Female Poet Series: Dionne Brand, ossuary VIII

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March 17, 2015 by Sarojini Seupersad


Photo of Dionne Brand by jasonchowphotography.com

I’ve missed a few days of my series but I’m convinced I’m going to catch up, or at the very least – this amazingly creative and powerful poet who hails from the country of my father, will hopefully make up for a few missed posts.

Dionne Brand is one of the most intense, lyrical poets living in our modern times. How lucky are we to be alive during the same time she is? Born in Trinidad & Tobago in 1953, and educated in Canada, she earned her first degree from the University of Toronto in 1975. Her writing shares her sense of urgency and dedication to exploring the intersection of race, culture and gender. She’s been awarded many prestigious honors including the Canadian Griffith Award, Fellow of the Academies for Arts, Humanities, and Sciences of Canada and Poet Laureate of Toronto. In the poem below, an excerpt from the 2010 novel-length poem Ossuaries, which is not quiet epic poem but not quite a novel either, the narrative follows Yasmine’s travels through Havana, and shows what it is to be seen and unseen, all the while collecting pieces of one’s life and simultaneously fleeing from the past.

Take your sweet old time with this one. It’s worth the read.

ossaries VIII

Havana. Yasmine arrived one early evening,

the stem of an orange dress,

a duffle bag, limp, with no possessions

the sea assaulted the city walls,

the air,

the birds assaulted the sea

she’s not coastal,

more used to the interiors of northern cities,

not even their ancillary, tranquil green-black lakes

though nothing was ever tranquil about her,

being there out of her elemental America

unsettles her, untethers her

being alive, being human, its monotony

discomfited her anyway, the opaque nowness,

the awareness, at its primal core, of nothing

a temporary ache of safety,

leafed her back like unfurling fiddleheads,

she glimpsed below the obdurate seduction of Atlantic

and island shore,

when they landed, a contradiction,

a peppery drizzle, an afternoon’s soft sun

the oiled air of Havana pushed its way onto the airplane,

leavened, domestic,

the Tupelov cabin like an oven darkening bread

she was alive in this place,

missing forever from her life in the other,

a moment’s sentimentality could not find a deep home

what had been her life, what collection of events?

these then, the detonations,

the ones that led her to José Marti Airport

so first the language she would never quite learn,

though determined, where the word for her,

nevertheless, was compañera

and there she lived on rations of diction,

shortened syntax, the argot and tenses of babies,

she became allegorical, she lost metaphors, irony

in a small room so perfect she could paseo its rectangle,

in forty-four exact steps,

a room so redolent with brightness

cut in half by a fibrous bed,

made patient by the sometimish stove,

the reluctant taps, the smell of things filled with salt water

through the city’s wrecked avenidas,

she would find the Malecón, the great sea wall

of lovers and thieves, jineteras and jineteros

and there the urban sea washed anxiety from her,

her suspicious nature found,

her leather-slippered foot against a coral niche

no avoiding the increment of observation here,

in small places small things get their notice,

not just her new sign language

oh yesterday, you were in a green skirt,

where’s your smile today,

oh you were late to the corner on Tuesday

don’t you remember we spoke at midday,

last week near the Coppelia,

you had your faraway handbag

your cigarette eyes,

your fine-toothed comb

for grooming peacocks, anise seeds in your mouth

you asked for a little lemon water,

you had wings in your hands,

you read me a few pages from your indelible books

what makes your eyes water so,

I almost drowned in them on Friday,

let me kiss your broken back, your tobacco lips

she recalled nothing of their encounters,

but why,

so brilliant at detail usually

the green skirt, the orange dress, the errant smile,

the middays all dissolved into

three, five, ten months in Havana

one night she walks fully clothed, like Bird,

into the oily pearly of the sea’s surface,

coral and cartilage, bone and air, infrangible

and how she could walk straight out, her dress,

her bangles, her locking hair, soluble,

and how despite all she could not stay there


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