There is a sensual, affirming candor to the poems in Glitter & Fall, Winnipeg poet Di Brandt’s reimagining of the Dao De Jing, a text that dates from the fourth century B.C.E., but that remains essential reading for those interested in the Chinese philosophical tradition of living in harmony with the universe. For readers familiar with its eighty-one numbered “chapters,” Brandt advises that the poems in Glitter & Fall do not follow this pattern. Rather, they reflect her growing appreciation of its teachings and her own notion of order as the work took shape. The resulting collection is, in every sense of the word, faithful to Laozi’s teachings; yet, in key ways, it is wonderfully unorthodox.
Brandt opens Glitter & Fall with two poems that establish the inclusive, intercultural and feminist perspective that informs the work. In the first poem, “Wild rose petals,” we observe the great mother at rest, seemingly detached, having delivered her children into the world. She writes: “… Settling herself dreamily in her / downy empty nest, she seemed dazed, / a trimmed midsummer red willow pole, / humming in her carved rocking chair, / nuzzled by wasps, sung to by drying leaves.” (3) This poem is followed by “Ishtar, fish star,” in which Brandt names a number of female deities worshipped for millennia. She writes: “Before space, before earth, before time, / before water, fire, air, / before trees, before seeing, before sound, / You were there, Spider Grandmother, / grizzly-tongued Oma, gorgeous / sweet-lipped, wrinkled Queen of Heaven. …” (4) Throughout the book, it is the feminine that observes, admonishes, advises, and celebrates, all the while voicing Daoist principles of spiritual and ethical ways of being in the world.
In keeping with the dynamic of the Dao, the poems in Glitter & Fall are precise in detail, but wide-ranging and expansive. Regarding the environment, she writes: “… The round blue green Earth / holds her precise place and motion / intact in the turning Galaxy. / Oak trees and cherry blossoms, / foxes and cows, and songbirds / and humans, / each preserve their form. …” (60) Regarding leadership, she writes: “If you want to be a fair guardian / of your country / (garden, home), / take a pinch of dirt / from under your feet / and put it on your tongue. / Only when you have tasted / the literal standing ground / of the people / (vegetables, birds, children) / can you understand / and direct them. …” (43) And regarding the significance of small things, of stillness and silence, she writes: “… The red tomatoes grew from small seeds / in the dark earth into thin air. …” (9) Brandt’s blend of vibrant, accessible images and her practical prairie sensibility reminds us that to be still is to tend to ourselves, so that we can tend to each other, our communities, and the earth beneath our feet.
Brandt calls the poems in Glitter & Fall “transinhalations,” a term coined by poet and translator Robert Mazjels to describe the process of making room for the “other” in order to make possible the translation of meaning and intent inherent in their words. Using this transformative mode, Brandt has created poems steeped in the wisdom of the ages, yet filled with the familiar: the pickerel in its silver sheath; the milkweed that feeds the Monarch; the stunted trees along the banks of the Red River. With these images, this way of seeing/hearing/naming, Brandt writes beauty, wisdom, harmony, and the Divine Feminine, into our complicated times.
Di Brandt—who served as Winnipeg’s first Poet Laureate (2018-2019) – is a renowned poet, author, editor, and teacher. She is the author of several books of poetry and critical works, including the 2012 chapbook SHE: Poems inspired by Laozi; Walking to Mojacar (2010); Now You Care (2004); Jerusalem, Beloved (1995); Agnes in the Sky (1990); and, questions i asked my mother (1987). She has received numerous awards for her poetry, including the CAA National Poetry Prize, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, and the Gerald Lampert Award.
Glitter & Fall, Laozi’s Dao De Jing, Transinhalations
By Di Brandt
Turnstone Press, 2018, 92 p.p.,$17.00
Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.