"That man told me he liked my poetry but not my politics (As if they are different)" (1983, p.21)
Dionne Brand may not have thus intended the above remark, but it inadvertently addresses many of the confused notions that critics and poets entertain about the functions of poetry.
The craft and content of poetry are subjects that will forever remain contentious. Today we find it difficult to accept as poetry much of what the nineteenth century British considered so. But our difficulties with poetry have increased. Pre-twentieth century poets created for a specific culture, out of that culture's symbols, beliefs and folklore. There was nothing cryptic about their poetry. Their poems integrated easily into the broad contours of the society's values. It is therefore not surprising that their quarrels about poetry centered almost always on its craftsmanship and intellectual content. Today, despite the fact that we live in a world where Europeans have tried to impose their values, we find a multiplicity of cultures living side by side, and with nothing to link them, apart from the pursuit of wealth and power. From what body of common knowledge does the contemporary poet create? To whom is this poetry addressed? How do we determine whether it is good poetry? These questions can no longer be answered satisfactorily. A poet is left on his/her own to determine what and how she/he would write. If what she/he writes satisfies the prejudices of the publishing house and looks saleable then his/her work is published and promoted. In fact, today the problem of meaning in poetry is so great that our poets seem to be writing for members of exotic cults. To admit that we are unable to understand what they are saying is to risk being termed illiterate.
How is the foregoing relevant to the poetry of Dionne Brand? It is, in the sense that her poetry and poetics reflect what I call the communal choice. To people of African origin, art was and, in some degree, still is a portrayal of the highest ideals of the society, or its laws that must not be transgressed, of those dangers the society should avoid. In short, artists were and still could be guardians of their society's morals. Contemporary black literary artists are faced with the choice of whether to write for the big international publishing houses and their vast readership or whether to address the concerns of their people in language that their people understand. The latter group are those I term communal artists.
Primitive Offensive (1982) gives readers of Dionne Brand's work an apercu of her psychic and historical journey into her people's past and present, equipping herself as it were for the bardic role that the communal artist must inevitably fill. Throughout, the poem evokes ancestral wisdom and practices, and resurrects black folk heroes. The wisdom is necessary for present revelations and guidance and for a cleansing of the colonial detritus. The practices are needed for preservation, the folk heroes for inspiration. But it is in the vignettes, which poignantly link past and present oppression, that much of the poem's power (and instruction) lies. Whether it be the Madagascar woman running from her blackness, or the Dakar man (poor fellow, he thinks being from Senegal makes him French) mistreated by the French Gendarmes or the black Haitian cook thrown into the oven during Toussaint's era because she did not roast the hens to her white mistress's liking--the impact is to jolt you into wakefulness about the ongoing injustice and our own folly.
Equally, the poem presents the questing Black with the available choices: "the grave digger or the dead." Like the speaker in the poem, we, black people, must choose whether to augment other people's bank accounts, give reality to their dreams, be their building blocks or whether to dig the grave in which we bury these too long-enduring assumptions on the part of other races. People of action we must be:
The speaker tells us--
I went to (Paris) to start a war For the wars we never started To burn the Code Noir On the Champs Elysees. …