What Does Justice Mean in Toronto?: thirsty

downloadChalk up one more bit of work slipping into the list as I recently read Dionne Brand’s thirsty. I had meant to read her No Land to Light On, an earlier collection of poetry, but the pressure of a dissertation forced me to include this one instead. And thirsty is a great long poem. This was my second time reading it and I got way more from it than the first time around when I sped through it, looking for usefulness to my research interests. When I read it this time, I took the time to let her words soak in, to look up words I didn’t know, and to take marginal notes on what was going on throughout. In fact, those marginal notes alerted me to how carefully constructed Brand’s book is and allowed me to appreciate her craftsmanship.

thirsty is a series of 33 linked poems that follow the tragic shooting of Alan, a Jamaican, by the Toronto Police Force and the ripple effect in the lives of his mother Chloe, his wife Julie, and his unnamed daughter. Mixed throughout are poems narrated by a first-person speaker, a person at a distance from the shooting and who comments upon the events. All three women’s lives have been essentially stopped by Alan’s death as Chloe retreats into religion, Julie into a broad feeling of emptiness, and the daughter into escaping the neighbourhood on her bicycle. Yet the speaker of the poem introduces this drama in the midst of Toronto, a seething mass of strangers that is at times comforting and at times violent. In reference to the waiting passengers in the city’s subway tunnels, Brand writes:

They are the echo chambers for the voices of the gods of
cities. Glass, money, goods. They sit in a universe of halted breaths
waiting for this stop Bay and that stop Yonge and that one St. Patrick

in early morning surrender to factories in Brampton,
swirling grey into the 401 and the Queen Elizabeth Highway,
they hold their tempers, their passions, over grumbling machines
until night, dreaming their small empires, their domestic tyrannies

but of course no voyage is seamless. Nothing in a city is discrete.
A city is all interpolation … (37)

I love these lines. I love how Brand takes the city and turns it into something unfamiliar and strange, a beast that reflects our hopes and dreams, but also takes and takes from us. An earlier stanza reads:

All the hope gone hard. That is a city.
The blind house, the cramped dirt, the broken
air, the sweet ugliness, the blissful and tortured
flowers, the misguided clothing, the bricked lies
the steel lies, all the lies seeping from flesh
falling in rain and snow, the weeping buses,
the plastic throats, the perfumed garbage, the
needled sky, the smogged oxygen, the deathly clerical
gentlemen cleaning their fingernails at the stock
exchange, the dingy hearts in the newsrooms, that is
a city, the feral amnesia of us all.

Again, Brand’s ability to capture the key details of a city stand out. She portrays in broad sweeps the contour of urban life and the way that the city forces us into intimate contact with many strangers. Of course, throughout thirsty, the question of how race interpolates the urban experience looms large. And Brand provides no easy answers to this, instead giving readers the textured details of three interrupted lives. But I think what I love most about thirsty is that it is great poetry. Brand is a very talented poet, and in thirsty, she ties together themes from her whole body of work into a seamless and meaningful whole.

I highly recommend thirsty to anyone who lives in Toronto and fans of poetry.

Brand, Dionne. thirsty. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 2002. Print.

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Essential Reading: Everything That Rises Must Converge

oconnor-cover-for-everything-that-rises-must-convergeIt seems strange to me that only a year or so ago, I had not really read Flannery O’Connor. Sure, I’d studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and ” Good Country People”, but I had not truly read her. You need to experience O’Connor’s work in its full depth. One story, even if it is a real gem like “A Good Man” or “Good Country People” , does not really do here justice. I read A God Man is Hard to Find last yearand thoroughly enjoyed it. Having just finished Everything That Rises Must Converge, I believe this is a stronger collection and left my jaw dropped consistently. This is O’Connor at her strongest, touching on Christianity, Southern politics, race, rural life, poverty, and, most especially, the bizarre nature of being human throughout.

For the uninitiated, O’Connor was an American writer who only published two collections of short stories and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). She writes what has been called Southern gothic fiction, set mostly in rural areas of America’s south, and often featuring irruptions of the extraordinary or magical. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker, a former Navy-man covered in tattoos who married a woman he does not love, has a revelatory experience when he crashes the tractor he is driving into an old tree in the middle of the field. The sight of the burning tree and tractor scares Parker so much that he immediately goes to a tattoo artist to have a Byzantine Christ portrait painted on his back. He believes that the accident was divine revelation and hopes that putting a religious tattoo on his back will propitiate God. He also hopes that his wife will be pleased, but when she sees it, she throws him out calling him an idolater for putting a picture of God on his back. While it would be easy to join the wife in ridiculing Parker, there is an earnestness in Parker’s response that prevents it. The final sentence of the story (“There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”) reveals a broken and defeated man. The central scene, the accident, is both realistic in the sense that it could have happened but also something else entirely because of the religious tones and epiphanic framing. O’Connor frequently uses these moments, leaving realism behind for a moment and then coming back to it.

The other thing that stood out for me in this collection was O’Connor’s ability to throw a twist in the endings. These are not cheap-tricks but key moments that force readers to re-examine everything that has come before. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury believes he is dying from a self-induced existential fever. Readers are invited to see through his self-delusion throughout, but in the final sentences, he has an epiphanic experience of the shape of a dove made in the cracks of the ceiling plaster morphing into the Holy Ghost descending on him. Asbury had invited a Jesuit priest over to spite his mother, but in this ending O’Connor suggests that something more spiritual has happened to him. While it might be easy to see these as imitation Edgar Allan Poe plot twists, they cannot be discounted.

I think it was these more than anything that made Everything a more enjoyable read than A Good Man. The characters of Everything are both despicable and lovingly crafted. We despise them and yet cannot help but see through their eyes. Simply put, Everything That Rises Must Converge is essential reading for any fan of short fiction.

I highly recommend this collection.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.