Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems by Dionne Brand

In this monumental volume of more than 600 pages, McClelland & Stewart pays tribute to Dionne Brand’s poetry, which spans decades and has won the Griffin Poetry Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award. From its striking cover to Christina Sharpe’s comprehensive and incisive Introduction, Nomenclature offers a panorama of the range and register of Brand’s work.

“Brand’s words radiate with an urgency that encompasses poetics and politics, a dystopian apocalypse, Black liberation, a feminist sensibility, and abstracted resonance.”

The jacket art by American Torkwase Dyson appears abstract with its black-and-white concentric circles and small laddered rectangles rising to a broad black triangle. With varying degrees of thickness and shades of grey, the bottom circle resembles the grooves and ridges of clay spinning on a potter’s wheel. Or, it could be a vinyl LP from Brand’s jazz collection that appears in the discography of many of her poems. Picture the circular bell of Coltrane’s saxophone sounding concentric notes, and waves of water and rain in his Stellar Regions. Like Dyson’s swirling brush and Coltrane’s smoking cups of saxophone, Brand’s words radiate with an urgency that encompasses poetics and politics, a dystopian apocalypse, Black liberation, a feminist sensibility, and abstracted resonance. 

At the edgy centre of Dyson’s widening gyre, an eye, Brand’s all-seeing eye that witnesses the world’s catastrophes and wonders, from the smallest flora and fauna to stellar regions. The ridges and grooves of her landscapes ladder to the umbrella triangle that covers, protects, and directs in the geometry and geography of her lines and latitudes. Her singular eye is bifocal, scanning inner and outer; bilingual, speaking a postcolonial dialogue of the demotic and exotic, mundane and arcane, vernacular and oracular; and bi-local – Trinidad and Toronto, and all points between and beyond. The cover turns 90 degrees on its side, highlighting vertical and horizontal dimensions in the amplitude of Brand’s lines. Moreover, the jacket folds over the cover to envelope the book, as Dyson’s paint seeps through Brand’s pages. Spreading circles, escaping rectangles, and directing triangles point to the Diasporas of artist and writer.

Nomenclature means calling name, as Brand names, calls a spade a spade, “and who I have been called.” To the roll call of lists, catalogues, inventory, and ossuaries, she recalls her childhood, her blackness, her feminism, and calls out the injustices of a world gone awry. The full title of her latest collection is Nomenclature for the Time Being, which connotes both the temporary nature of the world, as well as the ontology of time itself, its status as an existing entity to be examined. This long poem is highly structured, page by page, stanza by stanza, and line by line.

The opening line, “The apocalyptic reports have come,” sounds the dominant note, but the thought is not completed until the next line, whose first word “true,” hinges from enjambment to the comma of caesura. All of the lines bleed into the next, occasionally stopped by commas that control breathing and sense. Furthermore, the stanzas un-scroll in a step-like fashion from single to double to triple. The double: “true, dilute in our arterial solvent / the atrocities saturate our latent notebooks.” In our universal bloodstreams the “l” sounds of liquid flow rub against the halting t’s and r’s, as Brand takes the pulse of the universe in the systole and diastole of anatomy. 

The third stanza follows without end stops: “we stay awake lambent / there are iridium rectangles under our tables / we meet languid, nauseous.” Hidden between lambent and languid, iridium menaces us. After the first three stanzas we return to the second set of the same pattern: “Transfused presently.” The temporal tension of “presently” expands in the next line with its ticking pauses: “for a few decades, chronic, venous, insufficient / the intervals of talk speed to nothing.” Arterial and venous transfusions pulse in the intervals of verse until the final stanza, with its beating commas and enjambments: “and we’ve become scientists of without / under force, out of water, across loading / with bearings of us.” We are “without” in the sense that we are outsiders and nothing. As atrocities saturate us, we become devoid of everything. 

Each page of Nomenclature is a stepping stone, a rung in a ladder, six stanzas ongoing without stop. Flip the page and the mirrored form appears along with the echoed word: “Nothing will come from our innocence.” She knits being to nothingness from one poem to the next, but also “come” in the two opening lines that contrasts with “become,” as past, present, and future are sewn together timeless time being. In Nomenclature each poem calls out to another towards a community of poetry, calls out to her earlier collections, and to other writers, for the eye on the cover is also the ear in the storm – ear-witness, shell, and labyrinth.

Sonic and optic, Nomenclature anatomizes: “as if the world were a boulder, as if gravity knitted sternum to finger,…/ to xiphoid, to November / to tailpipe, to insect, to transcriptome, I know everything, I’m not innocent.” The omniscient speaker lists and repeats, threads across bodies, associates sternum and tailpipe, and takes metaphoric leaps. The portmanteau “transcriptome” combines written transcript and genome sequence of RNA – part of Brand’s DNA where “xiphoid” is both sternum and double-edged sword of psyche and identity. 

Each page in the sequence stands on its own, but is aware of belonging to a larger body of poetry, where catalogues of nomenclature call across poems. A first line “To begin with” opens to a second stanza: “there are dingy pictures of picturelessness / we saw nothing, nothing evaporated.” Pictorial emptiness drains into a double nothing and the third stanza, which ends with “the cyclical literatures made our arteries theoretical.” Cyclical turns to “I’m sick, sick today, sick always.” Sonic and optic spin to the final stanza’s absorption of chemistry and anatomy: “a stellar career I have made of waiting, carbon, seeing / what they saw on the periphery they now see / in matter and resurrect and replicate the dayless days.” Peripheral vision is central to the process of Dyson’s decentring of the Diaspora, which goes on endlessly in dayless days. 

The Black Diaspora is not alone, for Brand quotes from Walter Benjamin’s “The tradition of the oppressed,” which “teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” Brand breaks down the division between poetry and prose, her fluid lines accompanying the march of the Diaspora. Black and Jewish oppression intersect in Brand’s and Benjamin’s struggles against Fascism. She explores her sense of Diaspora in the following poem: “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.” The urban flâneur endlessly walking derives from Benjamin; the feminist flâneuse sets off in her own lenticular direction, watching and waiting. 

In an earlier epigram Brand spots Hitler at the corner of Schmiedtor (a place for horses): while he goose steps, a girl and her mother dance. To dance in opposition to Fascism across the globe is an act of defiance and diasporic liberation. In Chronicles of the Hostile Sun she describes an event in Sudbury with her friend, Stuart. A “little red neck in Sudbury / (actually a big red neck, more than six feet tall)” invites her to his radio show. The parentheses in the poem are forceful corrections, resisting and liberating other bracketing fetters. The host seizes one of her poems and calls her a Marxist, “(actually the poem was feminist).” She calls into question all kinds of cataloguing and stereotyping. When the man yells at them to “go back to where / you came from,” she’s not sure which of the two friends he means: “(Stuart being jewish and I black).” Pronouns and politics drift throughout the Diaspora: “When you get called a marxist / (they use it as a curse you know).” For saying that the Americans had no right invading Grenada, “(besides this calculation being / totally unscientific) / you know what’s coming.” Since Brand understands the tradition of the oppressed, she knows what’s coming in this country and in others.

All of her earlier collections – from Primitive Offensive to No Language is Neutral, Land to Light On, thirsty, Inventory, and Ossuaries – combine politics and poetics, plain and arcane language, feminist and Black struggles against Fascism and colonialism. Ossuaries fill with skulls and bones, but Brand fleshes out voices: “this genealogy she’s made by hand, this good silk lace, / Engels plaited to Bird, Claudia Jones edgestitched / to Monk, Rosa Luxembourg braids Coltrane.” An ancestry of jazz joins Dyson’s circling Diaspora. Charles Mingus and Miles Davis place the needle and lift the lid of the record player, as Brand records the music, metaphors, and justice of jazz. Her thresholds and doorways witness the arrivals and departures of lyrics and narratives in the Diaspora. 

DIONNE BRAND is a renowned poet known for formal experimentation and the beauty and urgency of her work. Her literary credentials are legion. Her poetry collections have won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and the Trillium Book Prize. From 2009 to 2012, she served as Toronto’s Poet Laureate. In 2021, she received the Windham-Campbell Prize. Also a novelist and essayist, she lives in Toronto.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ McClelland & Stewart (Aug. 9 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 672 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0771098464
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0771098468

Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.