McClelland & Stewart - May 17, 2006 - 21 Comments
Inventory by Dionne Brand
Reviewed by Jenn Houle
Dionne Brand’s most recent collection of poetry, Inventory, is not for those who prefer to tune out the more discouraging aspects of the world in which we are currently living. Or maybe it is especially for them. Her gaze, directed at and into the modern era, is unflinching and extremely critical. Attempting to inventory “the tumultuous early years of this new century,” Brand begins with the unequivocal statement: “We believed in nothing” (3). From there, the reader is led through a series of statistical deaths and atrocities.
Her delivery of these is akin to the incessant and ubiquitous news banners of the modern media: a relentless catalogue of global suffering, loss, war, cruelty, disaster, and pain. One of the key characters in the collection is a woman who sits at the television all year, weeping, watching global events unfold without a break, without allowing her attention to the carnage she is witnessing to waver. In the first section, regarding media, it is established that:
we believed in nothing
the black-and-white american movies
buried themselves in our chests,
glacial, liquid, acidic as love
the way to Wyoming, the sunset in Cheyenne,
the surreptitious cook fires, the uneasy
sleep of cowboys, the cactus, the tumbleweed,
the homicides of Indians,
lit, dimmed, lit dimmed
lit in the drawing rooms,
the suicides inside us.
The image of these once-upon-a-time-believed-to-be comforting narratives burying themselves in the chests of their audience, like bullets, resulting in a populace that believes “in nothing” is an apt introduction to the mindless slaughters and cultural destruction Brand’s nameless witness will watch and tally in later sections. The effort to witness and record everything is almost Dantean: of course, Brand’s witness does not actually attempt to traverse the hells she sees, only to report them, to keep watch, to remain sensitive to them in an era where “the news was advertisement for movies/ the movies were the real killings” (22). One hour’s vigilance enables the witness to report:
– twenty-seven in Hillah, three in fighting in
Amariya, two by roadside bombing, Adhaim,
five by mortars in Afar, in firefight in Samarra
two, two in collision near Khallis, council member
in Kirkuk, one near medical complex, two in
Talafar, five by suicide bomb in Kirkuk, five
by suicide in Shorgat, one in attack on police…
And the list goes on. Brand juxtaposes all of this against “sleek, speeding cars,” “burgers,” and “breaking celebrity news.” Her contempt for the American media is clear, yet she is awash in it, adrift in the stories this media is delivering. She is watching intently and yet trying valiantly not to be sold any point of view but her own:
she’ll gather the passions of women,
their iron feet, their bitter hair, their
perpetual nuptial assignment
to battered kitchens, and rooms
radiant with their blood vessels
their waiting at doors…
Brand’s assessment of the modern world focuses on its rushed rhythms, its impatience, its lack of compassion:
Let us not invoke the natural world,
it’s ravaged like any battlefield, like any tourist
island, like any ocean we care to name,
let’s at least admit we mean each other
we intend to do damage.
This is a depiction of humanity, red in tooth and claw, heartless, exhausted, and all out of empathy. Perhaps the saddest moment in the entire collection comes toward the end when Brand, trying to inventory the things in this world that remain good, lists:
some lovers, of course, the way they made you
laugh, the way they held their heads,
then too the relief of their leaving, of course.
And this relief, the relief of no longer having to nurture, to tend, to hope, to believe in anything, is at the core of Inventory. It explores the difficulty of remaining interested, remaining invested in a world that seems to be racing, senselessly, toward a self-wrought oblivion. The apparently random, casual cruelty of an overheard cell phone conversation — “Tell that dumb bitch to get it” (71) — aptly illustrates the feeling of being surrounded by a teeming mass of unfeeling people who, if they do not quite consciously intend to do harm, certainly intend to do no good. She reveals how the world, as it is now, is pushing human nature to its raw edge, an edge so raw it has gone numb.
Inventory is not a collection that is easy to grapple with and read as a citizen of the world Brand is attempting to describe. It is mercilessly realistic. It reminds you of all the times you turned away from hard news in favor of fantasy, reminds you why it is that human kind cannot bear very much reality. Because, of course, if this is reality, who would ever really want to engage with it? Fairy tales, lies, and monolithic, linear narratives would almost seem a kindness, if of course they didn’t so utterly disempower us. Brand insists on atheism in the face of Hurricane Katrina. God’s wrath is no explanation. Reading this collection, I could only imagine it being read by future generations attempting to understand the first years of this millennium. It made my heart hurt. There was beauty in the collection, but a sort of only half-grasped, half-apprehended and hurried beauty. A failed love affair runs through the poems, the gut-wrenching sensation of dashed hope and ambivalence ever after. The lover gone is a relief, as it would be a relief if Brand’s witness were to turn off her television, stop gathering facts, stop collating statistics, stop paying attention and just turn the channel back to the old, simple dichotomies of American movies. We certainly do live in a day and age when it is difficult to care. How can anyone pick what to be devastated by: Katrina, peak oil, war, war, war, war everywhere? Terrible reality television, mass-marketed ailments, bloody leads ad infinitum and everyone broke? How to remain awake?
These are important questions, and I believe this collection will remain very important far into the future (if, oh, if, we actually do have a future, and the nihilistic reality inventoried here is only a prelude, a dark interlude, a chaotic and terrified interregnum). It is impossible to gauge the full extent of Brand’s accomplishment here from any reference point I might have as a citizen alive in 2006. Time will tell. It is tempting to say that all Brand has done here is state the problem without pointing to any type of a solution. But as her constant witness asserts:
I have nothing soothing to tell you,
that’s not my job,
my job is to revise and revise this bristling list
And of course you want to throw the book across the room, a testament to its power. Cruel witness. Heartless bystander. Somebody else “just doing their job,” half asleep, and emotionally disengaged. But that is precisely Brand’s point: we have become a society of uninvolved witnesses, numb and raw, and full of bristling lists. If there is an answer to any of the issues Brand has highlighted here, the implication is that none of us have them. Our only alternative is to tune out, and by tuning out, spacing out to celebrity news, we are only perpetuating a culture that believes in nothing, and knows even less.
Usually, lists are comforting. Things are ordered, summed, chronicled. This list is not comforting. It is extremely difficult to get through; it is difficult to remain focused on and it is difficult to absorb, but Brand has to be applauded for getting it down. Because no one really has gotten it down quite this way before; no one really has juxtaposed all the things that need to be juxtaposed quite so deftly. And, one only hopes that in her next collection, the incredible articulateness with which she catalogues the present chaotic and frightening state of things, she will be able to begin taking inventory of a few small victories, a few concrete examples of benevolence, re-assuring things from the real world that do not blight our senses, but awaken them. This collection is certainly a wake-up call, a reminder that comfort is not our due, that joy is hard-won, and usually at someone else’s expense, and that mere survival is a very limited goal. Instead, we should be focusing on the “moments when you rise to what you might be” (90), although, if this collection is any indication, what we might be is rather disconcerting too.