Thursday, April 13, 2006

Nicole Brossard's Fluid Arguments

For years, and come of age during Quebec's Quiet Revolution, Quebecois author Nicole Brossard has been a touchstone for writing and writers on a variety of fronts, from sexual politics, feminism, mothering, Quebec/language politics and the avant-garde. Wandering through Ottawa's mother tongue books a few days ago, I discovered a collection of Brossard's essays that had been recently published, Fluid Arguments (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005). A collection nearly three hundred pages in length, it includes pieces originally written in both French and English, and is the first English collection of Brossard's that has no French equivalent, collecting pieces scattered over the years with the thread of her concerns working their constant way through. As critic Susan Rudy says in her "editor's introduction":

A new book of essays by Nicole Brossard is long overdue. As Linda Russo lamented in her introduction to a recent Brossard feature in Verdure, because the most recent work is only beginning to be translated, "I can't help but feel I'm writing an introduction to a Nicole Brossard of ten, even twenty years ago" (31). This is especially true of the essays. Brossard's first (and only) essay collection was published in 1985 as La Lettre aérienne and, three years later, as The Aerial Letter. That book introduced us to the concept of the "integral" woman: "if patriarchy can take what exists and make it not, surely we can take what exists and make it be. But for this we have to want her in our own words, this very real integral woman we are, this idea of us, which like a vital certitude, would be our natural inclination to make sense of what we are" ("From Radical to Integral" 103). Since then, her essays have continued to appear regularly and internationally in journals, books, and at conferences. Since the mid-1980s, Brossard has delivered more than one hundred and eight articles, conference papers, talks, and inaugural addresses, to feminists, philosophers, literary theorists, and avant-garde poets at prestigious institutions and international conferences in Hungary, France, Belgium, Italy, Mexico, Amsterdam, Norway, Australia, the former Yugoslavia, Argentina, Portugal, Spain, England, Germany, and Croatia. In the United States alone she has addressed conferences at Yale, Berkeley, Princeton, Bucknell, and the New School for Social Research. As the first three sections of this book demonstrate, the has not only been writing and presenting papers in English; she has been translating her own work. (p 10-11)

The whole notion of translation (she has worked with a number over the years, including Barbara Godard, Robert Majzels and Erin Mouré, Anne-Marie Wheeler, Patricia Claxton, Susanne De Lotbinière-Harwood, Alice Parker and Marlene Wildeman, as well as translating some of her own work from French to English) is interesting by itself; in 1995, for the original English publication of Mauve Desert (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1995), I was able to interview Brossard at length about not only the process of translation, but the ownership of such works: how can she feel connected to a text of hers translated into a language that she can't speak? (Unfortunately, the tape of the interview has been misplaced, as a French-speaking third party was to transcribe the entirety of such; I wanted to include the French words that came to Brossard first to explain an idea, that I needed to wait for her to translate into English before I could continue). As she writes in her piece "Autobiography":

My fascination with translation grew, transformed itself into the challenge and grand fantasy of translating myself from French into French. This is how the premeditated matter of the idea came to meet the hot emotional matter which for two years had been preparing the tone, the setting, the atmosphere of my novel Mauve Desert. (p 142)

Brossard has had a number of publications appear in English lately, including: The Blue Books (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2003), which repackages her three earlier Coach House Press translations A Book (1976), Turn of a Pang (1976) and French Kiss, or, A Pang's Progress (1986); Yesterday, At the Hotel Clarendon (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2005); Intimate Journal (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2004); the poetry collection Museum of Bone and Water (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2003); and a re-issue of her Mauve Desert, originally published in English translation by McClelland & Stewart in 1995 (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 2006). As well, an interesting element of the Toronto launch for Brossard's Intimate Journal, originally written as pieces for radio in the early 1980s, was the onstage interview with her conducted by Toronto poet Suzanne Zelazo, which later appeared in the Vancouver journal West Coast Line (2005). Here is a snippet of the interview, focusing on the publication of Intimate Journal:

SZ: In Note 22 of Intimate Journal, you say, "Poetry, I'm returning to it, never leaves me. It's my genre completely. In poetry I contemplate myself exuberantly. It's my unique strength. Force of gravity, electric and magnetic energy; in my own way, to make a synthesis. To make consciousness as, it is said, to make love" (100). Your privileging of the poetic, even from within other genres, is one I am personally sympathetic to, but what are the nuances of that privileging? What it its particular "electric and magnetic energy" for you?

NB: I think it's language certainly, but it's language in the present tense. I think for me poetry is my privileged relationship with the universe. The privilege of that relationship is that it is in the present tense. When you write poetry, you are always in the present tense; whereas when you write novels, you are in time. And it might be a time that works for you or against you, but it is another space entirely. As for poetry, it is an act of the present and of presence—a strong presence which is characterized simultaneously by tension and by a sense of peace. When you write poetry, you have to be—all of what you are has to be—awake, and so every time I write poetry, I am happy. It doesn't matter whether the poem is going well or if I'm having difficulty—I am profoundly happy when I write poetry. As for when I write novels, that is totally another story. I've asked myself many times "Why then do you write novels if it makes you so unhappy, or if it is like a little prison that you are in for three, four, or five years?" Well, I need to write novels because I need to negotiate with reality. I need to understand how we play with it on different scales, how we transform it constantly for our needs through short and long narratives where the self avoids, clashes or harmonizes with others. I would like to be a storyteller—unfortunately, I'm not, but I do think that human beings yearn for stories to be told to them. (p 180)

Poetry, it seems, is a whole thread of Intimate Journal, and it seems impossible to speak of the piece at all without referencing poetry in some fashion; here is an excerpt from an earlier section than the one referenced by Zelazo:

1 June 1983

Poetry is everything. Surge in the soul and instinct of our cer-
tainties, some certainties with which we obstinately commit
ourselves, in the name of life and energy not to die in the
midst of describing reality. Existing and co-existing. Can all
that occur peacefully? In thoughts and in action.

From my window, I see the postman making his rounds. It's a
mild day. There is some mail: three letters like three presences.
One from Louise Forsyth who writes that no one has yet real-
ly understood Picture Theory. Then another from the poet
James Sacré in which he writes me about poetry, lyricism, and
texts to send him for the new periodical. Oracl. The third
comes from a reader who asks me which of my books she
should read first because her friends told her: if you want
complicated poetry, read Nicole Brossard. There is also a post-
card from Michèle Causse. Her writing encroaches on the
caption which says: Highway that goes to sea in the Florida
Keys. Postcards always make me dream: for the love of friend-
ship. For the soul. A little kiss at the foot of the pyramids, a kiss
in the Grand Canyon, tenderness, affection, love. In June, I
prefer to go away. It's a diversionary tactic that helps me
understand certain images or again certain sensations. (Intimate Journal, p 94)

Since mentioning poetry, it seems appropriate to quote the first two stanzas of the poem "The Eyes of Woolf and Borges" from her collection Museum of Bone and Water, that start:

I can't seem to erase
the idea that faced with time
leaf or child
time repeats tempest
or labyrinth
no one dreams of resisting

of life we'll say any old thing in short
to save time quick-
cut: confusion of flash fool furious
sleep time of screens
real time of tête-à-tête and intimate talk
side-by-side spoken clearly
snippet of sincerity (p 73)

There are elements since taken by English-speaking writers such as prairie writer/critic Aritha Van Herk, Montreal fiction writer Gail Scott, Newfoundland writer/critic Stan Dragland or Vancouver writer Anne Stone, where the essay and the story and the poem tend to mix into each other, working itself until it almost becomes hard to distinguish between genres; even closer, working much more from two sides of the two languages is Canadian poet nathalie stephens (currently living in Chicago, I think), who works very much in the book as unit of composition, and very fluid along the hard line that too often exists between poetry and fiction, as well as the line between English and French, and is probably the only Canadian writer currently publishing books composed in both languages, with publishers in both languages. As Brossard writes in the piece "Poetic Politics" (originally published in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein):

I believe that a text gives subliminal information on how it wants to be read. Its structure is itself a statement, no matter what the text says. Of course, what the text says is important, but it is like body language. Body language tells more about yourself and how you want to relate with someone than your words do. I would like to point out three aspects in which a text shows politics: its perspective, its themes, its style. (p 32)

Not that these are all pieces of writing on writing and the movements between such; there are extremely powerful pieces on lesbian issues, women's issues and the piece "6 December 1989 among the centuries," as a written reaction to the massacre of fourteen women at the Université de Montréal on December 6, 1989. From a version of the piece published in English in This Magazine, she writes:

The discourse, the analyses, and the commentaries that followed the massacre at the Polytechnique remind us that misogyny, phallocentrism, and ordinary sexism form such a cohesive politico-cultural whole that it is different to identify each man's actual participation in the oppression of women. The reasonable doubt each man benefits from has, as a consequence, the invalidation of every generalization that can be made about men's behaviour toward women, and thus it reinforces the presumed innocence of them all. In any case, given this "innocence," any well-intentioned liberal man can not only support feminist claims based on principles of equality and social justice but, all the while, discredit feminist research, analysis, and thought. Disturbing research which has discovered mass graves marking out the history of women; analysis which invalidates the foundations of patriarchal laws; creative thinking which, in the maze of paradoxes, contradictions, and hate metaphors of both fear and attraction employed by men to domesticate the creature, strives to understand the reasons why and the magnitude of men's hatred toward women—these work away at the very principle of life. (p 112)

As she writes again in "Autobiography," from the new collection of essays:

As I write these lines I am well aware that it was mostly men who, through their passion for an art form, imparted their love of art to me. That way of saying: "You see? Do you hear that? Read this!" with an ecstatic air as if suddenly the beauty of the world were held wholly in a verse, a poem, a painting; a musical phrase. I discovered this passion only much later in women writers like Michèle Causse, Florence Delay, Marie-Claire Blais, Daphne Marlatt, Louky Bersianik, in the composer Micheline Coulombe St-Marcoux, and painters Francine Simonin and Irene Whittome.

But another passion had begun to reveal itself in Quebec's social fabric: the passion for political realities. I am using the word "political" here because it allows me to encompass the signs of what was to give my generation a sense of history, nourish our will for radical changes, our desire for freedom. Something was at stake in our lives, and this meant reclaiming a country and a language as well as shaping our collective identity. We were working, so to speak, on four fronts: challenging English-Canadian political and economic domination, denouncing the exploitation of our natural resources by American multinationals, struggling against the power of the clergy, resisting the omnipresent influence of French literature. (Fluid Arguments, p 129)

[Nicole Brossard reads at poetry cabaret #1 on April 17 with Ken Babstock and Kevin Connolly as part of the ottawa international writers festival]

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