Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt edited by Tanis MacDonald

Rob Taylor recently reviewed Wilfrid Laurier Press’s Al Purdy collection, The More Easily Kept Illusions here at PoetryReviews.ca.  Rather than echo his concerns about the viability of capturing the true breadth and reach of a poet’s persona and capabilities in a collection of thirty-five poems, I will refer you all to his review, which not only raises this important question, but also quotes General Editor Neil Besner on the intent behind this series, which is to introduce Canadian poets to a larger readership.  As Taylor notes, it is absolutely a noble goal.  Undoubtedly, the authors selected merit their inclusion in the series. They have proven themselves to be important voices in Canadian poetry.

However, while Taylor argues that the introductions and afterwords should be made haste with, I tend to disagree.  These inclusions, if done properly, can help the first-time reader to contextualize and grapple with the imaginative and intellectual material they are about to encounter.  These essays can be invaluable in helping the new reader to get a broad enough sense of the poet in question to be able to read the poems from a slightly more informed perspective.  It is only a bad thing to be briefed if you intend to stop listening once you’ve absorbed the vital statistics. Besides, if a few more people even got the gist of poetry, well—it wouldn’t be the worst thing.

As a reader of poetry and follower of critical theory, I found MacDonald’s introduction to Speaking of Power: The Poetry of Di Brandt to be very illuminating. Her research was impeccable, and well-suited to the fiery, furious, rebellious poetry it sets up.  MacDonald deftly summarizes the arc of Brandt’s intense career, emphasizing her (Brandt’s) belief that “poetry must be, at its core, concerned with the political power of language” (ix), as well as her decidedly feminist and radically spiritual ecopoetics, concluding that

Brandt’s interest in shamanic models of transformation that value the earth and seek to maintain its natural gifts offers a vision of ecstatic renewal in the midst of technological despair.

I appreciated the intro very much, but whether or not this will be the case for the lay reader is up for debate.  The introductory style is admittedly rather heavy on citation, and perhaps a tad reliant on academic buzzwords. To whit:

Brandt consistently challenges the assumption that the world is aligned along an immutable set of binaries, and suggests instead, that even though the material and cultural conditions of life may appear to be deeply contradictory, they do constitute a lived reality that must be acknowledged.

This is an apt description of Brandt’s work, but might such a description only serve to alienate the would-be first-time reader?  I don’t know.  I am not suggesting the material be dumbed down, and I am not taking a stance on high and/or low culture.  I am only suggesting that its academic nature might work against the collection’s stated intent. As El Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton once argued, poetry, like bread, should be for everyone.  The problem is, few people seem to want it badly enough to rise up to meet it on its own terms.  There seems to be no hunger for it.  But it would be a shame for poetry, and its proponents, to resort to pandering.  And the quality of this intro is proof that this is not what is happening here.

In her afterword, Brandt references the Colombian city of Medellin as a site “where poetry is profoundly understood and cherished by people of all ages, in the mainstream arena, from young to old” (50).  Of course, as Brandt also notes, Medellin is a city torn by intense political violence, raising the question, are we, as a society, simply too comfortable to be disturbed by poetry’s insistent voice? Too well-fed? When will we care? asks Brandt.  Like many of her peers, she is disturbed by the complacency of our culture, the disappearance of poetry from public discourse, the lack of interest due to other, greedier, less humane, and out-of-control controlling interests.  The impact of these interests being irrefutable, it is time for poetry, in Canada and globally, to be more convincingly stated.  Academic theory and citation will not enlarge its readership or render it more relevant to mainstream thought — oh god, was that oxymoron?

But, work like Brandt’s is a reminder that one of poetry’s most important functions is to provoke, to illustrate and illuminate the problems faced by any given collective. Brandt’s poetry has always managed this.  Her afterword here manages it as well:  It is both emotionally and intellectually stimulating without being at all dry.  Here is poetry (and a poet) with a vision.

We, teetering on the brink of political and environmental apocalypse, have the challenge and possibility of imagining the future of our planet in radically revisionary ways. . . rediscovering the interconnectedness of everything, the green world recovering its strength, language remembering its life giving power, our spirits singing in chorus with the breathing world, uncaged, not above it, not against it, our blood pulsing in harmony with its rhythms, deep rooted, poetically.

Can I get a ‘hell yeah’?  And a ‘hell yeah’ for MacDonald too.  The poems selected here chart Brandt’s stunning poetic progress, from its confrontation with the constrictive power structures of her (nonetheless imaginatively rich) Mennonite upbringing, to its explosion of popular conceptions of womanhood and motherhood in modern society, through to her explorations and critiques of the social, religious and economic (corporate!) forces shaping our land, our spirits, our minds and our bodies today.  This is why poetry like Brandt’s is so urgent, and deserves the larger audience WP is attempting to win for it.  I am crossing my fingers, and hoping that it succeeds.

To conclude, I must quote one of the poems selected from Brandt’s phenomenal 2003 collection Now You Care (Coach House), written “after Donna Haraway,” perhaps one of the most preeminent feminist theorists writing today, author of the almost heroi(ine)-ically challenging Cyborg Manifesto (Routledge 1991, available online):

. . .all our night flying has made us
bold, here we come riding quantumly
through your armoured glass windows,
on our multicoloured cyborg wings,
still bats, witches, goddesses, still unruly
mistresses of our, your, the world’s
pulsing heart.

Unruly being the key word.  Unconstrained.  As poetry so beautiful and important as Brandt’s deserves to be.