Walking to Mojácar, by Di Brandt
Reviewed by Michael Greenstein
Turnstone Press has been generous in all three sections of Di Brandt’s latest collection of poetry, offering a variety of fonts and translations of the poems into French, German, and Spanish. These translations round out the volume and add resonance to the poet’s generous voice in sharing the limelight with translators and other influences, so that the collaborative effort makes for a chorus of allusion, tradition, and communal attraction.
The first strong influence appears in René Char’s epigraph, taken from “La bibliothèque est en feu”: Char’s words have also served as epigraph to Brandt’s 2003 collection, Now You Care. Brandt also picks up her earlier interest in the ghazal form and refines it in “Nine river ghazals,” the opening poems of the book’s first section, “Welding and other joining procedures.” She adheres more closely to the traditional five-couplet format in these river ghazals. Consider the first one:
“October. The poet is dead. The leaves of Manitoba,
you gotta admire them, turn yellow, sigh once, and drop.”
October’s drop suggests that April may not be the cruellest month: punctuation, caesura, and monosyllables reinforce the dirge-like mood, even though the local and global river flows endlessly. The vernacular, “you gotta,” rebounds off of Manitoba, while “sigh once” approaches silence. The horizontal lines and river flow against a vertical drowning:
“On the banks of the Assiniboine we sat down and wept.
Maddie, Maddie, muddy river dog. Shh, don’t talk.”
The poet’s allusion to Jewish exile in Babylon links east and west, while her concluding hush echoes the earlier silence:
“Tenacious little ash tree, hugging the bank.
Archeology of cars. Biology of art. Theology of scars.”
At the poem’s centre, the ash tree remains the only vertical in the landscape, while the “logos” of cars, art, and scars layer the loss.
In her fourth stanza Brandt pays homage to Dorothy Livesay: “My hands that used to be heartshaped fluttering leaves / have become thick roots, gnarled in soil.” These hands link Brandt to Livesay in their “biology of art,” while the dropping leaves have no end-line punctuation to impede their motion along with the river’s flow. October ends with “Orange-streaked sunset. Calcified bones. / The flood marks of ’50, ’97, ’05. See? Wild geese.” Part of an archaeology of scars, Manitoba’s flood marks give rise to the wild geese of Martha Ostenso’s novel. Throughout Walking to Mojácar, allusions take flight in the archaeology of art, a polyphonic intertext of local and exotic voices — surrealism grounded in the local. Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Erin Mouré, and Lorca meander through these poems from Manitoba to Mojácar.
At the centre of her final ghazal, Brandt declares: “Now let us practice both jubilation and restraint. / I river, I river, I river.” The triple repetition is taken from Erin Mouré’s poem, “Gorgeous,” and signals the jubilant identity between poet and riverscape, egopoetics and ecopoetics, as well as an ironic restraint between poet and poem, for immediately after the nine ghazals, Brandt shifts gears to adopt a scientific, objective tone in a number of prose paragraphs that constitute “Welding and other joining procedures.”
The mechanical, robotic nature of the prose paragraphs cannot be taken at face value. Scientific accounts are undercut at the end by emotions — “vague fears, angry tears.” With the insertion of these ironic human “tools,” Brandt once again layers her writing. The cover image, Israel Garcia Montero’s “Conflict of interests,” hints at some of the themes and techniques in Walking to Mojácar. In Montero’s expressionist painting, two disfigured figures lead a cow from front and back, as if to call into question and spoof Spain’s national pastime — the bullfight. Or, the figures and cow could represent Don Quixote’s post-modern picaresque. At every turn, a conflict of interests pervades the Spanish and Canadian walk to Mojácar, as a dialectic between joining and separating enriches the poetry. French translations are certainly joining procedures, but since something always gets lost in translation, the double texts are also separating procedures. If “welding” is “soudage” in French, one also hears in Iberia the Portuguese pronunciation of “soudade,” the melancholic lament in fado’s tradition. Like the polar opposites inherent in “cleave,” welding also involves bending, twisting, and separating, so that every bond is a double bind where interests conflict, ripple, and spark.
Aside from a strong sexual undercurrent in these welding and joining procedures, the focus on fission and fusion highlights nuclear catastrophe, remarkably relevant given Japan’s current crisis. After objective, scientific description, a final lyrical sentence shifts the tone of the laboratory: “Bees, emissaries of the sun, urgent, tender, circling her petal tips, corollic radiance.” Each paragraph serves as a nuclear reactor leaking out creative energy in the final moments: “the elusive M moment, with its murky mozartian promises of moonlit mountains and matriarchal marigold meadows miraged in melodious mist.”
After these scientific paragraphs, the poet returns to couplets in “Apocalypso,” another surreal apocalyptic danse macabre, highly structured with parallelisms and leaping rhythms:
Sometimes we were hanging so far off the edge
of the world, everything wavering, shuddering,
sometimes we thought we would fly through
the flat end of things into black, nothing.
The language is so deceptively natural for such an event: the ordinary “things” between everything and nothing, echo the participial suffixes in hanging, wavering, shuddering. Rhythm in motion, the dance of death continues to the end of the world, highlighting earthquake, tsunami, and hurricane.
That was the summer of fire, of flame, ghostly
belly dancers descending from the balustrade
in the lit up abandoned churches in their cut up
bride dresses, dancing through ash, glowing.
Yet Brandt’s apocalyptic vision is conditional and redemptive, as she follows with a vertical columnar poem, “If,” that lists nouns without any verbs, so that the reader has to complete her line or thought. The final item, “If bees,” gives rise to hope, as in the prose piece that follows, “Optimistic thoughts:” “The earth’s magnificent renewal after cataclysm becomes the occasion for dramatic new speciation and proliferation of never before seen extravagant lush extraordinary life forms.” These uplifting moments inform poems dedicated to George Bowering, Henry Champ, and Barbara Godard, and climax in the section’s final poem, a prayer for the poet’s 15-year-old goddaughter. Ready to take flight at the edge of the world, the teenager celebrates liminality at the edge of a forest where her real and fairy godmother transcends the end of the world with edges of new beginnings.
Brandt continues her elegiac dances in the book’s second section, “Hymns for Detroit,” which are accompanied by German Mennonite translations, or “trans(e)lations,” that emphasize the celebratory side of an apocalyptic mode. Throughout these dozen poems, voice works with vision to control a surreal world: “Now the forest sleeps / Behind barbed wire gates, / Dogs on sofas, crows in the fields.” An uneasy stillness is threatened by movements on the borders between nature and urban mechanisms. The forest is sealed and hermetic, but boundaries blur between domesticity and wilderness, for the forest is an urban jungle, and Brandt’s symmetrical, hymnal phrasing tethers the surreal threat. The disjunction between Michigan boys puking in parking lots and professors counting grades points to a larger conflict between chaos and order, as the poet attempts to weld apocalypse and redemption.
“The border is on orange alert.” This matter-of-fact statement announces a perpetual state of alarm — on a literal level, North America’s response to terrorism; on the metaphoric level, a colour code that is part of Brandt’s surreal, apocalyptic scheme. “Somewhere above the green / Fluorescent smog chromed stars / Shimmer.” If orange causes pause, then green advances the colour scheme, both in its fluorescence and in the delayed verb “shimmer,” enjambed with “stars.” Chromed stars may belong to cars or to steel buildings, as do “invisible silver shields.” “See!” in mid-line serves as a fulcrum for the chiasmus of “shimmer” and “flash.” Shields protect and threaten simultaneously: they are invisible because they prepare for the ending of the next stanza where no one is watching while the poet takes coloured pills to make her come apart and back together again. The final stanza recapitulates these joining procedures in a disjunctive, surreal world with echoes of Lorca:
Da moon, da moon, da moon
Shines on us, our closed eyes,
Wet faces, clenched heart muscles,
The I 75, our lost nieces,
The Afghanis and their stones.
The combination of traditional Mennonite hymn from a lost and recaptured childhood, the American highway out of Detroit, and remote Afghanistan contributes to a surreal atmosphere in an all-too-real world.
The poems that make up the book’s final section, “Walking to Mojácar,” appear vertically on the page, as if in imitation of legs on a Spanish pilgrimage. Each line of the first poem, “The lottery of history,” contains only one or two words for the most part. Under the influence of Lorca, Brandt’s rhythms imitate a walking pace:
The lottery of
history, its precious
the sea’s roll
in and out, out,
the dark sexy
of the deep,
laced and feathered,
up and down.
Flamenco rhythms parade through these lines in English and Spanish translation.
Walking has been defined as arrested falling, and the measured pace of Brandt’s brief lines that stretch across the Andalusian landscape attests to the poet’s attraction to Valparaiso, the Valley of Paradise — so different from earlier apocalypses. Her vision and resonance rely on caesura and enjambment, with both techniques related to walking rhythms: caesura derives from “cut” and is related in turn to “scissors,” whose legs work through pages; enjambment derives from “leg” as well. A beguiling interplay between caesura and enjambment underscores themes of walking, welding, and cutting edges.
The title poem is a tribute to Lorca:
Along the winding car-
of the still rosemary-scented
the poets wander.
Individual voice absorbs others to form a community of wanderers, “bewildered, out of time, / flayed / by the century’s losses.” Through rupture and rapture, they link arms and lines, forming their own international brigade. “Not for a moment, / Federico Garcia Lorca, / not for a moment,” declares his fellow poet, “are you alone.” A Mennonite from Manitoba joins ranks with Federico, whom she implores to “Fly back to us / across the implacable / Atlantic.” Whether flying, walking, or dancing, the poet exuberantly crosses the Atlantic in a quest for roots and routes, and the transatlantic flight is polyphonic and multi-chromatic.
Brandt’s previous collection, Now You Care, was nominated for three of the most prestigious awards for poetry in Canada. Walking to Mojácar may meet with less fanfare, but the wide variety of poems in this volume shows that the poet is at the top of her game.