Book Review

Ossuaries by Dionne Brand

political poetry: what is it good for?

Time for some poetry, I think.

As I continue to read the massive first volume of Malcolm Lowry’s Collected Letters, I’m grabbing some short, portable books to read as I go about my kooky one-of-a-kind life. Today, I read Ossuaries by Dionne Brand as I travelled out into the Barcelona ‘burbs and back, and I found it a strange piece overall, so I’m not quite certain how I felt about it.

An ossuary – which is not a word I knew before reading this book – is a place where bones are stored, and Brand’s long, narrative poem is composed of 15 sections of various lengths, all of them numbered as Ossuaries (instead of chapters). The book tells the narrative of a woman called Yasmine (or, at least, that is the name she goes by) who is living an international, underground life after a violent criminal act that we see, partially, in flashbacks. Is she simply a violent thief? Is she part of a political order doing a violent theft for a higher purpose? How does she launder the money she stole? Did she keep the money? If no, how does she pay for her continuous travel? Maybe this information is there in the text, but I read most of this book three times, and I didn’t quite get it. And I don’t think that was the point, but I do worry that it might have been. There are some stark images and a consistently surprising use of rhythm and rhyme that makes for some wonderful poetic moments, however – other than the unparalleled work of Anne Carson – I’ve never enjoyed “fictional” poetry, for this simple reason: I don’t read poetry for plot, I read it for people.

I don’t read poetry for action, for violence, for tales of robbery and blunt thrilling thrills. I read poetry for evocations of emotionality, and though there are multiple instances of that within Ossuaries, that isn’t the overwhelming takeaway I found it gave me. I don’t mind if the poetry I read is true or not, I care if it feels true. And – for me – Ossuaries didn’t quite get that: it felt like a story. There’s nothing wrong with “stories”, I’m not saying that all narrative is shit, but I want poetry to be crisp and direct and about emotion, not experience. I enjoyed the manner in which Brand used words, but their purpose wasn’t quite what I need from poetry: the narrative is too contentious, too extreme: it is well-crafted poetry with an action movie plot.

There is a glorious section set in crumbling Havana, as Yasmine spends some of her time on the run in the famously beautiful city. Towards the end of the book there is a grim, evocative, description of the blunt, desensitised violence performed daily in a chicken abattoir. There are descriptions of the spread of fear, of how tiring being displaced is, how loyalties and systems of care are shattered, and Brand uses rhyme almost as a form of punctuation, making lyrical verse that bounces along rapidly, befitting the thrillerlike narrative content.

According to the blurb, though, Ossuaries is a political book: but can something be plotful and political? Yes, obvs. And, yes, though something can be poetic and political, what is the purpose of politicised poetry that is published as a book of poetry? Rhetoric – of which poetry can of course be a part – has huge political value and usage, but poetry books don’t have the same sway. Would anyone buy Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric who wasn’t – at absolute worst – a racist who had already decided to try and open their eyes? Political poetry isn’t necessarily without use, but when located within a physical book of poetry, it is never going to arrive in the hands of people who most need to see it.

Brand’s book is not going to be picked up and read by anyone who doesn’t believe in the humanity of criminals or anyone else who slips through the cracks. Ossuaries is only going to be read by people who, like me, are already awash with useless compassion and overwhelming feelings of societal guilt. Though, here, words are powerful and the sentiments and statements Brand evokes show the humanity within the actions of a violent fugitive, but they are words in a book of poetry. Nobody outside of a schoolroom reads a book of poetry by accident. Nobody engages with a book of poetry unless they choose to, and I find it hard to believe that there is anyone in the world who has had their ideologies changed by a book of poetry on a school syllabus. Maybe I’m wrong.

People are stubborn, especially people who lack empathy, people who think that the poor “deserve” to be poor, the disenfranchised “deserve” to be disenfranchised. Yasmine is alone and uprooted due to – what appears to be – freely chosen criminal actions, and her subsequent problems are the result of this. No one who needs to be taught that the stateless are victims is going to be persuaded by a book about a stateless person who is not a victim. And all political poetry is like this. Who do YOU know who reads poetry? Is it your right wing, capitalist, socially conservative baby boomer relatives, or is it your whingy, whiney, winey, liberal friends like Mr Scott Manley Hadley here? (Remember, all readers are friends!)

It’s us, innit? It’s the societal losers, the mad, sad, bad and dangerous to know maladjusted folk who sit typing blogs in their pants when everyone else with their age, intelligence and (low) bank balance is out earning serious dinero by filling in Excel spreadsheets or whatever. People like me read political poetry. But people like me already want things to change, and what the hell am I meant to do to change anything? I can’t give out fucking copies of Citizen to people I hear being racist, they won’t fucking read it. It doesn’t matter how well argued and constructed and, ultimately, CORRECT the words about oppression in a book of political poetry are, on the page is not the place where it is going to change any actions, let alone hearts and minds. Poetry of this sort needs to be put in the way of unsuspecting readers. It needs to be on the radio, on the TV, on the side of buses and in popular newspapers. Political poetry is not pointless: but when it’s in a book, its preaching to the choir: and no matter how much the choir like being preached too, it’s not the purpose of the preacher.

This isn’t a great blog, apologies. Ossuaries is a powerful work. BUT SCOTTY DON’T WANT FICTON IN HIS POMES!!!


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