The Poetry Project

The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand (Duke University Press, 2018)

Review by Sarah Jane Cervenak

To be continued: The Blue Clerk’s first two versos

...a collection of versos that travel far and deep, where farness and deepness bespeak a kind of engagement with Dionne Brand’s ars poetica here is just a beginning, not enough, maybe will never be enough...if the Blue Clerk is a kind of crystalline structure, a kind of iridescent sculpture of otherearthly prophecy, this is my perception of one of its sides...


“Sunlight reaches Earth's atmosphere and is scattered in all directions by all the gases and particles in the air. Blue light is scattered more than other colors because it travels as shorter, smaller waves. This is why we see a blue sky most of the time.”--NASA [^1]

the clerk is surrounded by what falls out of the prose
by what falls out of the poem

“I have left this unsaid. I have withheld. What is withheld is the left hand page. Nine left-hand pages have already written their own left-hand pages, as you will see. They are chronic. I have withheld more than I have written. Evergreen and deciduous” (Brand, 3).

The “this unsaid” is a presence absence, a bloom, a blue withheld. It’s where the clerk resides, a dampness that tastes like a story you heard once, a flavor that sounds like an ancient seed. The Blue Clerk is a kind of para-diary of an author’s experiences with writing, with novelistic vision along with her encounter with the unrecordable, lemony, metallic textures of what authorship, as both sovereign positioning and understanding, can’t say. …and all of this is a misty shower of maybes… to think the un/availability of the “this unsaid” precisely in and as another earthly interface (here, textual) of circulation, withholding, and an insistent clarity that might suggest but actually move against a notion of clarity, and of transparency as epistemic availability.. Like the profoundly poignant and resistant clarity of blue and the partial phrasing of Brand’s versos, a transparency otherwise. “Blue


XXXXXCrystalline visions, the prismatic weight and withholdings maybe move by way of the unseen color, the unseen kinetic-chromatic-synathetic magnetic pulses from the earth’s core. Did you know that oceans never end?
the submarine, the deep ocean, the place of blue’s abundant and guarded flourishing has often been the place where transparency moves both as survival strategy and shapes a different relation to environmental perception.

Unlike a fictive notion of transparency advanced during the Enlightenment era which presumed universal knowing as the white man of reason’s cognitive endowment, the transparency of the dumbo octopus occurs in darkness, in the deepest trenches of the ocean[^2]. This transparency happens close to the earth’s core and near to that blue light which manages to travel all the way to that bottom. Moreover, even though the transparent itself fundamentally bears the suggestion of reflection, of one ocean dweller’s capacity to see through the octopus to its other side, what the transparency holds is so much blue. What transparency holds is what can neither be seen nor known itself.

...Brand’s art moves with this blue. That is, what Brand does with language, with color, with refused elaboration, I to deploy what otherwise passes itself off as transparent towards protective ends. “She keeps account of cubic metres of senses, perceptions and resistant facts. No one need be aware of these; no one is likely to understand.” (4)

... in The Blue Clerk, Dionne Brand’s craft of conversation between the clerk and the author provides a kind of instruction on how language, and perhaps form in general can work in the interest of another reflection. Verso 2, for example, is an early reckoning by the author of her own left hand pages, the stuff that remained unwritten, withheld, perhaps indicating a kind of connection between documentation’s refusal and black women and earth’s concomitant, interconnected reflections. Reflections that come together at a vanishing point, and that safehouse another being, sensing and seeing of life, some living shaped in the trenches of a page.

“Verso 2
I can’t say I was conscious of the left hand page as early as this but there it was if I had looked. There it was, if you had looked, says the clerk. Essentially years and years actually trying to write in the centre of your life, working with all the intelligence of your being. The feeling of repelling some invasion in order, one day, to be yourself. Rhisophora mangle propagules fell into the mangrove lagoon near the Iguana River where the sea carried them to us” (12)

In this verso, the author learns via the clerk of the long presence of the “left hand pages,” the weighted withheld, and how it was always “there” for her even as some external “invasion”
threatened their presence at every turn. As the clerk reveals, writing becomes a mode of getting to the “centre of your life [...] in order, one day, to be yourself” and “[r]hisophora mangle propagules fell into the mangrove lagoon near the Iguana River where the sea carried them to us.” The author’s reflection, protected in the safehouse of the left hand pages is further guarded by a sentence that appears like a bloom but also opens like a vanishing point. Perhaps, the author’s reflection meets the mangrove lagoon, intermingling with the dropping propagules to drift with blue.

The question of whether or not the author arrives to be herself at the left-hand page intersects with the partially vanishing shape of the mangrove tree. A mangrove, which often takes root under water, blooming within a lagoon... Quite literally, it (the mangrove) is a plant witness to its own watery and above-water reflection, the surface of the sea being the vanishing point where the author might also waveringly be, flourishing in the recesses of what remains “unsaid” within the “quality of light” only blue might know (Lorde 1984, 36) [^3].


1 -

2 - In “In the Raw,” Denise Ferreira da Silva deploys a Black feminist poethic modality of aesthetic engagement to critique a Kantian paradigm of aesthetic judgment premised on an enduring violent interpretation of transparency. Silva writes:“For knowability in the Kantian formulation of the aesthetic register refers to the transparent I, as a formal entity, the one whose relation to the world—both sensible and intelligible—is mediated, but by forms (intuitions and categories) of the mode of cognition grounded on transcendental reason. Put differently, his account of aesthetic judgement is supported by the assumption that the forms of the object (of art or nature) are compatible (“harmonious” is the term he uses) with the conditions of the subject of determinative (sensibility in the register of the understanding) and aesthetic (sensibility in the moment of imagination) judgements, without a recourse to an empirical (scientific) or practical (moral) ground.”

In the Kantian paradigm, the “conditions of the subject” are whiteness as a propertizing reduction of the world to knowable and ownable administration. Transparency here bespeaks an instrumentalization of all earthly life into self-affirming ownership.

For Silva, a Black feminist poethics intervenes within and against this enduring paradigm by “shifting the focus to the elusive, the unclear, the uncertain—the scent—thereby making it possible to dislodge sequentiality and expose the deeper (virtual) correspondences comprehended (but not extinguished) by the abstract forms of modern thought.”

Even as Silva distinguishes a Black feminist poethical intervention from antiblack political and aesthetic philosophies of the Subject, I wonder whether what The Blue Clerk advances is another aesthetics of transparency, a clarity that too wades in the “elusive, the unclear.” That is, I wonder if what The Blue Clerk asks after is a notion of clarity that thrives in the recesses of those “deeper correspondences,” like the blue water brooked by rocks or the water nurturing the reflective roots of the mangrove tree? A clarity and a seeing-through belonging to the elusive life and living outside the teleological constraints of the sovereign, authorial I, one long crafted and gestured toward in Black feminist thought, especially the work of Audre Lorde.

“In the Raw,” Denise Ferreira da Silva, Journal 93 (September 2018);

3 - “Poetry is Not a Luxury”; Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde [New York: Crossing Press, 2007)

The writer wishes to thank Dionne Brand, the Wylie agency, and Duke University Press for their assistance with the review and permissions.

#260 — Feb/March/April 2020