On Dionne Brand’s “Nomenclature for the Time Being”
Long stretches between these missives. The light dulling these days around 3:30 p.m. To persist in this windstorm fall, on this uphill climb toward winter, is a covert operation. To turn attention to the world, calibrate to it, armpit deep, trying to reflect. I made for myself an assignment, and then I went into the water.
In my last, I spoke about Myrna Kostash’s new book, and during the intervening crop-sample hiatus I’ve been sitting with Nomenclature, Dionne Brand’s book of collected poems with a new one at its head, a long poem called “Nomenclature for the Time Being,” which is what I want to hone in on here, its lines frank, blasting, aggrieved, of the present, armpit deep. I feel assured when I read this poem, as I do with all her poems. She sees it, and she names it. The poem begins:
The apocalyptic reports have come true ... the intervals of talk speed to nothing and we’ve become scientists of without (3)
And from that speed to nothing, in spite or because of, grows the poet’s rebuke, inescapable, against the killing racism, the relentless hatred, the towering mechanisms built in support:
The illuminated manuscripts are just the gaudy
sacredness of violence (5)
The beautiful innocence of those
who live at the centre of empire, their
wonderful smiles, their sweet delight and
their singular creation of the
word hope, when I am actually dying, but now
we enjoy them, their sweetness, their love of us (10)
Understand, you cannot skip playfully away
down a highway from death, who are you? they asked. Death
is the chamber of commerce and the association of manufacturers
two hundred and nineteen thousand solitary days in the bureau
of death’s war and supply department; sixteen
missions of the counter narcotics operations
Control of the maritime environments
the building of intimate security capacities, bodily
of course, they would like a description from the corpse
the light pink death
at very least, the fixed interest (15)
The light pink amid the cold glut of syllables, that effluence of power. One’s not meant to survive it but to be churned up into it.
The how, how, how to get rid
of these people of death
and their constant self-portraiture (16)
This is the poem’s query, its bellow, amid this massive accounting of that which is killing racialized people, women, queer people, all non-human life, all except for those at the centre of empire, but them too, eventually, of course, and it is larger than can be held or fully described. I take immense comfort in that. I take comfort when the poem’s syllables become short. The words let’s leave it at that repeat, stopping short of recording all that’s in mind, for there is always more, and the reticence on the page creates that moreness too. Mention of the heart returns, amid measurement, calculation, chemical processes, bleak accounting. And there are pages that tumble, shoes in the dryer, the rhythm almost blowing apart, the breath leaving, can’t be caught. Single lines reach to the right margin and others vanish to almost nothing, to a single, one-syllable word.
they persuaded us we needed technocrats, then
they persuaded us we needed businessmen and
then they persuaded us we needed fascists
then we all had the flu from which we never recovered (35)
come out of this with gentleness, I’m found (37)
Three quarters of the way in, pandemic arrives, and the poem becomes a chronicle, occasional, for the time being enters, we see a new upending, though the poem knows this is not new but simply a different iteration.
What awaits us
is disaster not justice (42)
how many and which cities do you live in and how
and what happens to the body in these cities and
who are you in these cities, walking (60)
Lines both leaping and grounding, beauty and truth, and to even name them as two separate actions here isn’t saying it right, but that’s the hallmark, the astonishment, of all of Brand’s work, and that’s what continues after this new long poem ends and we proceed to the beginning, or the near-beginning—her first book omitted, “juvenilia,” and The Blue Clerk omitted, its essayistic form—through her life of poems, some four decades of them. Nomenclature’s promise: you will never know where her lines are going, and they reach the exact right places.
How do we manage
fear, he asked. We don’t. Fear is a necessary reaction
a good, good sign
my thanks to all who gave me fear
I know it now, molecularly
don’t worry, don’t you remember, our life all along (66)
At the launch of the book, in September at the Art Gallery of Ontario, “Nomenclature for the Time Being” was read as a choral work, six people together, contrapuntal, five readers along with Brand repeating, echoing the ends of lines, taking certain parts as solos, the poem swirling like wind through them, and the audience, which Brand prefers to call interlocutors, was writhing in the seats, that wind was a hard one, the urge was to seek shelter, while also to lean into it, to stand bare-headed in it, aware within the body, present in the storm of the poem.