If you imagined a poem to be like a bone box for culture - that is, as a place to put the hard remains of a dying civilization - what would such a poem be? Dionne Brand, Toronto's current poet laureate, crafts a damning answer in her new collection, Ossuaries.
In her first book of poetry in four years, Brand performs a kind of personal and cultural disinterment, a digging up of memory to try to set it back in a more permanent and dignified resting place. Ultimately, Brand offers up a dark vision of the pain and process of poetic memorialization.
Ossuaries is a long poem in 15 parts, 15 "ossuaries," that speaks sometimes in the voice of the main character, Yasmine, and sometimes speaks of her life. Each ossuary is a cascade of tercets (three-line stanzas) that unfurls in one long stream of images and contemplations, pausing only in breathless commas, never coming to a full stop.
Yasmine is, we are told, "a woman living an underground life, fleeing past actions and regrets, in a perpetual state of movement." Through her eyes, a time much like our present is described almost as though it were ancient history:
in our induced days and wingless days, my every waking was incarcerated, each square metre of air so toxic with violence the atmospheres were breathless there, the bronchial trees were ligatured with carbons [...]br/> what brutal hours, what brutal days do not say, oh find the good in it, do not say there was virtue; there was no virtue, not even in me
Yasmine sees modernity as what will soon become the past and asks what elements of our culture, and of her own life, will remain. Traumas and chemicals, she decides. Words like futile "metal glyphs." Yasmine remembers her life as a "solitary perfectable strangeness"; her mind travels to memories of Albany, Buffalo, Havana, Algiers. One ossuary dredges up the indigestible bits of an exploitative love affair tangled in the fluid notes of Charlie Parker; one is a parting of ways at the ancient city of Utica; another is a brief gasp of inexpressible emotion at the persistence of new life amid the ongoing destruction of the oceans and air.
Brand's melodious yet distinctively fierce lyricism is recognizable in Ossuaries. Present, too, is her attraction to the vibrancy and violence of urbanity. "If only I had something to tell you, from here,/ some good thing that would weather/ the atmospheres of the last thirty years," she writes.
The desolation of Ossuaries is almost unrelenting, and Yasmine seems to startle herself with bursts of hopefulness that often take forms like petals, calyxes, lemon trees and fiddleheads. In the "stone pit" of Brand's awareness of modern massacres, repressions and regimes, hopefulness is as tender and rare as lavender blossoms in the paved lots of poor suburbs. Ossuaries is a difficult, but beautiful, exhumation, a furious dirge for an era not yet passed.
Sonnet L'Abbé's most recent collection of poems is Killarnoe. She lives in Vancouver, where she is writing A Sentient Mental Flower Book.