On the cover of Dionne Brand’s new collection, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems, there is a black and white photograph. Toronto’s third Poet Laureate sits cross-legged on a leaf tapestry, her right arm resting on one knee. She is wearing black. Unlike the blurry and overexposed street in the background, her features are clearly defined. Her smile is reserved. She is looking at the camera with strong and compassionate eyes; they contain multitudes, histories abbreviated, futures awaiting words. She is looking at us.
Dionne Brand’s poetry puts her readers in the spotlight, pushing us out of the comfort of reading anonymously by relentlessly questioning the very act of witnessing. Few writers interrogate the roles of poet and reader as Brand does. Her work is culturally, linguistically, and politically challenging. It is a project against historical indifference, against the erasure of self and collective amidst oppressive politics and military regimes, ecocide, and capitalist economic forces.
‘I know everything, I’m not innocent’, admits a speaker of her new long poem, ‘Nomenclature for the Time Being’. With knowledge comes responsibility. Her speakers are not innocent, and neither are we. Brand’s creative practice springs from a commitment to Black liberation, and she uses language to remember, attuned to the corrosiveness of historical violence yet also insisting on new articulations of tomorrow. Memory, for Brand, is a work in progress that reinvents our relation to time. In the act of remembering, she sees the foundations of what is to come and draws out the potential for action contained within language. Here is a poet convinced that ‘without verbs nothing can be done’, aware as she is ‘that verbs are a tragedy, a bleeding cliffside, explosions’. With every line, she defies the presumed innocence of her readers, inviting us to rethink the political valence of poetry.
Released in July 2023, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems consists of eight collections of Brand’s poetry, published between 1982 and 2010. The book opens with ‘Nomenclature for the Time Being’ (2022), the only new work, and then moves chronologically through the others: Primitive Offensive (1982), Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983), Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (1984), No Language is Neutral (1990), Land to Light On (1997), thirsty (2002), Inventory (2006), and Ossuaries (2010). The collection omits just two of Brand’s poetic works to date: at her own request, ’Fore Day Morning: poems (1978)—her juvenilia—and The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos (2018)—which lays bare the authorial motivations and difficulties of her creative practice—do not appear. Nomenclature shows Brand reckoning in sustained and shifting ways with the challenge of creating descriptions, reflections, memories, and histories that name the different way Blackness feels and is felt, positioning herself both as a poet and an everyday witness.
Spanning over three decades of work, the collection’s historical and conceptual range is rich and demanding, from Primitive Offensive (1982), which focuses on the Middle Passage and how it changed Black histories, to a nostalgic and utopic description of the city of Toronto in thirsty (2002). Concerns with changing forms of intersectionality (Land to Light On, 1997), and the disappointment with radical left politics in the Caribbean (No Language Is Neutral, 1990), animate Brand’s poetry throughout. Brand moves unevenly, rejecting linearity and uniformity and engaging in an exploration of Blackness that is, to borrow Katherine McKittrick’s words, ‘momentary and somewhat erratic’. Such exploration takes shape in a reassessment of the aestheticisation of Black experiences. From the start, her language has pushed to escape from simplified forms of cultural assimilation and conventional representation. Introducing this new collection at a book launch, Brand explained that ‘poetry carries the weight of the world’, and so she looks for shapes that will allow her to describe ‘the beauties of apprehension’; for moments of possibility that emerge in the act of attending to suffering. As a whole, the Nomenclature collection reveals Brand’s core project as one of grasping meanings that are constantly escaping yet nonetheless crucial to existing. Of living inside out in an attempt to undo the histories and knowledges that have made you. Of turning all of this into a collective response to racialised forms of violence. Moreover, this collection shows how Brand rethinks the poet’s own relation to time and the way Blackness is lived and written. She understands Blackness as an impermanent, sometimes inconsistent yet crucial examination of individual and collective subjectivities that, as McKittrick puts it, are ‘continually entangling and disentangling varying narratives and tempos and hues that, together, reinvent knowledge’. Her speakers come to realise the contradictions and opportunities of new forms of knowledge over time, often through unexpected moments in the process of liberation.
In her introduction to the collection, theorist and writer Christina Sharpe notes one way in which Brand’s collection offers a different form of knowledge: her books ‘insist on poetry’s radical break with representation’. Her poems alter the ways Blackness sees and is seen, disturbing the meaning of grand narratives that reduce Black life to a violent abstraction. The lines in her 2010 work Ossuaries press against each other, letting her tercets linger in irresolute unevenness: ‘I heard the conspiratorial water, / I heard the only stone, I ate her shoulder, / I could not hear myself, you are mistaken I said to no one’. Everyday vocabulary creates space for details that invite us to sense the colours, textures, and smells of a wounded world—‘so the street is still there, still melting with sun’ reminding us that ‘no language is neutral’. Brand’s recent works explore how histories of violence and containment continue to weigh heavily on processes of Black self- and collective constitution.
Brand has referred to her new work, ‘Nomenclature for the Time Being’, as ‘an essay-poem’ whose first-person pronouns give voice to ‘an aesthetic consciousness who has moved about in the world experiencing, looking, acting in, thinking on, drawing on what it has lived, and studied and absorbed’. She names a Black aesthetic that translates ‘these phenomena into arrangements of feeling, arrangements of the sense’. For Brand, Blackness exists always in relation to a time that is somewhere between witnessing and participating, between recognising and rejecting histories and imagining different futures. In this new poem, speakers rewrite Blackness from within, an impulse rooted in late twentieth century Black feminist movements that pressed on the relation between being seen and subjectivity,
what I mean is, if I told you who I was according to this world
you would take too much for granted; and if I did not tell you
who I was you would assume too much
The beauty of Brand’s words is unforgiving. The voice she gives us here is dejected at times, but it is also unflagging, committed to an open-ended knowledge of self and of others. As is characteristic of her work, her new poem is interested in accommodating more than the self can contain. Moving in and out of ‘I’ and ‘we’ pronouns, the speakers in this essay-poem create ‘an archive of facts and truths, experiences collected over the time of Blackness’
What if I told you
our lies amazed us so
till we hated the beauty we made
These speakers rely on the possibilities that the subjunctive mode affords – ‘what if’– to rethink their own relation to Blackness, making space for an affective response to artistic representations that do not hold true anymore. For Brand, one of the limits of Blackness as a theoretical praxis is set by language itself. She cares that the effects of language are partial and transient, and so she has made it her poetic project to retell, reconsider, and revisit the ways one writes about time, as well as how time writes our histories. One speaker in ‘Nomenclature’ tells us, ‘I try another language, I invent rhetoric’; to do so, she forms her words with ‘acid saliva’ and the bloody taste of ‘time ferrous in the mouth’. It is in this spirit that Brand gathers together her previous works but places them after her most recent poem, an ordering that invites her readers to revisit a project spanning thirty years under the light of a new contemporaneity.
If Nomenclature, principally comprised of Brand’s previous collections, is fundamentally a recollection of things past, then, it is also a timely reiteration of the need for different futures. To think about time is to reconsider what we think we know. ‘What is it to talk as if the world you know is the world’, a speaker in this new poem wonders. This seems to me a question that drives the collection, a question that is both painful and regenerative. Rinaldo Walcott has said we should ask ‘not what life means, but what exactly a life is’. Like Walcott, Brand and her speakers suggest that life is never a given condition, showing how fundamental freedoms are subject to a logic of power that dictates the forms these freedoms can take. In the face of this subjection, a speaker of ‘Nomenclature’ knows that ‘I have a possible hundred tomorrows where I will feel increasingly worse / but let me not predict what I can predict’.
This lament against the tyranny of experiences that prevent us from imagining differently is Brand’s latest iteration of the political valence of subjective temporalities. Her poetry is notably multivocal, reflecting the dozens of minds thinking about liberation that have influenced her. What Sharpe calls ‘Brand’s handmade genealogy’ takes shape in a relational, intertextual field. No Language is Neutral (1990) takes its title from a line in Derek Walcott’s Midsummer (1984), but Brand’s experimental voicing moves beyond quotation. It also creates space for other, unheard voices to come to the page, as in Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983), which layer feminist tensions onto a satirical form.
At the core of Brand’s poetry is the use of language: what it can and cannot do. As she stated over twenty years ago, in 1997’s Land to Light On, ‘It always takes long to come to what you have to say, you have to sweep this stretch of land up around your feet and point to the signs, pleat whole histories with pins in your mouth and guess at the fall of words’. A sense of the unpredictability of language is expressed, here, in the conjunction between historical representation — the land underfoot — and linguistic creation, which can only ‘point to the signs’. This sense of unknowability is still present in ‘Nomenclature’, in the form of ‘latent notebooks’, an ironically optimistic Sunday ‘gloomy with rain and possibility’, and a speaker ‘walking through sentences […] making my way through a meaning less / Meaning, and their certainty of the meaning less’. This new work sees Brand continue to think about time, about the arbitrariness of history concomitant of the logic of cause and effect. Yet it also recontextualises foundational themes by bringing them into new moments.
A major extension of Brand’s thinking about time and memory, in her more recent work, is in her explicit examination of two forms of time: time within capital and time outside capital. Time within capital violently registers the time sustained by the commodification of human labour. Time outside capital is not free either; it is weighed down by the notion of productivity. Blackness has been marked by the violence of capital since slavery, giving rise to a unique way of thinking about capital time. As Walcott puts it, ‘Black life seems to be in a state of emergency but the time of it doesn’t seem to end’. The work of memory overlaps with the mechanisms of the contemporary neoliberal state, which produces yet another form of subjugation that, Brand says in interview with Walcott, ‘decid[es] our dreams […] subjecting us to the humiliating rights of the powerful and of white supremacy’. Because
capital sells time, and oxidates time, alloys
time, and gullets time
skins time, it wears time away, vacuum-packed with time
our relation to time is ambivalent. Swallowed by the machine, we deem ‘time outside of capital [as] lazy, as reckless’, Brand explains. With that complicity comes the inescapable, desolating realisation that our use of this time dictates who we are and who we can become. Challenging such an ingrained notion of identity requires that we dare to know time differently; what this alternate knowledge looks like we can only speculate: ‘someone walked the way a perfume walks / it was what was left after labour, after a time / after time itself, small, the implications’. While Brand never conforms to the logic of time as capital, neither does she romanticise our relation to time. Rather, her speakers insist on an invisible yet powerful temporal reality that offers a contradictory struggle against the commodification of life, evident in ‘Nomenclature’: ‘I had to run life like a business, they said’; ‘I wish I could be fooled into living a life’. Asking how we can escape the vocabularies that force us into a capitalist register to own a life, to spend time, to value others is at the root of Brand’s poetic work. Her work attends to the ideological complicity of what it means to be a witness from within:
am only ever uttering every other word, skirting
all articulations shaped by ideology.
Taken as a whole, Nomenclature is both a re-collection of things already written and a new iteration of ways of remembering. For Brand, rethinking the past is crucial in the hard task of reshaping of the future, both Black and otherwise. Brand’s new and collected poems rise up against the structural oppressions sustained by reactionary individualism—a timely project in the face of the ever more right-leaning, ever more ‘fragile, fragile promise of humanity’, as one of the speakers of 2010’s ‘Ossuary XI’ puts it.
In an interview with Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa, Brand remembers her editor asking her, ‘D, does the world need that line?’, which, she says, ‘took me aback and then made me laugh and then made me measure each line of poetry I wrote against this question’. Through her laughter, Brand’s insistence on questioning each line emphasises the moments of doubt that are so critical to her creative labour. Her apprehension about the social aspect of poetry—the need—translates into a political commitment to resist racial and other forms of injustice that runs across her entire body of work in different ways. Here, we see Brand assume the responsibility to reassess her own practice, something not many dare to do. (Perhaps we should be more sceptical of writers who leave self-scrutiny for others). Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems recontextualises Brand’s previous poetic work, asking us to reconsider it in light of a new contemporaneity. With this collection, Brand once again presents herself as a poet who, for all her prowess, is still deciding how to be a poet—still asking how to remember and rewrite, how to create possibilities in a land and time where historical indifference and fascist threats combine? Her reflections move beyond the role of the poet, extending with care and interest towards her readers. All in all, Brand suggests, any investigation on the political valence of poetry is a dialogue between poets and readers that cannot be reduced to the fixity of words on a page. It requires us to reread, reconsider, forget, and come back again. Hovering over Brand’s work is the question, ‘What is it to talk as if the world you know is the world’, prompting her readers to ask, what kind of readers are we? What are we doing in the meantime?
‘But let me not predict what I can predict’
One thing I will say, we have Brand. For the time being, we have Brand.