Still Need the Revolution
- Dionne Brand (Author)
Land to Light on. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Susan Gingell
For some years now I’ve been overhearing Brand as she talked in her poetry, fiction, and essays first and foremost to those in the Black diaspora. This writing has consistently given me a sharper sense of the various terrains on which she struggles: racism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, classism, sexism, heterosexism. It has also consistently given me political energy for those struggles, given me pleasure too. With Land to Light On , however, so powerful a first- person persona does she create, with such obvious grounding in some of the details of her life-story, that I was constantly working not to read the work as autobiographical and to keep in check the growing sense of fear I felt for the creator of such a dispirited voice.
If the book title leads any readers to believe initially that the poems will represent Canada as a land of refuge, the opening sequence, "I have been losing roads," will soon disabuse them of any such notion. Its persona is in no sense taken in; rather she stands exposed "Out here . . . without the relief of the sky or good graces of a door." Still worse, she reports in Caribbean-inflected phrasing, if she finds any peace in this discomfort, "is not peace, / is getting used to harm." The pared syntax here is a disquietingly perfect mirror for the ever more straitened life this woman repeatedly says she is giving up on. Gripped by the recognition of the larger imaginative truth her words tell, I found little reassurance in reminding myself that Brand’s immediate experience might not necessarily stand behind the displacing "you" in the liquid-nitrogen lines:
If the trees don’t flower and colour refuse to limn
when a white man in a red truck on a rural road
jumps out at you, screaming his exact hatred
of the world, his faith extravagant and earnest
and he threatens, something about your cunt
you do not recover
Having given us essays, stories, and poetry based on her time in Grenada, "that island with an explosive at the beginning of its name"— the hope with which she went, the fierce anger alternating with despair with which she fled the American invasion—can Brand have been unaware of how tempting it is to read as confessional the poems’ representation of a disillusioned present: "is here I reach / framed and frozen on a shivered / country road instead of where I thought / I’d be in the blood / red flame of a revolution"? So powerfully evocative of an agonized spirit is the impression she creates that I confess that when her poetic voice laments "My life was supposed to be wider, not so forlorn / and not standing out in this north country bled like maple," fear began to take hold of me, and I lost the sense of separation between author and persona. It was her I feared for as I read of a vision of "a life that I was to finish by making something of it / not regularly made, where I am not this woman / fastened to this ugly and disappointing world." Knowing how she has dedicated her life to leftist struggle and seen the socialist world collapse at the end of the millennium, how could anyone not wonder about
the extent to which Brand herself has known that "The body bleeds only water and fear when you survive the death of your politics." The book’s importance, however, lies not in any possible crypto-autobiography but in its exploration of what it means to live beyond the disintegration of everything on which someone has built a life. The picture is not pretty, but its crafting is superb.
Any sense that such a person might find some semblance of uplift in the natural beauties of this country fails before the image of the land as indifferent torturer that Brand enters into the national archive alongside the images of LePan, Birney, Frank Scott, MacEwan and Atwood. Brand’s Canada indeed seems to revive the Frygian eco-monster: "this wide country just stretches your life to a thinness / just trying to take it in . . . the airy bay at its head scatters your thoughts like someone going mad from science and birds pulling your hair." This is a land where "ice invades your nostrils in chunks, land fills your throat" and where "scrambling to the Arctic so wilfully" results only in "get[ting] blown into bays and lakes and fissures you have yet to see."
An earlier assessment of possible directions had both denied the desirability of north— "I’m heading to frost, to freezing"—and envisioned dis(-)ease as the likely outcome of going back to the Caribbean: "perhaps returning south heads to fever." Yet that perhaps keeps alive the possibility of a more positive journey back, until she makes a kind of imaginative return. Then the seductive vivacity of the West Indian aunts she images for us in "Dialectics" cannot displace the antithetical images of a life lived in poverty. Thus the introduction of Aunt Phyllis, "her mouth sweet on laughter and paradise plums" is countered by alerting readers to Phyllis’s daily martyrdom of "a foot that wouldn’t / cure" and to the desperation of the various other women Brand represents. Her writing is most evocative when she foregrounds the woman with three children cannibaliz- ing her beleaguered energies as she goes to their father’s workplace on payday to try to claim a share of the paycheck before it dis- appears in drink. There she finds patriarchy ascendant and materialized in the studied indifference of the guard at the company barricade, the father’s having already slipped away, and his fellow workers’ mockery as they pass her by: "their laughter here rattling in the can of the truck like uneven stone." Though the persona can find some relief in the knowledge that "I never fell into the heaviness of babies," there is no synthesis to this dialectic of pos- itives and negatives in Caribbean commu- nity; there is, finally, only flight: "I wanted to fly into their skins and I wanted to escape them."
Friendship offers no solution to her persona’s homeless condition either, despite the early promise built in the iteration and reiteration of long-standing friendship: "I sit with my old friend at Arani, my old friend." That promise erodes quickly in the context of Brand’s reading of the restaurant setting. Arani is all that the restaurant owner has "culled from where he came from," the Indian state of Kerala, converted to commerce. And the friendship founders between patriarchy and feminism: "Between us, there’s a boy, his son he hasn’t seen, a friendship I’m holding for ransom until he does."
Friendships and even sexually intimate relationships also falter in an environment constituted in "Islands Vanish" in a way that will be familiar to readers of Brand’s earlier "Winter Epigrams." This environment is comprised of equal parts of Canadian winter and freezer-burning racism. Brand relocates the "heart of darkness" to Canada’s winter roads patrolled by cops with "snow-blue laser" eyes that fix "Three blacks in a car on a road blowing eighty miles an hour in the wind between a gas station and Chatham" and manifests the darkness’s effects in the admission "I coil myself up into a nerve and quarrel with the woman, lover, and the man for landing me in this white hell." Even if the quarrel is resolved for a time, the strain of living in such a hostile environment shows by the time she revisits such relationship in "Through My Imperfect Mouth and Life and Way." What had "looked like the opposite" of grief comes to disappoint too: "I had hoped that she could see me . . . / even if I look like some stone sitting there hoping that I turn to stone."
This latter sequence does, however, begin to create some sense of the possibility of art being a kind of land to light on, when political and personal hopes have been dashed:
I know that I live some
inner life that thinks it’s living outside but
isn’t and only wakes up when something knocks
too hard and when something is gone as if gazing
up the road I miss the bus and wave a poem at
its shadow. But bus and shadow exist all the same
and I’ll send you more poems even if they arrive
Admittedly, this sense of possibility is undercut by "Every Chapter of the World," a textualizing of the multiply constituted global crises at the end of the century that also includes a reminder that English is the "tongue of conquest, language of defeat." Yet even here the grounds for despair are so powerfully constructed by Brand’s words, that even as I felt a renewed collapsing of that distance between author and persona in the prediction "She may not leave here anything but a prisoner / circling a cell, // cutting the square smaller and smaller and walking into herself," I found reason to believe that art is at least the beginning of the synthesis that had earlier escaped her persona. That Land to Light On won the 1997 Governor General’s Award for poetry is testament that even such a discomfiting message as Brand’s book brings us has the capacity to insist its way into Canadian minds. And there it can fire the hope of those of us who, like her persona, feel they "still need the revolution / bright as the blaze of the wood stove in the window" to get them through the socially, politically, and economically constructed cold of century’s end.
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MLA: Gingell, Susan. Still Need the Revolution. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 182 - 184)
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