Here, Now, Unfolding

Reviewed by Kyle Kinaschuk

Colin Browne’s most recent poetry collection Here is a work of improvisatory and durational folds. The fold is the serial poem’s animating image. Browne commences Here with an undulating movement that folds time, place, and memory upon and through itself:

 

folding and folding

upon itself

inner outer inner

one thing

boundless

turning, turning[.]

 

This immanent movement enunciates one of the poem’s formal and compositional modes at its outset, a commitment to what we might call a poetics of sedimentation. Browne, a settler with forebears from the British Isles, compounds familial, autobiographical, and historical memory in cinematic fashion to reimagine the geographies of settler colonialism in the present. “Where might one expect,” Browne asks, “to find justice today?” (Here 135).

 

As an accomplished poet, visual artist, filmmaker, film historian, and teacher, Browne has spent decades reimagining the geographies and histories of this place called Canada through several mediums. In Strathyre, his first film from 1979, Browne documents the process of locating the ranch his grandfather homesteaded near Tk’emlúps (Kamloops) in 1912. Discussing the film in a 1979 interview conducted by Penelope Connell, Browne offers an early sketch of the concerns that will come to preoccupy his artistic practices for close to the next half-century. “I’d become sick of public history because it’s a vast fiction anyway and it’s not a fiction that you can do anything with,” says Browne, “So I realized that the only way that I could ever deal with anything historical in a way that was satisfactory to me was to talk about personal history. And that’s tied in with public history too, it’s not separate” (“Interview” 8).

 

Here is the latest iteration of Browne’s longstanding commitment to refining an artistic practice of imagining from a place where personal and public histories are necessarily entangled. Here, in the words of rob mclennan, joins an “interconnected sequence of book-length serial poems on history and geography, setting a groundwork for personal history in the context of colonialism” (“Colin Browne, Here”). While Browne’s first volume of poetry, Abraham, appeared with Brick Books in 1987, Talonbooks has released all four of his subsequent poetry titles: Ground Water (2002), The Shovel (2007), The Properties (2012), and The Hatch: Poems and Conversations (2015). Here enters the fray and marks a near twenty-year relationship with Talonbooks, where Browne has been refracting the personal and the public—each time anew—to reimagine the complex and overlapping temporalities that unfold across the Northwest Coast. Here demands the spatial deixis of its title be heard with the temporal deixis of the “now.” Browne generates a sequence of montages that simultaneously hold together and apart the multiple temporalities—the irreducible and dissonant “nows”—that accrue on and with each “here.”

 

Here spans 163 pages with an additional 27 pages of notes. Given the allusive and multilingual density of the poems, which are rife with fragments and quotations, the explanatory notes illuminate without overdetermining the poetry. To name but a few of the citational relations operative in Here: Browne refers to Frantz Fanon, Sa7plek, Gertrude Stein, the Annual Report of the Board of the Regents of the Smithsonian Institute, Robert Burton, Régis Debray, Da.a xiigang, Aimé Césaire, Charles Olson, Hannah Arendt, and Curly, a fisherman. On a given page, Browne might provide a gloss on how the term “Unangax” replaces “Aleut” (182), or detail how he met Walt Kelly of Pogo fame at a bar in Montreal (180). In another note, Browne provides an account of galaga snaanga, the Fungus Man, and his appearance in Haida Oral Histories (178), a reference to his extended essay, Entering Time: The Fungus Man Platters of Charles Edenshaw, which Talonbooks published in 2017. These deeply generous and generative notes direct readers elsewhere, turning the lines of the poem outward without a sense of didacticism or completion. Browne’s meticulous citational practices not only illuminate and invite readers to continue to imagine in other contexts, but they also acknowledge the deep webs of communal relation that underwrite all acts of poetic creation.

 

Here is structured according to seven movements: “Diorama,” “The Azure Notebook,” “Vancouver in Translation,” “Traveller,” “Improvisations 1-12,” “Petal,” and “Envoi.” The first line of “Diorama” extends the opening image of the fold to ask a litany of enjambed questions that announce the crisis that is the settler imagination: “is it not unfolding as we imagined, are these not / the brass mackerels we welcomed home, is that” (3). A voice continues,

 

i lived in barracks, my father lived in barracks

my uncles lived in barracks, my grandfathers

lived in barracks, my great-grandfathers

lived in barracks, our Irish ancestor lived in barracks

to subdue les Indiens

and les Canadiens

in British North America

and was fed[.] (3)

 

When one turns the page, one confronts the words “grand fodder” (4), which Browne isolates, centres, and gives its own page. This catastrophe of the colonial imagination, the grand fodder of the settlement and the barracks, reaches its apex in the third movement of Here, “Vancouver in Translation,” where Browne translates poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, Blaise Cendrars, and Marcel Thiry. “You’ve yet to gaze upon great green parrots / Indigo rivers, or Natives” (Here 82), writes Thiry. Initially published in The Capilano Review, these translations when read together make concrete the fetishizing gaze of three poets—each situated in France—who wrote about Vancouver from afar during the early decades of the twentieth century. As Browne comments, “[t]he young city clearly appealed to the modernist imagination for its exotic location and its proximity to Indigenous cultures” (Here 78). These translations reverse the colonial gaze and its projections of Indigeneity to instead make the colonial imagination at this particular juncture intelligible as an object of critique.

 

Still, Here accomplishes much more than reassembling colonial imaginaries, a project that taken alone risks reprising violence. In “The Azure Notebook,” the longest of the movements, Browne’s poems unfold space to hold time within them as if every line, always improvised, is on the verge of exploding linear time through the accumulated abrasions of sedimented memory, which cannot be held in place despite always being in and of place. Browne writes,

 

in Enid Stuckey’s snapshot

Nora Guernsey hangs up the laundry

on seized land south of Tk’emlúps

I’ll do it all again, she tells me in 1975

the hillside where she was happy in 1914

is now trenched by gaping, seeping

ditches for a tailing pond[.] (39)

 

Elsewhere, in “Improvisations 1-12,” a movement of luminous and sprawling prose, Browne indicts the settler state and civil society. “Dispossession, incarceration, slavery, extermination: the foundations,” he writes, “of civil society” (135). In proximity to this indictment of anti-Blackness and settler colonial violence, a Whitmanian voice, just a few pages later, surfaces that clinches Browne’s expansive poetic mode. “I is multiple,” Browne affirms, “sans fin” (142). With this, to what extent does this porous and multitudinous subjectivity itself, like civil society, also depend upon dispossession, incarceration, slavery, and extermination? Put otherwise, what Here makes audible is how a poetic subjectivity grounded in and through whiteness—marked or  unmarked—must tarry with the unfinished violence that also makes it possible.

 

Works Cited

Browne, Colin. Here. Talonbooks, 2020.

—. “Interview with Colin Browne.” Interview by Penelope Connell. Capilano Review, vol. 1, no. 18, 1980, pp. 7-18.

mclennan, rob. “Colin Browne, Here.” rob mclennan’s blog, 15 Oct. 2020, robmclennan.blogspot.com /2020/10/colin-browne-here.html.



This review “Here, Now, Unfolding” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 19 Nov. 2021. Web.

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