Dionne Brand | from “The Blue Clerk”

Moyra Davey | Colin’s Math, 1996/2017
Controversy, against the turn, against the furrow

I finally joined the Communist Party of Canada when it was almost at the end of its existence. Party meetings were long bureaucratic procedures where many papers were read and intense eyes directed at the people who had encyclopedic brains full of Marx and history. I joined the artists. There were artists of all kinds in the club, we were writers and painters and actors, and there were even puppet makers and comics. These meetings were possibly the most boring meetings we ever attended. None of us ever had a meeting perhaps to do anything that we did as artists. There were photographers and musicians too and proofreaders, and bookshop owners. And if we did have meetings they would never be this dreary. The meetings were deadly, tedious meetings discussing things I can’t remember now. I loved these meetings. There was a conversation there that we never had to have about what we were doing. In these muddy meetings there was a clarity about our love. The same love as Lorca, and Neruda, Saramago, and Carpentier.
A poet friend of mine, two in fact, who were not in the party asked me once why I was a communist. I was taken aback. I said, what else would I be? They stoned me with Stalin. I pelted them with Sartre. I said I’m a communist because I’m not a capitalist. They said this was simplistic. I said yes, but it’s clear. It was an evening in Massachusetts, we were going to a reading, they said what had communism done for Black people. I said what had capitalism done. They brought up pogroms. I brought up slavery. They said but you’re Black, I said but you’re Black too. They said these isms are only there to hoodwink Black people. I said most likely but I come from the working class. I had never thought of being anything else, for me it was simply logical, organic. One of them so annoyed with me asked, was I going to call Gromyko to ask him what I could say that night. I said, you call Reagan, I’ll call Gromyko. We went silent and walked diagonally separated toward the reading. I read an erotic story about some teenage girls in love with their French-language mistress, this confirmed my shunning, we parted company, the diametric widened.

Coltrane’s “Venus” and the Ossuaries’ tercets

In “Venus” there are two basic elements, the author paces, the horn and the drums. They are working with doubleness; they are working with time. There is one statement at the beginning—the exordium—though this is not the beginning, but the state of things. And then the instruments proceed to deconstruct the statement in various ways. The drum serves as pacing for the horn, but it has its own investment in this state of things. It holds underneath, but its own project is to also find deconstructions. The drums, played by Rashied Ali, structure the horn and are in turn structured by the horn. Coltrane works on the first declarative syntactical unit. It is not declarative, the clerk interjects, it is provisional, speculative, let us at least try to be as precise as we can since. Fine, says the author, he dissects that speculative, provisional statement, each sound he breaks apart, technically. What is done becomes undone. He also enumerates its emotion. If you listen to it, it is romantic but mournful, sophisticated and worldly; it is elegant. And he pulls these notions apart; he tears the elegance to its limits, he rejects the mournfulness as redundant and he drives the otherworldliness to its outer-worldliness. To my way of seeing, says the clerk, it is more elegant when it is, as you say, torn apart. So both emotionally and structurally, the author continues, ignoring the clerk’s interruption (hearing it only as a faint sound at her side), he pulls the statement apart. There’s a point in the middle, four or five minutes of it where the project takes hold of him, where the music is fully realized as separate and sentient on its own. There is an uncontrollability to it, and you can hear it wobbling out, out, out, into distances and into a kind of unspeakable. At least in your language, the clerk objects. And then the sound breaks and breaks and breaks. Around that point at about seven minutes the former statement tries to return, to recover itself, to recover the state of things, and it doesn’t—so much structural and emotional change has already been accomplished. “Happened,” you mean, says the clerk. So much has “happened,” says the author, that the state, the register itself is now indescribable without its fragmentations. It rejects its former self, as well as it accepts that somehow that self like a shadow is embedded in it, in him. And what the drum is doing underneath, at that moment of complete disintegration, the drum sustains. Yet, yet, while the drum is attentive, the drum has disrupted its own discourse. “Venus” is like two travellers going out to an unknown. Not the unknown, says the clerk, they both have to pay attention, moving toward another, much more lucid, open state of being at the end.
To me, says the author, the tercets are like Rashied Ali’s drums, consistent, sheltering, pushing; the three lines are completely steady. Though they never break from being three lines, they show that three lines can perform a range of acts of pacing. The tercet is conducting the ideas—the horn, the Ossuaries. You know nothing about musical structure, the clerk says. But I can hear, the author says. I hear it as rhetoric. Liberatory. Then should I still be here on the dock, says the clerk rhetorically, shouldn’t the ship have arrived, shouldn’t this shoreline disappear. Instead, I need more burlap, more paper, more boards, more dunnage. More of everything.
The author ignores her again. The bitter-edged-ness, the global violence, one’s own violence, the recognitions of one’s own violence, the tercet anchors. Anchors, anchors, anchors, the tercet anchors. What colour is an anchor? The plunging clerk comes to catch her breath. What disrupts the tercet is the meaning. It is not regulated by rhyme or equi-metric length of line but by the sense of infinity or possibility, in-betweeness. It is indivisible by anything other than itself and one. The tercet is light, light as well as heavy. It can hold weight, as well as it can be sharp. It could be terse, and it could carry the weight of the ideas, and they could carry surprise. I might use them for a while longer, the author thinks, I don’t know.
There isn’t a full stop anywhere, they say. The clerk is only trying to get a rise out of the author. But what do you need a full stop for? You have the end of the line. The full stop is irrelevant. A full stop is really not even a point to discuss. Why discuss a full stop when you have a line? A line ends, and that is what that is.
What also happens is expansion and contraction. So, like with “Venus,” there is this pursuit of a certain angle of the exordium, and then you go wherever that goes. But if I haven’t said this already … You have said it, ad infinitum, mumbles the clerk … it changes where the line is enjambed, where it calls for attention, where the statement trips along giddily, or where it is full of weight. The tercet has guile. Like the body of a snake. Or on the other hand a triangle, or, less ambitious, the clerk joins, but more cunning, a bit of elastic. I could use a bit of elastic. The next time you come by. I would dye it blue like this paper. Only a snip bit of elastic, the clerk says. I would dye it indanthrene blue. But the author is drifting off.
Yes. And there is a mistake, the clerk says, a typographical one, somewhere there is a mistake. That is, a typo. I have it … But I just think those eight sustained minutes that “Venus” does is just so fantastic. You don’t know when it begins, and it ends yes as you say, but it doesn’t conclude.


On hearing of my left-hand pages, ASJ, a poet, sent me this note from Edmond Jabès:

A book without room for the world would be / no book. It would lack the most beautiful pages, / those on the left, in which even the smallest / pebble is reflected.

Then I sent away for Jabès’s book, The Book of Questions, and received it from England after some weeks. And there was his handwriting: pour Jane et Sidney Shiff / j’ai été heureux / de connaître / En souvenir et / avec la cordiale penséé / d’ E. Jabès. This last note arrived with his cordial thoughts, says the clerk. Yes, so I suppose it is a sign that we continue, says the author.

VERSO 16. 1

I found this in Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. On page 200. Baudelaire … invites himself to absence.… he presents a new vision of his soul. It is tropical, African, black, enslaved. Here is the true country, an actual Africa, an authentic Indies. It is from André Suarès’s 1933 preface to Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. What could it mean?
So the clerk searches Suarès’ preface and finds more invective. He attacks Jeanne Duval, She was the wheel of this Ixion, his torture, the barrel of Sisyphus with which he was burdened … alongside this black marble the man dreamt of the hot shadow of a mountain and of stifling Africa. She was a dumb beast. Unhappy, furthermore, neglected, avaricious, greedy, she drank and slept off her wine in the arms of the water porters. The drink took away her only virtue; silence … Baudelaire so fine and with such subtle sensibility, had this daily hell in his bedroom … etc.,… etc.,… the clerk reads aloud.
So the clerk searched and searched Les Fleurs du mal for Baudelaire’s tropical soul, his “African, black, enslaved” soul. I have searched and searched, she said, and I cannot find it. First I could not find the definition of such an object, neither the object itself, nor the manifestation of the object in Baudelaire. Except, except as a European aesthetic category. This must be what André Suarès was hammering on about in Baudelaire’s poems. Could it be that Baudelaire ate the soul of Jeanne Duval? We don’t believe in souls, says the clerk.
And Benjamin does he use the quotation to signify the creation and commodification of this aesthetic? No. Though the work is about commodification in the end. And where are the zoos in The Arcades Project? There in the zoos, humanity is defined in the modern. Who is without, and who is within. Where that word is given more and more definition, and that definition looks more and more like a certain set of people and not like a certain set of other people, to the extent that those others are actually put in zoos. And how do they perform the body? They performed the animal; fossilized in spirit.
The clerk searches Benjamin and this is what the clerk finds in “Baudelaire” between pages 228 and 387 of The Arcades Project: viii references of references and notes to Jeanne Duval; vi of which call her by name; ii of which call her the consumptive Negress. They are as follows:

Jeanne Duval, Madame Sabatier, Marie Daubrun. 

If he loved in … a Jeanne Duval some immemorial stretch of night,… 

If Jeanne Duval played a part in the poet’s emotional life analogous to that played by Aupick, we can understand why Baudelaire was … sexually possessed by her. 

Speak neither of opium nor of Jeanne Duval if you would criticize Les Fleurs du mal. To conceive Baudelaire without recourse to biography—this is the fundamental object and final goal of our undertaking. 

It should be remembered that Jeanne Duval was Baudelaire’s first love. 

“ L’Architecture secrete des Fleurs du mal.” It represents an oft-repeated attempt to establish distinct cycles in the book, and consists essentially in the selection of poems inspired by Jeanne Duval. 

The consumptive Negress in Baudelaire. 

When he went to meet the consumptive Negress who lived in the city, Baudelaire saw a much truer aspect of the French colonial empire than did Dumas when he took a boat to Tunis.… 

Why make a verse of everything? And so what, says the author, what would be the interesting question there? Well, says the clerk, all the renovation of one thing and then another. Baudelaire, etc.,… etc.,…? asks the author. Well, we know, replies the clerk, all the bitterness toward Duval and all the jealousies, but most of all the secret architecture of modernity. Of poetry, itself.

VERSO 16.2

Where is the medicine for this? The author’s hand is at her sternum. If I were some other substance I would cave like a sandhill; an anthill.

10cc azurite
250cc amantine wole
26cc Peperomia pellucida grown in Amelia’s garden, 1922
160cc yellow ochre levigated
½ gr verdigris
50 gr poudre cloportes
30 gr poudre d’angusture / galipea officinalis
heat to 150 degrees Celsius

VERSO 16.2.1

I listened to the voice of Lola Kiepja, the Selk’nam shaman, as she moved toward all extinction. Here I am singing, she said.… I have arrived at the great Mountain Range of the Heavens, the power of those who have died comes back to me, from infinity they have spoken to me. Here I am singing.

VERSO 16.3
Museums and corpses

Here I am singing, the clerk said, I do not know, I do not know how I have survived the world. I simply do not know. I have such an ache in my back. All these laws so far only ever address one arm, or one foot, over the long term; they allocute one leg, one mouth; where one can sit, where one can eat, where one can travel, and so on. They leave me, perhaps, just one-legged and one-footed, one-armed, sewing our vaginas, cursing the presence of our bare heads.
I do know that the bodies that we inhabit now are corpses of the humanist narrative. Awful corpses. And, when we appear on the street, that is what we are appearing as. So, I can only give you this view of it. We inhabit these bags of muscle and fat and bones that are utilized in humanist narrative to demonstrate the incremental ethical development of a certain subject whom is not we. We leave the psychiatrist’s office like the figure in Remedios Varo’s painting Psicoanalista, with a little container of our true possible selves held out at arm’s length in a plastic bag.
My job, it seems, is to notice, the clerk says. My job it seems is to notice, the author says. Even as you are a living object, you can make note, says the author. Look at the display I am in the world, am I just that, you say. And you can’t sustain that double seeing for very long, the clerk warns, otherwise, the body would truly collapse. The 19th-century human zoos; the schesis of human bodies. That is when I left you, the clerk says, that is when I created you, the author says, that is when I created you, the clerk says, that is when you left me, the author says.
It is a short step away, a short step away from the present. You are exaggerating and these exaggerations only pile up. I, I am exaggerating? the author asks. Look at the sky, the clerk beckons, look there is nothing else. You are living your life. Don’t be naturalistic. Where is the great arctic, the endless dark days, the endless day-lit nights? However, if you were to stop for a minute and observe yourself, you are merely the container for a set of cultural knowledges and practices which go on without you, but which you are never without. They are like a bag of … a heavy bag on you. How do I get out of this zoo?
I can’t position, I can’t assure anyone of their ethical well-being.
Take this engine, the clerk says. You are living your electric life.
This organism that I am, I keep on going. But, we tend to think that as citizens … Don’t be pompous, you’re not a citizen of anything. Or … or … or … the author stutters. Or as constituted as communal, and citizen, and social, we tend to think of living as quite something more.
The author is not talking about a physical death, but the death of certain kind of spiritual, if you will … the death of a certain set of narratives, the death of the aesthetic of imperialism. It is an aesthetic that contains narratives of the body, bodies that the poet suggests were dead anyway. There are then ossuaries of these dead; of which my bones are some, the clerk says. We are some, the author says, yes, we are some.
The poet refuses to live in that world anymore, the world where certain bodies signify certain immovable qualities, deployed like lampposts along a route. To add yet another metaphor, the clerk sighs. What route is it and where does it lead then? So, it is the death of something completely useless, at least to the poet. Well, I can only give you a glimpse of these bits and pieces of a body that has been deconstructed as itself, and reconstructed as a set of practices in un-freedom. At least the poet, the author, well the poet is suddenly in a position where this fact is bare and raw and bald, and one may refuse habituation to it.
You have the privilege of this avant-garde seeing, the clerk says. It is not a privilege at all, to see, the author says. I think quite the opposite, to be the only person that this seeing is available to. The only person? Let us say then one of few. I don’t think that is particularly avant-garde because people live that every day. Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or, we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately, my job is … I wish I couldn’t see that chasm. There’s the pile of bones in that ossuary, where I threw the former poet. I think she is gone.

War Series

I think Jacob Lawrence had much more love in him than you do. He had much more sympathy. When is he painting them? He has much more hope, paintings so incredible, incredibly riven with hope. He is painting them when he thinks that that declaration might work, the clerk says. You know, when am I writing this? Yes, the clerk answers, quivering. I am writing this when nothing has worked, the author says.
Lawrence puts all of people’s ambition and all of their solidarity into those paintings. In the painting Coming Home, where there is one head, like an eggshell cracking, and they are wounded, coming home, and it is so delicate and so fragile, and what will they come home to? Of course, after having joined their sense of the human with what they thought was the universal, they come home to penitentiaries, as I’ve said. Those paintings, they were a call to the future, as much as Bird’s Ornithology, later, or Mingus’s Pithecanthropus Erectus. A massive work, Pithecanthropus Erectus. These are all works about the human. Each note has a political intent. In Mingus’s liner notes, he says, Basically the composition can be divided into four movements, evolution, superiority complex, decline and destruction. Mingus outlines the project as a dissertation on hominid to human, he says, Overcome with self esteem, he goes out to rule the world, if not the universe, but both his own failure to realize the inevitable emancipation of those he sought to enslave, and his greed in attempting to stand on a false security, deny him not only the right of ever being a man, but finally destroy him completely.
Mingus writes Pithecanthropus Erectus, and these notes, in 1956. There are no known translations that I can put my hand on, says the clerk. Hardly anybody reads it in that particular way, as a work of political philosophy. The clerk and the author have been scouring the existing libraries. But since the work departed like light it has not arrived in its future time, the clerk suspects. Someone, some future theorist might explain how we may absorb its philosophy despite our inability to read it in depth now. Maybe a future person will tease out or pull apart its meanings since our current capacities have yet to be developed to hear the full range let alone embrace its full meaning. Maybe we need a translator, the clerk says. I’ve only been able to make out the first two minutes of it like the first two chapters of Capital you are constantly going over. It is ten minutes and thirty-three seconds long, ten and a half volumes of a tome. It’s a lot of work. The clerk is nervous. You aren’t thinking of translating are you? These are arguments with history; these are arguments with reason, with the enlightenment. I just marvel at them and I wish I could do work like that.
Have you listened to Pithecanthropus Erectus? Amazing. Art is the only response to what we have been talking about. The only way not to engage the very kind of toxic imagination or what Cornelius Eady calls the brutal imagination, not to be hampered and weighed down by the toxicity of representation. It is too toxic, where we live, for any other kind of response. Every day you have to go into your house and detoxify, listen to, and translate one minute of Pithecanthropus Erectus.

VERSO 18.1

Pilgrims have come to the golden temple, Kashi Vishwanath, in the old city. I am there nearby and I am struck by their seriousness. They have come to ask for something from Shiva, and they have come to pay respect, and they have flowers and are bathed in powders, their faces painted in various decorations of the devoted. And I admire that kind of devotion, as hopeless as I find it. You’re such a tourist, the clerk says, appalled. But I mean true, their passion is true. And I understand totally that one gives one’s heart and belief to an unknown procedure. I’m sure they’re happy you understand, the clerk dismisses. Because you asked me about Marx. So, pre-Marx, those are the visions everywhere. This god, family, tribe. Post, maybe we can imagine something else. We don’t have to imagine Marx’s idea of the social either.
I hate your example. Why must you go all the way there? I hate the context of your example.
A woman came toward me, glazed in belief. She was incandescent with her faith; it shone on her skin. She pushed me out of the path to the golden temple. She was older, she was one hundred years with devotion. You’re jealous then, the clerk smiles for once. I still feel her pushing my shoulder out of the way.

Dionne Brand | The Blue Clerk
Ars Poetica in 59 Versos
Duke University Press 2018

The Blue Clerk is composed of a sequence of versos, or left-hand pages, that cumulatively form an ars poetica in which Brand forwards a meta-theory about the act of writing poetry. Brand’s blue-ink-stained clerk lives on a lonely wharf where she presides over bales of paper that comprise the poet’s accumulated pages – things unwritten, withheld, or unexpressed. This book-length conversation between Brand and her clerk is a mix of memoir, poetry, criticism, theory, and philosophy. Quill & Quire

The Blue Clerk is an attempt to observe time and not place. Therefore, the materials that the clerk excavates/collects are not hinged to place. The clerk lives in nowness. The clerk lives in the continuum of the present. The author is stuck in place.

Writing this clerk called for a degree of ruthless honesty, which was sometimes difficult. The things one has left unwritten or unsaid [in earlier work] would lead to a set of confrontations that would expose all the compromises, self-corrections, self-censorships, and sometimes nefarious and cowardly reasons for leaving the things unwritten and unsaid. So that’s a difficult process: to revisit the decisions of language, to revisit and critique the choices made even if those choices seemed, at the time, perfectly legitimate.

Poetry is pressure on the page, on space, on time. This is a diacritical text – an accenting, overwriting, and underwriting of what the poet has produced so far. A process that changes the tone, quality, texture, lines, shape. The clerk has thrown out all of the methods that the author has used so far, but what is created is a strange synthesis, a scansion of all the poet has written, pointing to the unstressed. Dionne Brand

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