Behold! The Revolutionary Dreamer

Dionne Brand’s extraordinary opus, from communist Grenada to an abolitionist future

By Sarah Thankam Mathews

Art By Sharanya Durvasula

As a girl of 13, growing up in 1960s Trinidad, Dionne Brand asked her grandfather what people they had come from. 

Yoruba? No. Ibo? No. Ashanti? No. Mandingo? A shake of the head. 

“He said no to all of them,” she remembered in her 2001 book, A Map to The Door of No Return, “saying that he would know it if he heard it…. I scoured the San Fernando library…. I pestered him for days.” Time passed, Brand’s questioning petered out, and her grandfather never remembered the name of their ancestral people, the name he had once known. This interaction bred estrangement and mutual disappointment. The knowledge denied them, Brand wrote, represented “a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being. It was also a physical rupture, a rupture of geography. We were not from the place where we lived and we could not remember where we were from or who we were…. That moment between my grandfather and I several decades ago revealed a tear in the world.” 

Brand has spent her life entering and working this tear with clarity, dedication, fury, grief, and what we might call the revolutionary hope of a different way. In 1970, she left Trinidad and emigrated to Canada to study at the University of Toronto. At 18, five years after her momentous conversation with her grandfather, she published her first poem, “Behold! The Revolutionary Dreamer.” It ran in Spear, a magazine of Black cultural politics printed and distributed out of Toronto. Over the four decades since, Brand has written poetry as well as novels, criticism, essays, and theory. She has taught, agitated, edited, and worked: as a counselor at the Toronto Immigrant Women’s Centre, as past chair of the Women’s Issues Committee of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Ontario, as an officer in the newly formed leftist government of Grenada in the 1980s. 

Today, Brand is 70, her work celebrated and cherished most particularly in her adopted home of Canada, where she is seen as a leading light of poetry as well as one of the foremost articulators of Black diasporic experience and intellectual life. It is factual, though, that she has been far too stingily recognized and published internationally, and particularly in the U.S. In only a handful of the major outlets that cover, review, or dedicate themselves to poetry, do her 40 years of output get much more than passing mention. In 2022, Duke University Press did right by her extensive body of work, issuing the handsome and dignified Nomenclature: New And Collected Poems in the States. And it is, believe you me, a goddamn treat. 

My perhaps ornery opinion is that Nomenclature should not be read beginning to end, but chronologically as the books within it first appeared, and only after Christina Sharpe’s gorgeous, astute introduction to the text. At Brand’s preference, Nomenclature leaves out what she considers her juvenalia: early, less-mature work. In the order they were published, we first have Primitive Offensive, a sonorous series of cantos, then Winter Epigrams, a charming volume in partial homage to the Nicaraguan poet and liberation theologist Ernesto Cardenal, then the grief-soaked, explosive Chronicles of The Hostile Sun, which take as inspiration and subject of mourning Brand’s years in revolutionary Grenada.

Let us pause for some backstory. In 1979, Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement (NJM) led a popular uprising against the repressive Grenadian leader Eric Gairy, thus turning Grenada into the only socialist country in the Commonwealth. The NJM was nominally Marxist-Leninist but in practice something more potent, thanks to an ideological fluidity and a home-brewed quality — a heady cocktail of Caribbean left traditions, international anticolonial struggle, Black Power, and regional forces. Under Bishop and his fellow revolutionary and lieutenant, Bernard Coard, the NJM, or “The Revo,” as it was affectionately called, formed the socialist People’s Revolutionary Government (PRG) and swiftly began to get to work. 

Bishop did leave the door open to some private enterprise, with an eye to making Grenada a tourist destination; every state, including and perhaps especially socialist ones, need access to capital to function on their terms. The PRG built free and public health care infrastructure, passed edicts banning school fees, and guaranteed equal pay and paid maternity leave for women. Infant mortality rates were halved within three years. And crucially, thanks to Bishop’s savvy in pursuing a mixed economic model where both state control and markets coexisted, GDP per capita doubled, which meant that the quality of life and economic well-being of the average Grenadian had soared. Governments the world over began to take notice. Stateside, the Reagan administration tossed and turned in their beds.

Grenadians, after all, spoke English, unlike the Cubans. The island was almost entirely Black. If revolution was burning so cozily in the Caribbean, providing such warmth to its people, what sparks might fly and catch in the mainland U.S., particularly among Black Americans? The portent of a people’s revolution on this tiny Caribbean island appeared, for a time, to have the power to upend the existing global order. 

If revolution was burning so cozily in the Caribbean, providing such warmth to its people, what sparks might fly and catch?

Thirty-year-old Dionne Brand, years into investigating that pivotal “tear in the world” and its braided causes — colonialism, capitalism, anti-Blackness — in her own words, “could not choose to do anything else but fling myself at the hope that the world could be upturned.” She moved to Grenada from Canada in 1983, befriended Bishop and his partner Jacqueline Creft — also a founding member of the NJM — and began working at the Agency for Rural Transformation as a communications officer. 

She also kept writing poems. In “Eurocentric,” the speaker gives us vintage Brand slyness and wryness, perched somewhere between humorous and irascible:

There are things you do not believe
there are things you cannot believe [….] 
they include such items as
revolutions, when they are made by people of colour
truth when it is told by your privilege […] 
rosa parks’ life, bessie smith’s life and any life 
which is not your own […] 
people waking up in the morning, in any place where you
do not live
people anywhere other than where you live wanting
instead of your charity and coca-cola. 

Brand had a sharp tongue for homegrown injustice too, like the sexism she saw in the movement; “even male revolutionaries,” she growls, “refuse to radicalize their balls.” 

One thing the PRG had not gotten around to yet was democratic elections. Ronald Reagan’s advisors took note of this, also potentially of Grenada’s fossil fuel deposits, and of its growing alliance with Cuba. The PRG grew more fractured, with a schism developing between the massively popular Bishop and the more hardline communist (and military-aligned) Coard. In October 1983, ten months after Brand had emigrated to Grenada, the fractures culminated in intra-party assassinations. Bishop, Creft, and multiple other government officials were murdered. The country began to descend into chaos. And Reagan, citing the specter of Soviet-aligned communism as well as the 800 U.S. medical students at Grenada’s St. George’s, decided to make the call. Operation Urgent Fury, as the invasion was officially named, was, in the words of one U.S. correspondent, a “lovely little war.” 

Amidst the tumult, Brand was airlifted to safety. Her poems about the fall of the PRG, written primarily during the chaos of 1983, are wrenching in their grief and horror: “Maurice is dead, Jackie is dead / Uni is dead, Vincent is dead / […] dream is dead / in these Antilles / […] betrayal again, ships again / manacles again / some of us sold each other.” The poems in Chronicles of the Hostile Sun are an act of artistic witness against real-time imperial invasion. Take “October 25th, 1983”:

The planes are circling
the American paratroopers dropping […]
america came to restore democracy
what was restored was faith
in the fact that you cannot fight bombers
battleships, aircraft carriers, helicopter gunships
surveillance planes, five thousand American soldiers […]
you cannot fight this with a machete
you cannot fight it with a handful of dirt
you cannot fight it with a hectare of land free from bosses
you cannot fight it with free healthcare
you cannot fight it with free education
you cannot fight it with free education
you cannot fight it with women’s cooperatives […]
certainly you cannot fight it with dignity 

Finally, in “For Stuart” we see Brand’s speaker return to Canada, devastated, in possession of a new education. A schooling in politics applied and dreams plundered. The speaker reflects, staccato, monotone: “the metropolis / blocks of study brick / iron street / concrete tree / planes, helicopters, bombs / will probably never touch this.” In her closing, we hear the tear in the world, announced yet again, in lament: “I am not a refugee / I have my papers / I was born in the Caribbean /…I have a Canadian passport / I have lived here all my adult life / I am stateless anyway.” 

To read the books that follow Chronicles is to see a poet try, again and again, to find new ways of speaking that reflect a broken world in constant flux. New, accurate language, after all, represents the possibility of new ways of life. Brand’s gorgeous and lyric No Language Is Neutral, with its meditations on sexuality and coloniality, contains some of the more beautiful love poems that she has ever written. Inventory, written at the time of the Gulf Wars, charts the necropolitics and imperial forces that shape our age. And then we get Ossuaries, one of Brand’s great achievements. It shows, among much else, her genius at bending temporality. One speaker in the poem lives in the future and refers to the present day as a time “even dreams are full of prisons, when every waking is incarcerated.” A recurring preoccupation in Brand’s poetry is the dream of a different world. The present that we live in, with all its tyranny and brokenness, is not vanished in the future, this time-traveling future speaker in Ossuaries says, but it is eroding. It lies in an ossuary, or container for bones. As Brand explained in a 2020 University of Toronto lecture, “the [second] speaker, in the present, has sent a note to that far-off future — it contains disintegrating gigabytes of violent news — and the speaker in the present hopes the news will not reach the speaker in the future; will not reach the future.” This wish for the worst of the present — the long half-life of colonialism and chattel slavery, the ordering forces of racial capitalism and misogyny — to decay in time, to be left behind, is one of the ongoing concerns of Brand’s work.

Nomenclature for the Time Being, a long poem published for the first time in this collection, gives us Brand at the height of her powers. One is struck by her anger, and by her contempt for the violence of innocence: “The beautiful innocence of those / who live at the centre of empire, their / wonderful smiles, their sweet delight and / their singular creation of the word hope, when I am actually dying.” Brand is interested in materiality, industry, whiteness, Blackness, violence history, and what it means to make a life alongside, and despite, them all: “thirty-one thousand reasonable weeks, they said. I / foraged living out of the garbage then, living / glistened on me, bioluminescent like algae.”

“Time is longer than rope, my grandmother would say enigmatically,” Brand noted in a conversation in The Yale Review. “It was a saying passed down to her. At first, I understood it as a warning. As I grew older, I began to understand it as a wry concession to my speed in running away from her. Older still, I understood it as a warning again. And then I had to think it through to its origins in slavery. What it takes to say this. Meaning, we will outlast you; you will not be there forever; rope disintegrates, but time does not. How to feel such a thing, which you know is transient, in your body—a certainty that sorrow and wickedness cannot last.” Brand’s poems hold a steady insistence on nothing quite so pat as hope, but rather, endurance. A belief in future, you could call it. Eight volumes of poetry making manifest both a life constructed in this shattered world and the will to carry on beyond its time.

Browsing wikisource as a mediocrely-educated teen in Oman, I first stumbled into the work of the haunted 20th-century white boys of modernism: rebellious, sexually troubled, reeling from a world exploded by wars — wars that thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Rosa Luxemburg theorized were fueled by the chickens of colonization come home to roost as fascism. One of those poets, W.H. Auden, famously said that “poetry makes nothing happen.” This has been quoted to death; the culture, however, loves to forget his rejoinder: “Poetry makes nothing happen, it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”

A way of happening, a mouth. I thought when I read this of the moment I first felt, in my body, what a poem could do. When I was 15, I read The Waste Land, by another of those modernist poets, T.S. Eliot. Not for school. I stood in the stacks of a library, furrowing my eyebrows, trying to understand. And understand, right away, I certainly didn’t, but I felt something: terror and beauty coming for me as I read. I turned shivery, electrified. I had lived my small life thus far with language serving as gate and cutlery, as broom and deodorant, and all of a sudden, midway through this strange long poem, I knew language as torrent and rainstorm, disorienting and drenching me.

I read more and more poetry, even attempted to write it, but was largely unsuccessful in chasing that first high. I came close with Pablo Neruda, with Denise Levertov, with Adrienne Rich. And then, in my early 20s, my Pakistani-Canadian ex sent me, PDF nestling at the email’s foot, the titular poem from Brand’s Land to Light On. Its opening stopped me in my tracks:

Maybe this wide country just stretches your life to a thinness
just trying to take it in, trying to calculate in it what you must
do, the airy bay at its head scatters your thoughts like someone
going mad from science and birds pulling your hair, ice invades
your nostrils in chunks, land fills your throat, you are so busy
with collecting the north, scrambling to the Arctic so wilfully, so
busy getting a handle to steady you to this place you get blown
into bays and lakes and fissures you have yet to see, except
on a map in a schoolroom long ago but you have a sense that
whole parts of you are floating in heavy lake water heading for
what you suspect is some other life that lives there, and you, you
only trust moving water and water that reveals itself in colour. It
always takes long to come to what you have to say, you have to
sweep this stretch of land up around your feet and point to the
signs, pleat whole histories with pins in your mouth and guess
at the fall of words.

Again and again I read this long multipart poem, its wild expression of border and memory and diasporic longing and anger and loss so much else, feeling something like lightheadedness or love. It was as though someone had revealed my inner life to me for the first time. The wispy and evanescent feelings that floated through me were given language. I am South Asian, not Black, know my ancestral ties and home, hail from the first place in the world to democratically and consistently elect a Communist government, and consider my life shaped by two major migrations — first to the Gulf when I was a toddler, second to North America in my late teens. Besides being queer and itinerant and of the Global South, Brand and my young self had nothing in common. 

But her work gave me something, something that allowed me to locate myself, to slowly construct a map available in no schoolroom I had ever found myself in. This, I think, is part of what poetry can do. Brand herself knew this, writing, “Books leave gestures in the body; a certain way of moving, of turning, a certain closing of the eyes, a way of leaving, hesitations. Books leave certain sounds, a certain pacing; mostly they leave the elusive. They leave much more than the words.”

“How to feel such a thing, which you know is transient, in your body — a certainty that sorrow and wickedness cannot last.”

Poetry makes things happen the way yeast does, its spores floating latent, invisible motes dusting workers and young people and moments cathartic or mundane. Our movements could stand to be fed and leavened by it. And Brand’s poetry, notably, is a body of work that is interested in living and labor and testimony, in tracking history and empire and imagination, in writing “not towards justice, but against tyranny,” in unraveling past and present and future out of their typical modes of cabled linear relation like one might unravel a cardigan. It is rare to find a poet as consistent as she, and for so long, both in terms of excellence and in steady application of a politics. The latter, in her case, is, resolutely Black, decolonial, internationalist, lesbian, and staunchly, unswervingly leftist. Both her poetry and her activism take that fateful youthful epiphany of realizing the tear in the world, then make it a portal of observance and imagining. 

“It’s hell to find pretty words / to describe shit, let me tell you,” the speaker in “Anti-Poetry” says, “I may get beaten up and left for dead / any moment, or more insultingly to the point / ignored.” More people should read Brand, and American institutions should treat her work with the seriousness that greatness merits.

Because Brand is one of our greatest living poets. In artistry she has scaled the heights of a Neruda or an Eliot. An insistence on witness and liberation for all is the spine of every book. She finds innovative and exemplary language for the most painful, quotidian, and visible parts of life and political structure. Let us give her her rightful flowers already. 

In the meantime, Brand, focused as she is on something more expansive than laurels, has no plans to stop or slow down. “I have nothing soothing to tell you,” the speaker in Inventory snarls in closing, “that’s not my job / my job is to revise and revise this bristling list / Hourly.” 

Sarah Thankam Mathews is the author of the National Book Award shortlisted novel All This Could Be Different (2022). Having grown up in India and Oman, she now lives in Brooklyn, NY. In 2020, she founded the mutual aid network Bed-Stuy Strong.