Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Dionne Brand's Ossuaries


I first picked up Ossuaries late at night after getting my 7 month old to sleep, in that semi-conscious state that all young parents understand brought on from extended sleep deprivation.  It’s a state where you are easily taken to fits of wonder and confusion, your emotions manipulated with no effort.  I read the first part and had the same feeling I had after watching Donny Darko – “I don’t really know what just happened, but that was cool!”  I found much of my reading of Ossuaries, the latest book of poetry by Dionne Brand, to have a similar effect. 


I don’t have much experience with poetry.  It’s something that I’ve been exploring over the last several years, but this is not an art form that is simple to connect with.  It was my graduating ceremony from university that struck my curiosity.  The Kipling ceremony (the graduating ceremony for Engineering Students in Canada, based on the work of Rudyard Kipling) gave me a sense of the weight that words can have.  Brand has incredible skill in choosing her words for their power.  She arranges words like a painter arranges light and dark in an image.  Here are specular highlights next to shadows and darkness, giving the two dimensional image an appearance of three, tricking the mind of the reader or perhaps just manipulating for the purpose of affect on the reader:


nearsighted she needs her glasses yes, to summarize

the world, without them she’s defenceless,

that’s why they’re always at the precipice of the bed


Ossuaries is a long form poem exploring our consumptive nature as humans.  For the most part it’s spinning around a narrative about Yasmine, a young woman who escapes one ossuary (an abusive marriage) for one she creates for herself.  I found it easy to fall into the narrative when it was being told, but would find myself lost when Brand wasn’t speaking about Yasmine.  With my first few readings I felt like I would be reading along and then fall right off the page.  I expect that this is more a result of my inexperience with work of this depth, but it does give me pause when considering if I would recommend this to someone else. 


I found the imagery used in this poem incredibly powerful.  Yasmine is consumed by her husband: “You’re nothing, Yas; I made you something by fucking you; other than that you’re nothing”, which she escapes only to become the consumer herself.  She robs a bank and kills a security guard in the process, and then flees for safety.  She ends her running by taking a job, at the heart of our consumption as a society, on the killing floor of a meat packing plant.  In the poem, there’s reference to the September 11 attacks, and many socialist references as well.  Like any good work of art, Ossuaries is full of parallels to life that is actually lived.    


I think my favourite scene and section of this book is when Yas and her co-conspirators are in their car, and they see the cops behind them, giving chase.  The youngest member, a 19-year old, is showing his callousness to the situation.  He’s been in jail, he knows what it is like, and doesn’t care.  It’s at this junction when Brand says:


they suddenly see their wounds in him,

the gashes in their skins, the gouging, scraping

places left, open raw cavities of their long, long losses


history will enter here, whistling like train wheels,

boat winches,

the road will either end or won’t, the cops catch up or not


they will arrive wherever

they will be at war with their veins,

at war with all accounts, at war, so what


and, look, anyway, they’re all composed in bony anchors

at the feet, they’ll escape or they won’t,

those are eternal cops behind them, glacial and planetary


It’s this that summarizes the poem to me; hopefully we will see our wounds in the character of Yasmine, but whether we do or not, we are being constantly chased by the consequences of our consumption.   We can run, and we don’t know if those consequences will ever catch us, but is this the life we want to live?


This is a poem I likely won’t be sharing with a lot of people.  It’s a dark work and it has a complicated narrative storyline which doesn’t lend itself to easy popularity.  But, I will excitedly share with those that would take the time to engage it.  It took me about four reads of Ossuaries to begin to make sense of it on the whole.  Reading this work one word at a time was like looking a photo one pixel at a time, so it took me a while to appreciate each colour’s relation to the whole.  Because of this effort, I’m likely to appreciate it all the more.