One could not easily separate oneself from the “we” constructed and being constructed by the spectacle and its narrations or reiterations. And perhaps one ought not to be able to so clearly distinguish onself from that “we.” The grim list of the clerk begins. We believed in nothing, the black-and-white American movies buried themselves in our chests, liquid, glacial, acidic as love. the poet admits culpability. This is not enough for the clerk. Don’t let yourself off, the clerk says, I have enough to deal with on the wharf, thick weather, appears to be, easterly outside. The clerk knows that admitting guilt is a cop-out, it’s like wanting to be noble without giving anything up, it is drawing attention to yourself as if you are in a soap opera. If the poet doesn’t do more, the clerk will be inundated by bundles of sheets tightly fastened with gnats and wire.
Currently on the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize Canadian shortlist, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2018) is a sequence of prose-poem commentaries on life, literature and history. Composed as bursts of lyric prose, these pieces combine the lyric essay with storytelling, as her “Versos” suggest a collection that writes on the “reverse side” of history, those tales that fall away from the forefront. “In June,” she writes, to open “VERSO 5,” “I realized I had already abandoned nation long before I knew myself, the author says. That attachment always seemed like a temporary book in the shoulder blade.” There is something of The Blue Clerk that feels a sibling to Anne Carson’s Short Talks (Brick Books, 1992), through their shared sequence of short prose bursts, both of which explore a variety of subjects, as well as philosophy and theory, and the nature of how stories get told. Beyond that, Brand’s poems also exist as a narrative thread, composing a novel through lyric fragment, and the story of the story itself, told, between the author, and the author’s creation, the clerk. As “VERSO 5.1” ends:
So what? You feel featherless, the clerk says. Didn’t you always; weren’t you just an outrider? You tried to fit in, to your own demise though, you rode shotgun to your own distaster, she says. You’re right. No need for violent metaphor, the author cautions. Again, let me draw your attention to the tracing paper.
In “The Voice Asking,” a conversation with Souvankham Thammavongsa in the collection What the Poets Are Doing:Canadian Poets in Conversation, ed. Rob Taylor (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2018) [see my review of such here], Brand responds to one of Thammavongsa’s queries: “I notice now how I read. The pleasures are different. Now I read for structure, so the shape of the work is what gives me pleasure. Or the insight it accumulates. I am interested in the architecture of the work: what it borrows from, what it leaves unchanged from the past, how it breaks embedded narrative or not, how lazy or agile the poet. A dear friend poet asked me, a long time ago, ‘D, does the world need that line?’ And it took me aback and then made me laugh and then made me measure each line of poetry I wrote against this question. Such a simple question and such a difficult one—bracing and settling.” Brand’s power, throughout this book, emerges from the blend of genres, and the slipperiness of lyric essay, memoir, novel and prose poem, engaging with history and theory, the intimate and the purely theoretical. This collection is up for the Griffin Poetry Prize, but could just have easily be shortlisted for the Giller Prize (perhaps it still could), allowing the fluidity of genre to exist equally (I am reminded of Michael Turner’s Hard Core Logo, for example, originally published as “poetry” and reprinted as “novel,” once the movie adaptation appeared). She grounds her book through character and the small moment, but anchors it, just as much, through an exploration of large ideas, such as in the second section, as she begins:
Elegy, the philosopher Gilles Deleuze remarked, is one of the principal sources of poetry. It is the great complaint … the complaint is “what’s happening to me overwhelms me.” Not (simply) that I am in pain but what has taken away my power of action overwhelms me. And why do I see these things why do I know these things why must I endure seeing and knowing.
There is something really graceful and lovely in the way Brand’s sentences unfold, wrapping the lyric in and around itself, as “VERSO 27” begins: “The baby next door was in full voice last night. I didn’t want to put him in that last verso. It would have injured him.”