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This is a poem about the city. About a man who has visions, hovering on the edge but hating it, restless and at war with the world but wanting the peace that passeth understanding. Everything he does is half-done, except his death. When he falls, his parched spirit crying "thirsty," his family falls apart. This is a poem about Toronto, the city that’s never happened before, about waiting for a bus, standing on a corner, watching a stranger: the bank to one corner, the driving school on another, the milk store and...
This is a poem about the city. About a man who has visions, hovering on the edge but hating it, restless and at war with the world but wanting the peace that passeth understanding. Everything he does is half-done, except his death. When he falls, his parched spirit crying "thirsty," his family falls apart. This is a poem about Toronto, the city that’s never happened before, about waiting for a bus, standing on a corner, watching a stranger: the bank to one corner, the driving school on another, the milk store and the church. This is also about the poet, her own restless sensibility woven in and out through moments of lyric beauty, dramatic power and storytelling grace. It is written in the margins, like a medieval manuscript with shades of light and darkness.
This city is beauty unbreakable and amorous as eyelids,
in the streets, pressed with fierce departures,
I am innocent as thresholds and smashed night birds, lovesick,
as empty elevators
let me declare doorways,
corners, pursuit, let me say standing here in eyelashes, in invisible breasts, in the shrinking lake in the tiny shops of untrue recollections,
the brittle, gnawed life we live,
I am held, and held
the touch of everything blushes me,
pigeons and wrecked boys,
half-dead hours, blind musicians,
inconclusive women in bruised dresses even the habitual grey-suited men with terrible briefcases, how come, how come
I anticipate nothing as intimate as history
would I have had a different life failing this embrace with broken things,
iridescent veins, ecstatic bullets, small cracks in the brain, would I know these particular facts,
how a phrase scars a cheek, how water dries love out, this, a thought as casual as any second eviscerates a breath
and this, we meet in careless intervals,
in coffee bars, gas stations, in prosthetic conversations, lotteries, untranslatable mouths, in versions of what we may be,
a tremor of the hand in the realization of endings, a glancing blow of tears on skin, the keen dismissal in speed
A Word about the Poem by Franca Bernabei
“This city is beauty.” With this striking affirmation Dionne Brand opens her text to the city and immediately places the reader in the scenario of Toronto. In the long poem thirsty, Toronto will become the absolute subject and agent of her spatial critique. This critique connects the lyrical “I,” the city, and the poetic text through a sapient play of prosodic rhythms and phonetic, syntactic and semantic trajectories. In its turn, the polarized — but intersecting — social contextualization of the multi-ethnic urban site both shapes and pulverizes the discourse of the self. A self whose inner, reflexive itinerary will crisscross the restless, tragic route of Alan, a West Indian immigrant killed by the police; those of the women making up his family; and the daily routes of the suburban dwellers and the inner-city immigrants.
In the first two stanzas of this introductory poem, the self “declares” both its “innocent” condition of liminality and suspension with respect to the “fierce departures” and “submerged landings” that occur in the streets of Toronto, and its will to speak and make the city known. The shifts of grammatical subject (“this city,” “I am,” “let me,” “we,” “I”), the different speech acts and verbal modes, and two distinct but converging constellations of images — one referring to the body (“eyelids,” “eyelashes,” “breasts,” “brittle,” “gnawed lives”), the other to features of the city space (“streets,” “thresholds,” “elevators,” “doorways,” “corners,” “shops”) — mark above all the porous boundaries between the “unbreakable” and “amorous” beauty of Toronto and the surrendering “lovesickness” of the speaker’s body. This porosity then invests the “I”’s relation to the other urban dwellers, with whom it shares a peculiar form of intimacy: the spatial specificity of a city — as we will learn later — “that never happened before.”
In the third stanza it becomes even more evident that this particular urban site is a space of contingency which not only captures the “I” with its beauty but also holds it by means of its heterogeneous singularities which constantly intrude on and question the “private” space of the self. Furthermore, the shift from object (“blushes me,” a transitive verb) to subject (“I”) prepares for the move from indicative to interrogatory in stanza IV, in which the present tense of the “I” is related to a past that perhaps might have had a different outcome in another context. Once again, a chain of bodily images transmits the reception (actually, the “embrace”) on the part of the “body-self” of an “iridescent” medley — note the purring of alliterations and assonances here — that composes the city. Note also how the puzzled mood of the speaker is modulated through the use of repetition (“I am held and held,” “how come, how come,” “would I…would I”). And this special form of availability/vulnerability is further qualified in the last stanza. Here the “I” becomes “we” again, in order to emphasize that Toronto’s urban milieu is composed of the distribution and dispersal of people’s everyday paths and routines, their contingent and fugitive encounters, unsatisfactory translations, and acts of camouflage or discardings of previous identities. The city is a composition which simultaneously absorbs and dispels, binds and loosens.
As we will learn in the course of this long poem, the collective “we” is made up of a recalcitrant multitude which contributes to the city’s “murmurous genealogy” and refuses to coalesce. Gathered under the all-encompassing figure of a “vagrant, fugitive city,” and reinforced by the metaphors of “thirst” and “falling,” these intersecting, disenfranchised bodies breach the “I”’s singularity and compel it to confront itself through its own alteration and embrace a conflictual ethics (a politics?) of accountability and compassion. As the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has pointed out, the modern city is not so much a civitas (a community of citizens) as it is a place in which something takes place that is different from place. And yet, Dionne Brand’s remapping of the metropolitan paradigm suggests that the uneasy and volatile proximity of Toronto’s (im)possible citizens, their mobile geography of looks and glances, or even of bodies brushing up against one another, and “hyphenating” the streets in which they transit, may be capable of establishing new and perhaps incommensurable spaces of negotiation, transformation, and representation.
Franca Bernabei — University of Ca’Foscari, Venice