A Poem to Belonging:
Notes to belonging
Notes to be.
And one’s belonging is
When I start a new book, I like to examine the book as a text before I go any further. How is it presented for me, the reader? What kind of clues can I find on the cover that might enhance my reading experience?
Just looking at the cover of Dionne Brand’s book, A Map to the Door of No Return(2001), I notice a few things.
Firstly, I notice a map.
But of course! “Map” is even in the title of the book. I am not surprised to see a map on the cover. Moving on.
Next I notice the subtitle: “Notes to Belonging.”
At first glance, this seems straightforward. The title A Map to the Door of No Returnis quite cryptic and poetic in itself, so perhaps the subtitle merely helps describe what the book is about. In this case, belonging.
Speaking of poetry, next I noticed the testimony on the cover, which declares Brand’s “true home is not Africa, the Caribbean or Canada, but poetry” (“The Ottawa Citizen”).
Home: Not as place, but as poetry. This idea was quite intriguing to me and it is with this thought that I delved into the actual text.
Fast-forward a few hours of reading later and my mind is swirling with Brand’s beautiful storytelling and language, and shaken by her provocative exploration of identity, cartography, and belonging.
The poetry has permeated the pages.
Suddenly, I am seeing the cover of the text with fresh eyes.
Brand’s thematic connection to cartography is made quite clear just in the title of the book alone: A Map to the Door of No Return. However, Brand takes us on a journey to help us see maps beyond cartography.
“There are maps to the Door of No Return. The physical door. They are well worn, gone over by cartography after cartographer, refined from Ptolemy’s Geographia to orbital photographs and magnetic field imaging satellites. But to the Door of No Return which is illuminated in the consciousness of Blacks in the Diaspora there are no maps. This door is not mere physicality. It is a spiritual location” (Brand 2).
Brand acknowledges that maps are most commonly perceived as visual renderings of a physical place. However, she wishes to dismantle this cartographic dominance of maps. Interspersed throughout her writing are several sections titled, “Maps”. The first one of these describes the rufous hummingbird, a curious little bird that can travel thousand of miles between “summer home” and “winter home” just through the instincts of its body (6). As Brand puts it, “it knew its way before all known map-makers” (6). From this, Brand is showing us that there are other ways to navigate the world. Maps are not the only way to know, to represent, to navigate, or to imagine the places we call home.
Moreover, perhaps they are not the most accurate either. In her survey of mapmaking history, she discovers that people need not visit a place in order to produce a map (18). She determines that maps are indeed as fallible as memory itself (60), and “in order to draw a map only the skill of listening may be necessary. And the mystery of interpretation” (18).
I look again at the cover of the book. Now the image of a map does not seem so natural to me. It has become ominous, in a way.
For Brand, maps signify a kind of dissonance. Dissonance between the experience and representation of place; between history and memory; between home and nation; between borders and belonging.
For Brand, she negotiates this dissonance through writing.
Thinking again about the quote on the cover page, if Brand’s “home” exists not on a map, it exists through “poetry”.
In a way, Brand demonstrates how poetic language can help traverse complex notions of identity and belonging.
Brand’s approach is similar to Fred Wah’s in Diamond Grill (2006). Like Brand, Wah uses maps to foray into his story by saying, “Maps don’t have beginnings, just edges” (1). Wah uses this to describe his style of writing, namely, his conscious decision to disrupt the linearity of traditional memoirs (181). Wah uses ‘pods’ of writing to structure his narrative, allowing him to jump back and forth in time and place.
Brand too uses this type of approach to the structure of her narrative. She jumps between different points in her life, from her days as a young girl, questioning her Grandfather on their origins (16), to waking at 4:45 in the morning as an adult, pondering notions of belonging (85). Her story is not constrained by temporal or narrative linearity, and this includes not only her life, but also the histories and experiences of others, in and before her time. It is through this careful threading of the personal, historical, and political where she really draws the poetry out of the prose.
For Wah and Brand, the poetry lies not necessarily in rhymes or stanzas, but through figurative language and provocative structure. Poetry in this sense allows one to break with form and negotiate the complexities of identities that are not necessarily easy to ‘map out’.
“Art, perhaps music, perhaps poetry, perhaps stories, perhaps aching constant movement – dance and speed – are the only comforts” (26).
Returning once again to the subtitle on the cover, I would like to end with some thoughts on belonging. You might have noticed that I included a poem at the beginning of this blog. In analyzing the cover, I found myself playing with the words in the subtitle: “Notes to Belonging.” They seemed so straightforward, but when juxtaposed with a very poetic title, I couldn’t help but read (and write) poetics into it.
What does belonging entail? Can we ‘be’ without belonging? Is there a longing to belong? How is the exclusion of others disguised in the idea of belonging?
… Can we map belonging?
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Vintage Canada, 2001.
“The Ottawa Citizen,” quoted on cover of Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return. Vintage Canada, 2001.
Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill. NeWest Press, 2006.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2016