Postnational Argonauts

Reviewed by Gregory Betts

Shifts in Canada, now in the midst of a curious cultural renegotiation, have led to a striking indifference from its authors. It is almost as if the (settler-colonial) nation-state has been taken as a fiction in late capitalism, and Canadian authors have forsworn the identity albatross for a more nuanced sense of place that is instead attentive to cities in their global, neo-liberal context. As Dionne Brand writes in The Blue Clerk, “I realized I had already abandoned nation long before I knew myself, the author says. That attachment always seemed like a temporary hook in the shoulder blade. A false feeling, in a false moment.” In the three books reviewed here, cities pulse vibrantly, but Canada as a geopolitical construct is nowhere.

So the city instead of the nation becomes the point of contact between the author and the world, valuable for its role as portal and conduit: as Brand writes in her transnational memoirfesto, “The author wants a cosmopolitan city.” The Blue Clerk has already been hailed as an “instant classic” in the national media, and its premise carefully mapped. Brand tells the story of her unfolding consciousness, using key moments of her life to suggest the various shifts and epiphanies that inform each of her previous works—it is, indeed, her Ars Poetica, her attempt to articulate the underlying aesthetic philosophy of her oeuvre. To do this, she divides her consciousness into two personas, the author and the clerk, who investigate and debate the meaning of the lush details in her life and in her world, such as the impression of clouds or the colour of traffic or the philosophy of lists. The clerk is both a worker and the work that the pulsating author stumbles around. The world, including other artists, people, places, experiences, and violence, impinges upon the author, leading to strict rules about when to read philosophy and natural history (while writing poetry), when to read poetry (while writing fiction), and when to read fiction (only after writing poetry). The clerk, master of inventories and labour and worry, is a construct of the balance sheet of making art in a violent, capitalist world. Brand moves through the world of experiences, trying to serve the needs of the author and the clerk, doing her best to resist such false illusions as nations and happy endings: “The author and the poet always have to leave somewhere, someone, themselves.”

Similarly, Shazia Hafiz Ramji’s Port of Being revels in the mediated landscape of urban spaces, developing an elaborate, insightful conceit of textual landscapes and global shipping routes as intimate expressions of contemporary life. The nation gets evaporated in the weight of capital and techno-mediation. She uses a single point of consciousness but allows the world to crowd in, to collage the sensibility of the speaker. She manages to find a remarkable balance between the passive recipient of forces (the one who receives dick pix, who escapes the simulacra of Gulf War geographies) and the active witness resistant to the turbulent swirl of things that might destroy her. The poems remind me of Marshall McLuhan’s notion of the maelstrom in the electric age, where survival depends upon moving with the current (rather than against it), while seeking the safety of counter-environments to survey the danger. Hence, “Our disposition is a filter, one way I can understand . . . In the morning, we consider ghosts,” she writes in “Nearness.” A delightful voice emerges in the sprawl of systems throughout the poems, a sharp-eyed consciousness that builds momentary, shifting counter-environments through humour and wit, insight and attention. The world is mired in competing ideologies, but even the dead language of grant applications can draw a precarious line between family and friends and advertising copy-text.

While Ramji allows her speaker to emerge from within the language of globalized city-spaces, Nasser Hussain’s SKY WRI TEI NGS turns the city-spaces into the coordinates of a global language. His method of writing poems exclusively through airport codes from around the world seems a familiar avant-garde mode of defamiliarization, where (as in the title of the book) the language is always not quite exact, and always literally indicating somewhere outside of the text. But the playfulness of discovering hidden alphabets (“ALF AAH BET”) in impossible pathways between real places in the world—where, for instance, “AAA BBB CCC” takes you from Anaa in French Polynesia to Benson, Minnesota, to Cayo Coco island, off the coast of Cuba—does more than just decentre the practical value of these codes. The airport codes are, in fact, re-enciphered with new meanings, new insights, and new realities. As with any travel, it is making the connections that determines how far the trip will go. Hussain’s surprising leaps remap these banal codes into astonishingly free and funny articulations. Nations simply don’t exist in this pataphysical planet (except as fodder for jokes and pokes), where even cities are but footnotes to a debordered poetry.

This review “Postnational Argonauts” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 124-126.

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