Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand

Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand’s Griffin Poetry Prize-winning Ossuaries is an extended verse account of the wrenching, troubled life of Yasmine, who lives constantly on the move, assuming new identities to escape activities somewhat vague in their specific intents, but decidedly explosive and violent in their outcomes. Layered over and drifted artfully around the central story are meditations on cultural and historical shifts and evolution: what disappears in the process, what changes, and what bones and remnants are left behind for future generations to unearth and decipher.

Almost 10 years later, the events of September 11th are emerging in varying forms in literature and popular culture. It seems some of the most profound renderings are sufficiently particular in detail, but not so much so that they cannot resonate more broadly, taking in other cataclysmic historical events. Such is the case with Brand’s evocations, which not only echo what happened in New York City, but Oklahoma City, London, Mumbai and other scenes of urban terrorism shattering comfortable, mundane, day-to-day life: “the stumbling shattered dress for work … the seared handbags, the cooked briefcases … it was just past nine in any city …”

An ossuary is a container, building or location meant to house human skeletal remains in their final resting places. While suggesting peace and finality on one level, perhaps mystery and portent on another if those resting places are unearthed generations later, Brand’s ossuaries feel open, unresolved, anything but peaceful. Even the lack of punctuation at the end of each ossuary segment within the long poem gives literal lack of closure to each chapter in Yasmine’s edgily peripatetic existence.

Yasmine has suppressed love and tenderness in her own life, hardened (ossified, even) her heart, glossed and silted over her own personal trail. Still, occasional traces of wistfulness in her observations (“the children mattered, or so she told herself”), or at least acknowledgement that she has held herself too harshly and rigorously (“except it was always there / struck, harder, the lack of self-forgiveness, / aluminum, metallic, artic, blinding”) seem to betray that she would like to leave a trace, have someone care. Finally, that seems to be what Ossuaries encapsulates: the traces that people leave, intentionally or unintentionally, destructively or tenderly – in the world, on each other, and in a collective impact on the environment, culture and history.

here we lie in folds, collected stones
in the museum of spectacles,
our limbs displayed, fract and soluble

Dionne Brand’s readings from her work (even her readings from others’ works, such as PK Page) are never, ever to be missed. Until her entrancing reading from this year’s Griffin Poetry Prize readings is online, immerse yourself in this reading from thirsty, from her last Griffin Poetry Prize appearance.

See also:

materfamilias reads – Review of Dionne Brand’s Ossuaries

4 thoughts on “Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand

  1. Vicki Ziegler

    I have indeed read Anne Michael’s The Winter Vault, and reviewed it here: http://bookgagabooks.ca/2009/10/22/the-winter-vault-by-anne-michaels/. Your connection between it and Ossuaries is brilliant!I’m glad to know that you’ve also heard Dionne Brand read. I agree with you about her profound commitment to her work. In 2010, she took part in the Griffin Poetry Prize readings, reading the late PK Page’s nominated work, Coal and Roses – and I was so impressed both with her interpretation and her obvious reverence for Page’s work.

  2. Materfam

    Ah, there we go — there’s a bit of a "magic sesame" to this posterous commenting, but I seem to have figured it out. Just want to echo my earlier Tweet saying how much I enjoyed your response to Ossuaries. Have you read Anne Michael’s Winter Vault? I keep thinking of the resonances between ossuaries and winter vaults? the continuing reverberations of traumas across space and time. . . still want to look more closely at all the bird imagery in Ossuaries as well, and the music and the painting . . . .so much!I saw/heard Brand speak here in Nanaimo a few years ago and was moved by her profound commitment to her work, to the potential of poetry to make a difference. Thanks for including the youtube video which reminds me of that earlier reading.

  3. Vicki Ziegler

    Jeanne, I think Ossuaries is absolutely thick with references and allusions and layers, and I don’t presume to understand them all, but that’s what makes delving into it interesting and satisfying each time. I’m really glad you enjoyed my attempt at perhaps partially deciphering it. Whatever it means, we agree that it’s wonderful to just hear Brand present her work with her amazing, alluring voice.

  4. jaduperreault

    Vicki, You make this sound more appealing and accessible than it was for me, but after reading your review, I will definitely try again. Also agree that, whether you understand her poetry or not, you get something out of the reading just from listening to her captivating voice. Thanks for the intelligent, enlightening review.


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