Dionne Brand


Griffin Poetry Prize 2011
Canadian Winner

Book: Ossuaries

Poet: Dionne Brand

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

Click here to read and listen to an excerpt.



Dionne Brand’s previous collections of poetry include Land to Light On, winner of the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Book Award; thirsty, winner of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, the Toronto Book Award, and the Griffin Poetry Prize; and Inventory, a finalist for the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Governor General’s Award. In 2006, Brand was awarded the prestigious Harbourfront Festival Prize, and in 2009, she was named Toronto’s Poet Laureate.

Judges’ Citation

“What Dionne Brand has done in Ossuaries is amazing. Working with a novel-length narrative about the life of an activist named Yasmine, who lives an underground existence on various continents, she has constructed a long poem, which is not a traditional seamless epic, nor a Poundian extended collage, but something else that seems quite new. The most remarkable part of her achievement is that in fulfilling the novelistic narrative ambition of her work, she has not sacrificed the tight lyrical coil of the poetic line. The story vaults us ahead with its emerging and receding characters, its passions and dramas, which include a violent bank robbery and tense escape, while each line holds us and demands we admire its complex beauties. The sensation of hurtling and, at the same time, being caught is uncanny. Brand’s innovation on Ossuaries calls forth an entirely new sort of reading. The book is a triumph.”


Dionne Brand’s hypnotic, urgent long poem – her first book of poetry in four years, is about the bones of fading cultures and ideas, about the living museums of spectacle where these bones are found. At the centre of Ossuaries is the narrative of Yasmine, a woman living an underground life, fleeing from past actions and regrets, in a perpetual state of movement. She leads a solitary clandestine life, crossing borders actual (Algiers, Cuba, Canada), and timeless. Cold-eyed and cynical, she contemplates the periodic crises of the contemporary world. This is a work of deep engagement, sensuality, and ultimate craft from an essential observer of our time and one of the most accomplished poets writing today.

Note: Summaries are taken from promotional materials supplied by the publisher, unless otherwise noted.

Dionne Brand reads ossuary VIII

ossuary VIII, by Dionne Brand

ossuary VIII

Havana. Yasmine arrived one early evening,
the stem of an orange dress,
a duffle bag, limp, with no possessions

the sea assaulted the city walls,
the air,
the birds assaulted the sea

she’s not coastal,
more used to the interiors of northern cities,
not even their ancillary, tranquil green-black lakes

though nothing was ever tranquil about her,
being there out of her elemental America
unsettles her, untethers her

being alive, being human, its monotony
discomfited her anyway, the opaque nowness,
the awareness, at its primal core, of nothing

a temporary ache of safety,
leafed her back like unfurling fiddleheads,
she glimpsed below the obdurate seduction of Atlantic

and island shore,
when they landed, a contradiction,
a peppery drizzle, an afternoon’s soft sun

the oiled air of Havana pushed its way onto the airplane,
leavened, domestic,
the Tupelov cabin like an oven darkening bread

she was alive in this place,
missing forever from her life in the other,
a moment’s sentimentality could not find a deep home

what had been her life, what collection of events?
these then, the detonations,
the ones that led her to José Marti Airport

so first the language she would never quite learn,
though determined, where the word for her,
nevertheless, was compañera

and there she lived on rations of diction,
shortened syntax, the argot and tenses of babies,
she became allegorical, she lost metaphors, irony

in a small room so perfect she could paseo its rectangle,
in forty-four exact steps,
a room so redolent with brightness

cut in half by a fibrous bed,
made patient by the sometimish stove,
the reluctant taps, the smell of things filled with salt water

through the city’s wrecked avenidas,
she would find the Malecón, the great sea wall
of lovers and thieves, jineteras and jineteros

and there the urban sea washed anxiety from her,
her suspicious nature found,
her leather-slippered foot against a coral niche

no avoiding the increment of observation here,
in small places small things get their notice,
not just her new sign language

oh yesterday, you were in a green skirt,
where’s your smile today,
oh you were late to the corner on Tuesday

don’t you remember we spoke at midday,
last week near the Coppelia,
you had your faraway handbag

your cigarette eyes,
your fine-toothed comb
for grooming peacocks, anise seeds in your mouth

you asked for a little lemon water,
you had wings in your hands,
you read me a few pages from your indelible books

what makes your eyes water so,
I almost drowned in them on Friday,
let me kiss your broken back, your tobacco lips

she recalled nothing of their encounters,
but why,
so brilliant at detail usually

the green skirt, the orange dress, the errant smile,
the middays all dissolved into
three, five, ten months in Havana

one night she walks fully clothed, like Bird,
into the oily pearly of the sea’s surface,
coral and cartilage, bone and air, infrangible

and how she could walk straight out, her dress,
her bangles, her locking hair, soluble,
and how despite all she could not stay there

From Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand
Copyright © 2010 by Dionne Brand

More about Dionne Brand

The following are links to other Web sites with information about poet Dionne Brand. (Note: All links to external Web sites open in a new browser window.)

Have you read Ossuaries by Dionne Brand? Add your comments to this page and let us know what you think.

Photo credit: Jason Chow

5 Replies to “Dionne Brand”

  1. I will definitely add this book to my collection. I am intrigued by the author’s innovative style.
    Congratulations on an amazing achievement.

  2. Wonderful, talented, engaged, compassionate, sensitive contemporary poet, a sharp-eyed observer of her own life and that of those among whom she moves. And her world is the international arenas of politics, race, committed activism. Her poetry weaves a strong, lyrical line in a voice that is unique, tender, and pointed among today’s poets, surprising so often with its images, mastery of the language. Her prose is also that of a thinking, perceptive writer, and reflects her poetic sensibilities and craft. She also reads her work very well. Her work has been absorbing me since I (belatedly) discovered it. She is, undoubtedly Nobel quality.

  3. John, thank you for taking the time to share your lovely comments and observations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.