Knotting-Off the Aughts #1: Dionne Brand’s Inventory

Year: 2006
Place of Creation: Southern Ontario
Press: McClelland & Stewart, Ltd

Mode of Acquisition: Required reading. Before I put it on this list, Inventory was on the reading list for a master’s class taught at the University of Guelph by Janice Kulyk Keefer and the late, great Connie Rooke. The world of required reading has produced precious few lasting favourites for me. I remember being made to read Dickens in high school, hating it, and only enjoying it again when I picked up a copy of Bleak House years later and brought it back to my own bleak, Dickensian house in the St. John’s student ghetto. When some friends told me recently that they were teaching some of my poems in their freshmen curriculums, I briefly panicked. Dear undergraduates of Montreal and Halifax: If we got off on the wrong foot somehow, I apologize. Blind dates can be awfully formal, they’re not made for folks like us.

Status of Personal Copy: Given away to a friend from a younger cohort who recycled the text back into the flow of new students. I’d like to think that it was then re-gifted and re-gifted and still being brought to class. If any Guelph MFA students see a well dog-eared copy of Inventory with illegible marginal notes in their travels, it’s likely mine. It’d be good to have those notes again; this project has been concerned with matured reactions born of multiple readings in different moods and places in one reader’s life, but having the original reaction around for a comparison would be interesting.

One year she sat at the television weeping,
no reason,
the whole time
-from Part III

Poets, like scientists, put a lot of faith in observation. In contemporary poetry (and, to some degree, contemporary science) that observation tends to be downward, into small corners, the mechanistic souls of things. In both fields, this is more an era of the microscope than the telescope, appreciating the small over the big. But there are still practitioners in both areas concerned with a specific and exigent review of the larger world (or worlds). Astronomers still speak in terms of light years like they’re miles, and some poets are willing to observe things in their entirety, all tributaries and rivulets. I’ve saved the final entry in this project for a book by the Canadian poet who is doing this the best.

Brand is likely Canada’s best political poet, in the broad definition of that word: a poet concerned with interhuman interaction beyond the simple 1-to-1 scope most humanistic poetry takes as its chief interest; interhuman interaction at the level of the neighbourhood, the city, the country, and the planet, and concerned with both the historical precedents of those interactions, and with predicting how they would evolve if present conditions were changed. Her politics are specific and angry, divorced from the hippy humanism that is the de facto political alignment of the Canadian poet by their wit, their pride, and their willingness to name enemies. This is has led to a reputation that has occasionally bothered certain stupid people, people who are unwilling to engage with her as anything beyond a sort of cartoonish impersonation of the politicized black woman, shaking her overeducated finger at the ignorance around her. Brand’s field of observation is broad and piercing, but if that wasn’t enough to make her a special case in this country of professional navel-gazers, the proactive element in her poetry, its opinions and ideas, leaves her inexplicably alone.

I want to talk a bit about observation. Inventory presents itself as the passive tracking of reported instances of violence in the Middle East and beyond, over the course of a single year somewhere in the first half of this decade. In this way its central conceit is no more editorial than the one behind Kennedy and Wershler’s poem-machine in Apostrophe. But because we know Dionne Brand, we’re not buying that passivity for long, and while Inventory is somewhat light on the big dramatic turns, it still makes room for confrontation. Some of these confrontations are outward, toward the involved parties, while others are turned inward to the passivity itself, or inward further to poetry. She pauses after recounting the death of a “child on bicycle by bomb in Baquaba” to examine the alliteration as it suddenly appears in front of her, as if the terrible music of the decade has clung to her reportage and refused to let it go. The long poem also allows for a dexterity of view between the “there” and “here” that never feels trite or ostentatious. If Inventory has a central political mechanism, it is one of translation, between the unchallenged mathematics of newscaster-reported body counts and the human interpretation of those deaths. As in here:

Consider then the obliteration of four restaurants,
the disappearance of sixty taxis each with one passenger,
or four overcrowded classrooms, one tier of a football stadium,
the sudden lack of, say, cosmeticians

Breaking up the woman accounting for the evening news, we visit a woman traveling through Egypt and a woman reminiscing in a movie theatre. These are also passive figures, the traveler is locked into a typical tourist pattern of looking but not touching, and the movie patron is instructed to do this by the nature of film as an art form. As the poem proceeds, though, The Counter comes back to us as refrain and counterpoint, listing the dead, their numbers and locations, giving Inventory its morbid and unflinching rhythm section.

So many poets, especially those in and around my age, are happily slouching into a sort of superficially-engaged political agnosticism. Disinterested in the specifics of policy, we cling to the typical liberal stances on issues in much the same way our parents or grandparents may have clung to the typically conservative ones, as more of a means of self-identifying with our community than expressing any derived opinions. Admittedly, the urge to write poems about farming or biophysics and the urge to research the GMOs we name drop into such poems are likely dissimilar and rarely shared in the same imagination, and this is fine, I guess. What it leaves, though, is a parade of knee-jerk aphorists. Global warming is bad. Urban sprawl is bad. Stephen Harper is bad. I’m good and you’re good and poetry is fucking awesome. I agree with all of the preceding statements, you understand, but I’ve also spoken to a lot of poets about politics and to some politicians about poetry, and it’s hard to decide which was the less-informed group. I’m not asking for a generation of poets with masterful knowledge of media culture or political economy (though it might help), but I think a political ethic of pluralism, of strengthened resolve as the product of considered alternatives, isn’t too much to ask if you decide to engage with your telescope, in lieu of your microscope.

I hold Brand’s Inventory in a different place not because she’s done all the homework there is to do, but because she’s locked onto means of interacting with the uncaring world that takes this element of study as far out of the equation as possible. At the level of national motivations and peacekeeping, I give way to experts in other fields, but at the level of the individual death, or of the newscaster’s (non-)reaction to reported body counts, atrocity is strictly poets’ work.

My #2 favourite in this list was Christian Bök’s Eunoia. I understand the tension in these top two choices, though other people seem to like them both as well. Bök has publicly proclaimed the commercial success of his books as proof that what “the people” really want from poetry is more experimentation, but while reading a book like Inventory, that opinion falls flat for me. It’s like saying more people would go to church if the mass was still in Latin (or perhaps, an as-yet-unfinished experimental xenolanguage that Bök is presently constructing). Inventory is the book I think of whenever my non-poetry friends (I like to keep a couple in the stable– so I can write poems about them, you know) wish that poetry would be more “accessible”. Accessibility is a terrible word, and it’s done far more harm to poetry than good, but if it simply means that people would read something if you put it in front of them, then I can’t think of a more accessible book that Inventory. Written polyphonically, but in a set of voices that don’t stand out as unusual in the national lexicon, the book looks only to shared, public, experiences for its content. Even the more personal section (the Egyptian trip) is egoless, and only presented as a framing device for the main body of the text.

A hypothetical public reader may complain about the lack of resolution or even moral to Inventory. But I’d argue that there’s a definite moral (In brief: when the assault of our era becomes too chaotic and constant to understand in any prosaic way, then this poetic accounting is the only means of participating). Put another way, at some point, counting replaces countering. Or, the achievable passive reaction has to stand-in for the impossible active one. Or, as Brand puts it in the poem’s last lines:

I have nothing soothing to tell you
that’s not my job,
my job is to revise and revise this bristling list,
hourly.

Superficially, this sounds like an excuse for the unengaged poet, but placed at the end of the list (both hers and mine), I see it as something else. Inventory shows us the steadfastness and diligence needed to track the slow-bleed of the human condition, and it’s a grueling task. It requires a political understanding deeper than most of us possess, just as a documentary filmmaker needs to know enough about her subject to point the camera in the right direction, accounting at the level Brand shows us in Inventory requires an engaged imagination, not just engagement or imagination. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable, in the end, to say that our decade has demanded, in plain terms and without caveat, poetry like this. For all we talk about how ours is an essentially reactive art form (we see something, are struck by it, and move forward from there) we have under-responded unforgivably to the major tropes and themes of our time. Observation needs to be about more than a painter’s eye for the play of light through a window, or a musician’s ear for the rhythmic play of overheard speech. Observation, if it is done by observers engaged in the world from the minimum threshold of our senses on up, results in as many books like Inventory as it does books about personal history, or the arms-length ephemera of contemporary life. The fact that our output has been so imbalanced leaves our true motives suspect. Our decade asked us quite clearly for a downpour of books like Inventory, written from infinite perspectives and in diverse voices, and we gave it exactly one. Surely we deserve whatever happens next.

Bonus Round: The full Knotting-Off list is available here, complete with posting dates and a one-word theme of the discussion. Thanks for reading everyone. I hope you go back to it.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Canadian Literature, Poems in the Wider World, Top Ten of the 2000s

2 Comments on “Knotting-Off the Aughts #1: Dionne Brand’s Inventory”

  1. Brown Kay Says:

    nice poems blog! Wishing you a Merry Christmas 2009


  2. I’m not incredibly skilled in IT. Can you explain me is your blog operating wordpress or other?


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