Moving Like Water: Non-linearity as a Decolonial Practice in Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk


“I am trying to find a language, yes, the author says, a language without… I am trying to find a thought, the clerk says, a thought without… a thought unburdened of all you are burdened with” (97).

I opened The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos and immediately sunk deep into its words, captivated by the lyricism and the questioning of the speakers, and found it hard to stop.

The world of The Blue Clerk comes alive in colour. It is all “violet toll roads, freezing violet, museums of blue, violet turbines, blue vistas,” (211) all “the sense of orange” (209), all “the escarpment of a yellow house” (209). This world is moving like the water by the wharf where the Blue Clerk lives, a space of experience and texture, rather than time and place. The text is urgent and it is contemplative, it is stressed and unstressed, it lives in the complexity of difference and duality. Within the narrative, the main fixed points are the conversations between the Clerk and the Author, a constant back and forth between seeing and feeling. “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel” (205). While the characters are distinct, they often blend into each other, two sides of the same coin. The Clerk becomes a keeper, a filer, ready to bring forth evidence of the Author’s past feeling and watching, a reminder that the Author has changed, has felt, has been in the world during more moments than she realizes. And in this documenting, this placing of things in specific memory boxes, there is also room for the ephemeral role of time. The past consistently takes as important a role in The Blue Clerk as the present, and as the future.

In an interview with Canisia Lubrin, Brand says, “the space the poet occupies is against the official narrative. The poet collects the sounds, the meanings, and through accumulation, something appears. The job of the poet is to notice”. This concept informs part of reading the non-linear in this book of Versos, the burden of thought, these left-hand pages, these observations. This book also works towards that anti-colonial space in so many ways beyond the initial lack of narration/lack of linear sense. Questioning in the book becomes a non-authority. While the Author and the Clerk are clearly well-read, smart individuals, they do not proclaim to know everything, or to know all of the answers. The two characters act as foils for each other, a constant dialogue of questioning of the world and history that is meant to further their own understanding, but not the narrative. Even if they think they know something about the world, they question it. And what better way is there to be? The Clerk, the cynic, the one who feels the pain of the world without having to live in it is not the answer, but also might be part of the solution. The Blue Clerk is the process of questioning what it means to function in the world of white supremacy, racism, capitalism, sexism, and what it means to forget in order to live.

Moments of challenge come up often for the Author, who is trying to find ways to be more at peace in the world, without becoming complacent. What does it mean to be Black in these spaceless, placeless Versos, that understand so much of the time and place of the world within their framework? The Author looks to authors she’s studied and admired, and wonders at their past, the John Lockes and the Platos of the world, who owned slaves or in some way participated in the slave trade, and what it means to be unable to forget this: “Who on earth is left who did not say an awful thing, the clerk wonders. Who. Who did not disguise it as sophistication, as knowledge, as wit. What jadded poses dismiss all dreadfulness. How the author bears all this is alarming. And that isn’t even the worst. Such memory loss you have” (106). While the Author contends with forgetting to survive, the sheer absurdity of having to try to forget is white supremacy in the flesh. The Clerk, living in the non-world, is not ruled by the same restrictions, and can hold onto her anger, letting it fuel her existence: “The clerk knows where the emergency is, where the anger is, where the salt, where the sugar, where the flowers” (208).

Moving back and forth the idea of complacency in her palm, the Author, “unfortunately, not yet immune to the real-real […] sat and watched [on her tv] with such anxiety, such nausea — it seemed/it was immoral to rise and go to sleep,” as the war in Iraq unfolded. Similarly to Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, the speakers in both long poems address the privilege of living in the West, and the war in the Middle East, with a deep understanding of their own privileges. Rankine says, “In third world countries, I have felt overwhelmingly American, calcium-rich, privileged, and white” (108). Despite living daily violences as Black women, they also explain living in relative comfort. While this is personal and subjective, the ways in which these women’s experiences overlap furthers the questioning and the contradiction in both poetry books, expanding what it means to live as a racialized person within a global context. The Author in The Blue Clerk says, “All day before we had been seduced by an anemic map of Iraq, its red corpuscles of towns and cities, missing — one great star-like cell representing the goal of our desired invasion/pervasion. The real-real city that lay secreted from us. No one inhabited that place. We are accustomed to this ‘no one’ as you know, this ‘no one’ is our ongoing colonial reality show” (64-65). The Blue Clerk decenters Western experiences as central and contextualizes the roles we play as Western-living people of colour in normalizing these ongoing violences. Turn off your TV, and it’s gone — if you don’t know anyone on the other side of the world, you don’t have to care. This idea is problematized, rolled around in the Author’s palm, and while there are no solutions, there is care for the folks dealing with war, there is humanization, and a link of solidarity between people of colour in North America, and people of colour in the East. There is a beginning of a conversation.

The Blue Clerk makes me want to write, makes me want to strive to be a better writer, to bask in this work’s importance, this work’s beauty. Akwaeke Emezi, author of Freshwater, tweeted, “I like to think of competition as a push to be the best writer you’re capable of being, like reading someone else’s work and being like, fuck that made me want to write even better, that made me want to push what I think I’m capable of […] being like I’m coasting this is some next level writing and I want to get to the point where I can write a book that makes me feel the way [my favourite books] did”. And I think Brand’s place in this literary world as a queer, Black writer is to push us, the other younger queer and racialized writers, to do more, to be more, to work more, to realize that we can strive for more.

Eli Tareq Lynch is a poet working in Montreal. Their work has appeared in The Puritan, the Shade Journal, The New Quarterly, The Best Canadian Poetry 2018 anthology, and elsewhere, and they have participated in the Banff Centre’s ‘Centering Ourselves’ BIPOC residency. They are currently the Publicist at carte blanche, and the Events Coordinator at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly. Follow their book reviews @abookclubofonesown