As ever, there were a number of new poets worth attending to, and the year was also rich in good work, or even better than that, from writers with a small handful of books to their name. But the yield was no less abundant when it came to the more well-established writers. Among the most successful and noteworthy examples were Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries and Anne Carson’s Nox, quite different books on the one hand yet on the other with aspects in common. Brand’s book-length sequence has as strong and harrowing a start as any work in recent memory, initiating the reader into a world in which ‘so many dreams of course were full of prisons,’ in which ‘my every waking was incarcerated,’ in which ‘at night, especially at night, it is always at night, / a wall of concrete enclosed me[.]’ That bracketed period misrepresents the book’s overwhelming momentum, as these poems are devoid of end-stops – not merely a matter of punctuation. The sections of the book, fifteen in all, alternate between the first-person and the third, in the latter case manifest in the character of Yasmine, a member of a revolutionary political group – think Weathermen, Baader-Meinhof, Black Panthers. Tracking the movement between the ‘I’ (‘the slippery pronoun, the ambivalent, glistening, / long sheath of the alphabet flares beyond her reach’) and the ‘she’ is part of what makes the book unnerving; the reader is in a disadvantageous position as far as being solidly situated, which is a way to instantiate as felt experience the violence and vicissitudes of Yasmine’s life, as well as the ‘harassment and provocations’ that follow the ‘I’ even into sleep.
In this world of bourgeois illusions and bad dreams, a line such as ‘she flew like shrapnel off the bed’ seems both diagnostic and prophetic. ‘Yasmine knows in her hardest heart, / that truth is worked and organized by some, / and she’s on the wrong side always[.]’ Brand’s verse is worked as a counterweight, organized in terms of countertruths: ‘the presumptive cruelties, / the villages that nursed these since time, / it’s always in the lyric // the harsh fast threatening gobble, / the clipped sharp knifing, it’s always, / in the lyric[.]’ Such staccato phrasing and [End Page 544] repetition are found throughout, at one moment being used for the depiction of states of mental and moral urgency, at another for the purposes of invective, at another for an insistence on basic human needs. Certain rhetorical figures are returned to with great effect, especially ‘no time, no time, this epistrophe, no time, / wind’s coming, no time,’ where the epistrophic ending is as much an oxymoron as ‘lived and loved’ (‘if I have lived, I have not loved, / and if I have loved, I cannot have lived’), since this terminal repeating undoes the temporal terminus:
the flat triangular bones I filled with kisses, spumes of kisses, gutters of kisses, postponed kisses, and early new-born kisses
the curve of clavicles, I dug artesian wells of kisses there, utensils of kisses, spoons of kisses, basins of kisses, creeks of kisses
the jugular notch I ate in kisses, I devoured in kisses, teeth-filled kisses, throat-filled kisses, gullet-stuffed kisses
[. . . .]
it may be useless now, to say the awkward life, the hovering life, the knowing life, born so early in me
[. . . .]
leathered skin, gelatinous skin, threnodic skin, shrugged hands, you see, I’ve sat here all this time being reasonable
like this, in the eye-filled years, the wall-filled years, the returning years, the formaldehyde years, the taxidermy years, the dishevelled years
This represents only a glimpse, clearly, of one of the tools at Brand’s ready, of which the toolbox is admirably full. Less easy to demonstrate in this space than such cases of sonic assertiveness are those in which the momentum slows and emphatic sounds are replaced by something closer to ‘replete silence’ or ‘her stillness,’ or how the narrative sweep of the book is sustained, as a kind of psychological and political thriller, while all the while it includes constant interruptions of the plot, as if to [End Page 545] imply...