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DI BRANDT SOUNDS ECO ALARM BELL   by Mariianne Mays
DI BRANDT SOUNDS ECO ALARM BELL

Herizons: The group of poems that open your latest book, Now You Care, is called “Zone: [le Détroit].” They are about the polluted border between Windsor and Detroit, the glut of commercial traffic between the two places, speed and its numbing effects, and the rush to globalized free trade and unbridled consumerism. Why did you choose this set to begin the collection?

 

Di Brandt: Now You Care came out of my experience of moving from the fresh-air, economically depressed Prairies to the hyper-industrialized, factory culture of Southwestern Ontario (I moved there in the mid 90’s and lived there for nearly a decade).

 

It was a great shock to me and an urgent wake-up call. I didn’t knowthere were places in North America that are so environmentally stressed. I had to reinvent what it means to write poetry ina place where the big corporate giants hold power over everything so visibly, so overtly, so close up. I had to work hard at standing tall and assuming a more authoritative voice than I’d been used to in the past, in order to address the reality of that scene.

 

The other striking aspect of Southwestern Ontario is commuting: Everyone spends so much time in their cars or on the train, driving through that landscape. I heard a brilliant lecture by London poet and critic Cornelia Hoogland, who is looking at the motif of the car in Ontario poetry and has concluded that the significant landscape in Ontario is no longer a pretty field or mountain you stand and look at or walk through, as in Romantic poetry, nor a countryside you drive through, but rather the car itself. She cited the line from Zone 5, which describes driving to Detroit through the tunnel under the Detroit River, “our feet never leaving the car,” among other things.

 

I found the commuter syndrome a terrible, violent thing to get used to. Yet after I’d been there a few years, I was doing it as much as anyone else. You start losing the sense of groundedness in a particular place there, or any good sense about the squandering of valuable energy resources. There’s an impulse to keep moving, to escape the terrible pollution, perhaps. Now You Care begins with these poems because this is where my environmentalist awakening happened. The 401 was my great muse!

 

The poetry cycle “Dog Days in Maribor, Anti (electric) ghazals” describes environmental and political devastation in northeast Slovenia. You very effectively contrast the larger political and historical picture with the particular and intimate present: “we who have lived without/ hope these long centuries,/ can we survive one more winter?” or “arthritic symptoms/ could mean: mineral deficiencies,/ deer ticks, genetic weaknesses,/ accumulated steroids,/ unexpressed rage.” and “What was it we wanted,/ before all the walls came down?” When were you there? Can you talk a little about your time there and how it inspired the poetry?

 

Di Brandt: I visited Slovenia three times: in 1999, 2001 and 2003. I really love Slovenia—it’s a beautiful country that spends its public money on the arts, rather than fancy buildings! I was very struck by this, coming from Windsor, Ont., to Maribor. The two cities are roughly the same size, one with lots and lots of money, the other with very little, and yet the arts scene there is flourishing far beyond what we can manage in Windsor!

 

I don’t think Slovenia has been as hard hit by environmental degradation as some of the northern [former] Communist countries, and certainly not as hard as the North American Great Lakes region. So not all the eco-despair in the poems is intended to be pointing a finger at Slovenia. I really just meant to weave in comments about the changing world order, and the various border wars now happening, and the confusion about how to contain capitalism, now that communism no longer exists formally as an effective resistance to the greediness of the rich countries.

 

And I did feel very tender and protective toward the Slovenes, who didn’t seem nearly as worried about Shell and McDonalds moving into their beautiful old city as I was, in terms of the threat of multinational globalization to their rich, amazingly well-preserved and flourishing local culture.

 

This poetry cycle begins: “Truly, in this age,/ why should not all women be mad?// ... / The cherry trees have all
been cut;/ bronzed epitaphs.// No more invasions!/ The earth is spitting up blood.// Diamond rivers, uranium
valleys,/ petroleum oceans.// Purple irises, Van Gogh, radiant,/ beside the door.” There is rage here; it’s protest art. It reminds me of the vehement etchings and drawings of WWI German artist Kathe Kollwitz, “The Mothers,” or “Never Again War!” or Phil Ochs singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” or Tracy Chapman singing “Rape of the World.” Were you conscious of tapping into a tradition of protest and protest art, and is there any protest art in particular that has informed your thinking?

 

Di Brandt: Thank you, that’s a fine company to be in! The opening lines are, of course, a riff on John Thompson’s brilliant ghazal sequence, Stilt Jack, and especially ghazal XX which starts, “I begin again: why should not young men be mad?” I adapted his beautiful adolescent male rage to the situation of “all women,”
and though I think it’s a similar rage to the kind Thompson enacts in his poems, nevertheless I wanted to highlight the effect of environmental degradation specifically on women and our reproductive capacity and power, and to foreground the kind of political vision women might bring to political discussions now.

There’s a recurring motif in the poems in Now You Care about breast cancer and mastectomies. I’m appalled, frankly, at the way breast cancer has been depoliticized in the mainstream media into a funding drive for chemical-based research, instead of addressing the causes and discussing alternatives … ike making polluters pay for the cleanup and developing more holistic models of being in the world.

 

Cancer in this sense is a powerful political opportunity for discussing the healing of ourselves and our relationship to the natural world, which is suffering, like we are, with the toxic burden of over-chemicalization. And it’s a reminder that we need to put women back into positions of geopolitical and biomedical influence an power so we can take better care of our concerns, for the health of our own bodies, our reproductive interests, our children, the Earth and the future of life on this planet. We should be much more vigilant as women about protecting our reproductive capacities and rights and long-term goals and interests than we have been.“Equality” as a slogan for women’s rights is simply not enough.

 

The poet Phyllis Webb invented the term “antighazal” to give herself permission to adapt the ancient venerable Persian ghazal form to experimental purposes. The subtitle “Anti(electric) Ghazals” is meant therefore as implicit homage to her. Webb’s Water and Light ghazals and anti-ghazals are marvelous protest poems and have a brilliant knack of marrying innocent domestic details like Mrs. Olssen, the neighbour lady, stopping by for tea and a chat, and then zapping us to Iraq and “a knocked off head of somebody on his broken knees.”

 

There is shock and contemplation in her poems, and precise attention to images and rhythm, and a kind of intellectual rigour—a philosophical note—which was daunting to imitate, but necessary in these poems, where I was trying to practise speaking in a ‘public voice,’ as opposed to a personal, intimate, relational one.

 


Answering your questions in this way, incidentally, makes it seem as if writing poems is a very deliberate act, in which you set out to elaborate certain ideas and techniques. But you don’t really choose poems; they come at you from the dark, they sneak up from behind, they seduce....

 

A recent collaboration is your music/poetry partnership with musicians Carol Ann Weaver and Rebecca Campbell, both in performance and to produce the 2003 CD entitled Awakenings (after Dorothy Livesay). What was it like to work in another medium and with other people in this way?

 


Di Brandt: Wonderful! Wonderful! I felt so happy following Dorothy Livesay around in that powerful dramatic sequence of poems she published as a chapbook (Awakening, 1991) by writing companion poems to hers, sometimes stanza by stanza, sometimes line by line, sometimes poem by poem. And then I felt really delighted and deeply moved to see what Carol and Rebecca had done with the double-voiced sequence I’d made out of that. I felt a very special connection with her while writing the poems. (She sort of
adopted me, in her old age, and mentored me in specific, lovely ways.)

Her poems are about an old woman looking over the cliff edge of impending death, with her characteristic frankness and humour and boldness. They were daunting poems to respond to; I didn’t so much try to “reply” to them as to just be with her in them, in a sort of daughterly, companionable way.

 

The resulting and lovely “Wake Up, Four Quartets”(also in Now You Care) begins: “Tangle of wild tansy/ in every crack,/ old rag and bone shop/ left open to rain.// Clear high notes/ piercing the sky.// Like weeds, grandma said./ The knife edge of pleasure/ blitzed by love, O!” These seem to be songs for the Earth, songs urging an awakening of the senses—and at the same time, you refer to “our mothers,” and sisters, cousins, friends and grandmother. What is the connection here, between a love of the Earth and loving through other women, both in (literary, political, biological) ancestry and present-day relations?

 


Di Brandt: “Old rag and bone shop” paraphrases Yeats’ vision of aging in “The Circus Animals Desertion.” Yeats seemed dismayed by the loss of physical vitality in his old age and fashioned a poetics of aging where that vitality gets replaced by the wisdom of art. For Livesay, aging and dying are as physical as the newly born: “The way out/ is the same/ as the way/ in// A choking// daylight/ for both/ is blinding/ bleeding....”

Her old people in these poems are not poet laureates celebrating long lives of achievements, as in Yeats’ old age poems, but just old people, engaged with the formidable challenges of their daily lives. They are frail, forgetful, raging. They experience streaks of powerful emotions, memories, passion.

 

Livesay’s old woman is thinking, among other things, about old contentious lovers, and the impossibility of “shaking them off” even in the moment of death. I was thinking more about wrestling with the
patriarchal heritage which separated women from each other and interfered with the transmission of experience and power between generations of women. That has been a great tragedy, and yes, I do think that if we could recover that kind of connection between generations of women, we could assume a more central role in geopolitics and public decision-making in areas that affect the environment and our own lives.

 

Dorothy Livesay’s mentorship of younger women writers like me was of course that kind of action, and I am trying to reclaim the power of that in these poems.

 

Heart” is probably my favourite section in Now You Care. Twenty-seven poems are included in this section, all compelling, all moving between an insistent, passionate embrace of life and First World-nation attitudes, warnings of environmental collapse. They have an intense cumulative effect. Were these poems difficult to write, given their profound attention to such gruelling political realities?

 

Di Brandt: Actually, the poems in “Heart” (the second section) were much easier to write than the poems in “Zone” (the first section). I wrote them all at once, one right after the other, in about a month, unlike the poems in “Zone,” which took years and years.

 

My friend Anna Pellatt was dying while I was writing these poems, and there is an elegaic note in them in memory of her. I was feeling pretty close to the edge of life at that time, myself, partly out of empathy with my friend and partly because I was negotiating my own health crisis that summer—that could have been me! Some of the tough politics in the poems comes out of that sort of complete freedom you feel facing mortality —there is nothing to lose and everything to see and say!

 

The edge of life, as we know it, seems to be the place where poetry comes from, where it bubbles up, and thrives. The times I’ve been closest to that edge are the times the writing has been most fertile and easy for me—poetry is a dangerous profession in this sense, since you want to go as close to that rich generative edge as possible for the sake of poetic insight, but hopefully without falling over it before it’s really your time! 

 


Di Brandt has published five collections of poetry: Now You Care, Jerusalem, beloved, mother, not mother, Agnes in the sky, and questions i asked my mother. She received the Canadian Authors’ Association National Poetry Award,
the Gerald Lampert Award and has been twice shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.