though “the world doesn’t love you”—becomes a metaphor for the poet’s craving for language and hope: “thirst I know, and falling, thirst for fragrant / books, a waiting peace, for life . . . I crave of course being human as he must have.” The city around her becomes a sentence in the making: Alan’s falling body is a “parched . . . declension / a curved caesura”; Julia’s face is “a mixture of twigs and ink she’s like paper”; Somali women “hyphenate” Scarlett Road; immigrant memories of home are “pluperfect.” Brand’s reflections on the poet’s craft blend seamlessly with her account of Alan’s killing and the wounded city. Her search for a language is part of this wounding:
I can’t touch syllables
Look it’s like this, I’m just like the rest,
limping across the city, flying when I can.
Brand’s recent texts repeatedly address similar images and questions. A Map to the Door of No Return, for instance, reflects on the visceral need and impossibility of charting a pathway “home” past histories of slavery, migration, and racism in the Black diaspora. That book searches for ways to imagine community and diasporic identity that do not lead to a reification of origins or to “calcified hyphenated” nationalisms. One of Brand’s solutions in both Map and Thirsty is the fragile connection that exists among strangers when their lives intersect in a city. Toronto, in this long poem, is a community held together by proximity in space and parallel histories. In contrast to “set notions” of culture in “chrysalises” of origins, Brand proposes, “no voyage is seamless. Nothing in a city is discrete. / A city is all interpolation.”
The detritus of the city, “wrappers, coffee cups,” “pizza boxes, dead couches,” may numb the poet; the “dreadfulness” that haunts Alan—murders, race-killings, and sexual predation—may lead Brand to the edge of panic and despair. But in this city the poet also finds a deeply humane source of life and almost-comfort: in “the brittle, gnawed life we live, / I am held, and held” in an embrace by intimate strangers, “as if we need each other to breathe, to bring / it into sense.” What links communities in this vision of Toronto is not simply a universalistic “common humanity,” but the patterns by which lives lived in very specific and individual ways brush up against (or run headlong into) the same structures of oppression and exclusion. The final poem is a particularly aching articulation of these connections: when the poet wakes at night to the sound of sirens, she hears “someone’s life falling apart . . . [someone] caught human,” and it leaves her “open as doorways, breathless as a coming hour, and undone.” Thirsty as a whole strikes this balance between lushness and asceticism, and does so in a profoundly satisfying way.
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MLA: Smyth, Heather. Orbiting Toronto. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 97 - 98)
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