Friday, May 22, 2009

Reader's Diary #493- Di Brandt: Speaking of Power

After last year's GG Poetry Award debacle, is it still okay to like Di Brandt? I'm not sure, but I hope we don't discount her poetry in the process.

This is my first time reading Di Brandt or the fabulous laurier poetry series (lps) from Wilfrid Laurier Press. First a word about lps. With 15 titles so far, the series focuses on contemporary Canadian poets providing an introduction to their body of work. While short (restricted to 35 poems), it goes beyond the typical anthology treatment, offering an introduction by a critic and an afterword by the poet herself (when possible), both of which provide invaluable insight into the poems and the poet's perspective.

As the title might suggest, this collection looks at Di Brandt's poetry with a political focus. Tackling such topics as religion, feminism, and war, I was pleasantly surprised that these poems didn't come across as too blatantly rallying. Yet, using just about every trick in a poet's arsenal (including especially effective line breaks and creative but purposeful punctuation), the poems were still powerful and left a lingering charge.

If I had to fault one thing, and you know I have to, I'd suggest that perhaps it was all taken a bit too seriously. Regrettably underplayed in Tanis MacDonald's introduction and in Di Brandt's afterword is the dark humor that pops up in many of these poems (MacDonald does briefly mention wit, but that's not quite the same). No where is this more obvious than MacDonald's misreading of "Zone {le Détroit}." Referring to it as a poem about "devastating isolation" is a half truth and declaring that Di Brandt sees the Earth as "connective tissue between all forms of life" is almost as pretentious as the poem's title. MacDonald entirely misses the dark but comic relief of the 2nd part:

See how there's no one going to Windsor,
only everyone coming from?
Maybe they've been evacuated,
maybe there's nuclear war,
maybe when we get there we'll be the only ones.
See all those trucks coming toward us,
why else would there be rush hour on the 401
on a Thursday at nine o'clock in the evening?
I counted 200 trucks and 300 cars
and that's just since London.
See that strange light in the sky over Detroit,
see how dark it is over Windsor?
You know how people keep disappearing,
you know all those babies born with deformities,
you know how organ thieves follow tourists
on the highway and grab them at night
on the motel turnoffs,
you know they're staging those big highway accidents
to increase the number of organ donors?
My brother knew one of the guys paid to do it,
$100,000 for twenty bodies
but only if the livers are good.
See that car that's been following us for the last hour,
see the pink glow of its headlights in the mirror?
That's how you know.
Maybe we should turn around,
maybe we should duck so they can't see us,
maybe it's too late,
maybe we're already dead,
maybe the war is over,
maybe we're the only ones alive.

(Read the entire poem here.)

This is not substantial fear, this is someone getting off on fear. Someone this attuned to the pop culture world of urban legends is not exactly isolating herself from society. We've all played this perverse game. Fun in the face of oppression, fear and politics? Of course! It's what gets us through. Too bad this aspect of Di Brandt's poetry wasn't highlighted more. Otherwise, it's a fine book.


Wanda said...

Gosh John, I didn't even realise there was more to this poem than the first two stanzas! Neither of the covers look at all familiar but I know this poem from somewhere. I had five different Lit Mags coming in at one point, maybe I read an earlier version in one of them. I actually feel it has more impact the way I remember it, ending with the line "maybe we're the only ones alive."

Unknown said...

Wow, I really missed the whole 'scandal' last year. I took a course with Di once when I was in undergran - Canadian Poetry. As an instructor she's terrific. I don't think I was aware of how widespread her poetry is, but I do like what I've read.

Allison said...

This is exactly how I feel when I drive that sketchy (for lack of better word) piece of 401 from Sarnia to Windsor.

Good post.

John Mutford said...

Wanda: I often have that sense of deja vu with poetry.

Jen: Google the scandal for a whole lot more on it. Interesting stuff.

Wanda said...

Feeling better to know my mind was not playing tricks on me ... I found the poem! :) A sample of Di Brandt's work appears in the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology of which, only 1 & 2 from Zone: < le Detroit > are included.