diary of old and new books #9

The Blue Clerk and Mourning Diary

28 Feb

Title: The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos Author:  Dionne Brand Publisher: Duke University Press Years elapsed: 3 Representative quote:  ‘Then I returned to the Harris Promenade and the white library with wide steps, but when I ask, there was no white library with wide steps, they tell me, but an ochre library at a corner with great steps leading up. What made me think it was a white library? The St Paul’s Anglican Church anchoring the lime-white Promenade, the colonial white courthouse, the grey-white public hospital overlooking the sea? I borrowed a book at that white library even though the library as I imagine it now did not exist. A book by Gerald Durrell, namely, My Family and Other Animals.’

On Monday I am in pain. In the afternoon I start reading The Blue Clerk and on Sunday evening I finish it.

I’ve wanted to read this for a while, since my good friend Vanessa is a big fan of Dionne Brand’s writing, and am glad to have finally got around to it. The Blue Clerk is a poetry book that’s quite unlike any poetry I’ve read before. It takes the form of a protracted dialogue between the clerk (dressed all in blue) and the author. Their strained conversation spans poetry, poetics, communism, language, music, colour, culture, philosophy, music-as-philosophy, history, memory, time, conflict, art, writing, spectacle, and so on. On the wharf looking out at the sea which is ‘roiling some days, calm some days’, the blue clerk inspects innumerable bales of paper that hold the author’s left-hand pages—the author’s unwritten, unfinished, withheld, withdrawn, discarded, restrained, unexpressed, and incomplete thoughts and observations. Immediately, the task of representation and the task’s detritus are revealed to be mutually constitutive; the written and the unwritten exist together and this togetherness weighs heavy on both the clerk and the author. In her beautiful, unspooling essay on Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk, and colour, observation, and representation, Katherine McKittrick writes ‘The practice of observing-telling weighs each figure down. The versos are wearying.’ While the author forgets the bales of paper, choosing to present mostly ‘the presentable things, the beautiful things’, the overwhelmed clerk is tasked with keeping record of the author’s attempts to ethically observe and tell the word, to keep ‘account of cubic metres of senses, perceptions, and resistant facts.’. Here writing isn’t a stabilising practice, it’s an unsettling form of engagement with the present—’the text can only partly express what it feels.’ (McKittrick again). Reading, this puts me in mind of Renee Gladman’s essay The Sentence as a Space for Living: Prose Architecture, where she explores the original as the core question of her work ‘the event before it becomes memory, trying to locate oneself in the present, in language, which is always slightly behind the present.’

I think The Blue Clerk is also similarly (and variously) concerned with the spatialisation of language: ‘the sentence as a space for living’, prose architectures, and the production of the sentence space. In the poems, sentences are things you can enter and wander through ‘a woman is on a train leaving again for Montreal, trying to enter yet another syntax’. It makes me think of Bachelard’s idea about the overlaying text—that one turns through the book as one turns through a city, encountering on the way sense memories, fragments of conversations etc—that when we read ‘we find ourselves experiencing in words, on the inside of words, secret movements of our own.’ McKittrick picks up the book’s imaginative imperative in her essay when she writes about the clerk’s almanac of colours—in the book there are whole versos listing various instances of the colour ‘lemon’, blue, or violet—writing ‘each color asks that the reader focus on and use their own sense of hue to thus imaginatively exit the text. Each color asks that the reader imagine the world with and outside the textual dialogue Brand has written.’ In this way, the text doesn’t sit back or let the reader sit back, it asks the reader not simply to read, rather to read-write.

It is a brilliant book, with so much more to offer than me and my paltry accounting can cover: an ample concern for infrastructure and absurdity ‘twenty mobile phone companies own the electromagnetic spectrum and can sell you a signed two-year contract for the infrared direction and speed at which light travels’ and attention to natural phenomena and taxonomy ‘a ladybug is required. Hippodammia convergens. Or green lacewing larvae. Chrysopa rufilabris. One ladybug can, apparently, eat 5,000 aphids over its lifetime.’ or ‘she notices the bryozoa colonies growing on the joists. Their starburst cilia waving, their gelatinous rooms expanding’, and still more about accounting too, something about log books and ledgers that reminded me of a section in Hazel Carby’s wonderful Imperial Intimacies, which I don’t have it to hand. No matter, it is obviously a book that bears re-reading-writing.

2 March

Title: Mourning DiaryAuthor: Roland Barthes Publisher: FSG Years elapsed: 12 Representative quote:  ‘In the sentence “she’s no longer suffering” to what, to whom does “she” refer? What does that present tense mean?’

On Tuesday I finally get hold of my dad’s social worker and he tells me that there’s been a covid outbreak at the care home and so for two weeks no one can go, which means more delays. He is safe, I am told, which doesn’t stop me from worrying—I feel like I am mere moments from a nervous breakdown and keep texting my sister to ask if I am allowed to have ‘just a little one’. I compulsively make lists all afternoon which makes me feel a bit better against all that. I really want to go somewhere. I go to the bath and read Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary—lol.

I read Mythologies, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, and Camera Lucida during my undergraduate degree but have been putting off Mourning Diary for probably obvious reasons. I’m not sure what made me want to read it now—masochism, probably. Barthes wrote Camera Lucida and kept his mourning diary concurrently, and although I haven’t read it in years, I recall ideas or seeds of ideas from Mourning Diary that crop up more fully in Camera Lucida. Because I’ve read them close together, I have a quick thought about The Blue Clerk’s invitation of the reader’s overlaying text as a kind of punctum, but decide this is probably not a good extension of Barthes’ ideas and don’t go much further into it. 

Roland Barthes started his mourning diary the day after his mother’s death in October 1977. He used the diary, written on 330 index cards, to document what he describes as a ‘chaotic’ mourning and to reflect on the disjunct between the intensity of activity that palliative care demands and the abruptly empty, chasm-feeling of the aftermath. The diary entries, like grief itself, are repetitious, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes platitudinous. In what Barthes might call ‘the formal beginning’ of my own bereavement, I remember travelling back from work on the thameslink and frequently wanting to grab people by the shoulders and, shaking them, beg ‘don’t you understand what’s just happened? how dare you carry on as though nothing has changed?’ Like every other bereaved person, Barthes also laments the world that continues despite his grief ’June 15: Everything began all over again immediately: arrival of manuscripts, requests, people’s stories, each person mercilessly pushing ahead his own little demand (for love, for gratitude): no sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance’.

I find it profoundly painful to read about the way that all the inane and futile attempts to distract oneself from one’s grief ultimately make grief much more pronounced, make the griever much more deeply aware of their grief. He writes so well on the havoc that grief plays with time and tenses: how on holiday or in the shops, grief can disconnect you from the present moment because it always seems to be trying to return you to a time that was or a person that was and isn’t any longer. ‘In the sentence “she’s no longer suffering” to what, to whom does “she” refer? What does that present tense mean?’ he writes. It’s precisely in these quotidian moments—in shops, on holiday, on the train, say—that one is most overcome by grief. At home, Barthes hears something on the radio and thinks ‘How sad! I think of the mornings when I was sick and didn’t go to school, and when I had the joy of staying with her’. When I read this, Butler’s essay Violence, Mourning, Politics, washes over me for the millionth time ‘I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan, one’s own project, one’s own knowing and choosing…’. I wonder if, caught in a time between the old mourning rituals and before new ones have been made ready, the format of the journal—the day book, the diary—can provide a ritual of sorts—daily writing as a way to document grief’s insinuation into everyday life. Who knows.