February 11th, 2011

Rose-coloured reviews *Inventory* by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand’s Inventory is a long poem in seven sections and many subsections. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a 100-page poem outside of school before, and that might be one reason this book stayed on my shelf so long, though I’ve always enjoyed Brand’s work in the past.

And what I’ve enjoyed is still there–the rhythmic voice and global vocabulary, sadness without cynicism and, very occasionally, plainspoken joy. The subject is the grim catologing of the world’s dead and other damages, wrought mainly through war but natural disasters and local violence make appearances, too. The sadness was challenging to deal with, no question, especially because of the ever-shifting narrator’s bafflement and slow-burning rage. But though I read very slowly, I felt no urge to stop to read something more cheery.

The poem is described on the jacket as “incantatory,” a word I always thought meant “in the manner of singing” but actually turns out to be “in the manner of chanting a magic spell.” *Inventory* actually seemed like both, like a song of sorrows and a magic spell to help the reader bear them. Although it is incredibly sad–it is after all an inventory of death–I felt the character’s love for the world in her sadness, and her warm and constant attention to the real details of real life. “Half the mind is atrophied in this / just as inanimate doors and pickup trucks / the unremitting malls of all desire.” What I think this means is that pain makes us objects, inanimate, unable to feel, but not entirely–we’ll never stop desiring. Am I close? Who knows! I like the lines, though, and when I don’t understand I feel secure nonetheless with these concrete nouns recognizable and benign.

I say “character,” but the book is tricksy on this aspect. The first section starts with “We believed in nothing” and continues in the first person plural throughout–not a defined group, I felt, but more a we-the-people, we-the-world’s-citizens. At the beginning of the last stanza of the first section, the lines ” now we must wait on their exhaustion, now / we have to pray for their demise with spiked hands” I was pretty sure she meant “everybody.” The second and third sections specify down onto a single person, “she,” a watcher of boys eating burgers and slick cities, a watcher of news on TV and, resulting from that, a weeper. “She” seems distinct from the narrator, who seems to identify with her closely and yet sometimes to pull back to a greater distance. Towards the end of the third section we get “we, / there is no “we” / let us separate ourselves now, / though perhaps we can’t.” Does this mean separation between the narrator and “she”? I think rather it means the impossibility of the “we-the-world” global consciousness in the first section–we can’t identify with each other really, yet we are stuck with each other, humanity’s collective fate impinging on all of our personal fates. Or something like that.

And “she” is observing fates both collective and personal. Where I got excited was in the fourth section, which is divided into subsections. The first of these returns to the “we,” but it is much more specific and intimate than before–now “we” are on a trip, touring Al Rifai Mosque, listening to the guard sing and wondering at the beauty. And then in the second subsection we finally get a “me”–“a voice called to me, “Welcome back, Cousin.” I can’t tell you why I was so happy about this, but I felt sort of like it was a homecoming, the narrator reunited with “she” to become a more cogent, personal whole.

Again, no idea if I’m close–this review (a good one, both in the sense of being positive and of being well-written) mentions there being several “characters” in the book, which seems plausible, but I’m happy with the idea of one woman in many guises, from many angles. In the fourth section, she’s being mistaken for someone else, or might be–this man’s cousin–though she’s willing to admit the possibility.

The next section is an elegy for someone who left and was mourned for, and is dedicated to Marlene Green. If Green is a public figure, I don’t know of her (Google fails me); perhaps that’s not the case. I read the section as broken-hearted sorrow for lost love, because I felt the book getting more intimate and because I felt that the “she/I” mourned a personal loss beyond what she saw on tv.

The 5th and 6th sections move back and fourth with “I” and “she”, with a fair amount of “you” thrown in, but I already felt implicated. They are also beautiful, beautiful, but what I read this morning on the bus is the thing that burst my head open, and that’s the 7th section, which begins “On reading this someone will say / God, is there no happines then, of course, tennis matches and soccer games, / and river song and bird song and / wine naturally and some Sundays.” And so it goes, the last dozen pages of the book, a genuine, faltering, beautiful attempt to offer comfort, succour, joy or something like it in the face of tragedy. This section would not have been half so stunning were it not in the context of all that came before, were it not in some small sense *earned* by the reader. I don’t doubt that I’ll sometimes take the book down and read only the 7th section, to revel in it, but it’ll never feel quite the same way without the rest.

What a stunning book. One thing I thought upon closing it is that it must’ve been so hard to write. However, in the reading of it, the strain of emotion is apparent, but never the strain of poetry–maybe poetry is the real succour?

This is the 4th book in my To Be Read challenge. The first poetry collection, and also the first Canadian book. Interesting, whatever that says about what languishes on my shelves.

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