Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard ReaderPoetry
Reviewed By Kelly Weber
- Coach House Books (2020)
- 336 pages
“I occupy space in Utopia.” This quote from Brossard serves as the epigraph to the introduction of Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader, in which editors Queyras, Robichaud, and Wunker add, “It feels risky even to speak of Utopia when, at the time of this introduction, we see irrefutable evidence of the destructive forces of late capitalism, of heteropatriarchy, of racism and colonialism. . . . [but] Brossard’s work reminds us that when we gather—either on the page reading, or in rooms together—our co-presence conjures the possibility of Utopia.” At the outset of 2021, gathering is full of all kinds of risks. Utopia does, as the editors state in this introduction, “feel impossible.” Yet Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader, a curation of Brossard’s poetry and prose that often reflects on the intimacies of gathering and reading, does perhaps suggest such a possibility. Reading Avant Desire, itself a work of editorial love and reading, feels like an act of both intimacy and necessity. Brossard’s work explores queer feminist desire and thought and bodies both in solitude and in community, and the editors’ curation and translation of her work is an extension of the ethos of gather. For readers previously unfamiliar with her work, Avant Desire also offers an introduction to Brossard’s erotic lyricism and the span of her queer feminist thought and conversations over the years.
One of the great pleasures of Avant Desire is the breadth of innovation and experimentation in Brossard’s extensive oeuvre. In her lineated poetry, for example, Brossard stranges language and the body to transform abstraction into something that feels corporeal, as in her poem “Ultrasound,” excerpted from White Piano and translated by Robert Majzels and Erín Moure:
in the plupresent of fear and ecstasy
in the simple present of our intelligent issues
anon a landscape that rises like an ancient beast
flexible from throat to sex capable of flight and sudden
plunges of inebriate blue
The rendering of a body-landscape through a stranging of syntax and image, which further arrives to us as readers through the intimacies of translation, is astonishing and sensual. Abstraction and adjectives feel lush and odd. Certainly Brossard’s work is in conversation with Gertrude Stein, but readers may also think of Cassie Donish’s The Year of the Femme, a book in which abstractions almost become objects in a queer sensual landscape of concrete images.
Similarly, in her prose and hybrid work, Brossard writes about desire with a Steinian repetition and rinsing of language, as she does in the lyrically erotic “Sous La Langue / Under Tongue”: “Does she friction does she fluvial she essential does she all along her body love the bite, the sound waves, does she love the state of the world in the blaze of flesh to flesh as seconds flow by silken salty cyprin.” (Translated by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood.) The rendering of queer desire feels vital, and the mouth becomes a locus of life through tongue, language, desire, consumption. The queer languaging of love, “the lesbian I love you that unleashes thought . . .” becomes a source of rich possibility.
Brossard’s conversations, prose, and lectures on writing, which speak both in and beyond their moment, also engage with the possibilities of texts and bodies as texts. For example, in the “The Aerial Letter,” excerpted from The Aerial Letter and translated by Marlene Wilderman, Brossard discusses how “Those who have never been able to speak the reality of their perceptions, those for whom the conquest of personal emotional territory has been precluded politically and patriarchally, will grasp that identity is simultaneously a quest for and conquest of meaning.” The rendering of particular bodies’ perceptions as real, “of the body’s anchoring reality / for (the) real” (from “Mauve”) feels crucial to Brossard’s ethos on the page and off as she explores the intimacies of people reading and writing to one another, imagining writing to one another in an act of queer agency and lyricism. Body and language are never separate from one another, and writing and community can create an alternative “semantic corpus” of thought.
Editors Queyras, Robichaud, and Wunker engage in this work in their skillful curation of Brossard’s writing, whether pairing translations or organizing selections across time by such themes as desiring, city, and futures. In the process, they create an active, vital text that puts Brossard’s texts in context and conversation with one another, illustrating the range of her theoretical rigor and embodied lyricism. As someone previously unfamiliar with Brossard’s work, I find that the editors offer a good introduction to the expansiveness of Brossard’s writing and thinking. Brossard’s work disorients and also renders real the body in each genre that she explores, and the editorial and translation practices evoke and maintain this throughout the book.
Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader offers readers an astonishing selection of Brossard’s queer feminist thinking and lyricism, a glimpse of “. . . the infinite utopia thus caress . . . / tongue voracious subject applied igneous / liasing” at the heart of her work. Readers coming to Brossard’s work for the first time may discover, as the editors note, both thrill and balm in her writing. The curation of Brossard’s writing offers a space on the page to gather with Brossard, the editors, and the translators in lush, sensual lyricism and theory that disorients and excites with queer agency and possibility.
Kelly Weber is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection We Are Changed to Deer at the Broken Place (Tupelo Press) and the forthcoming chapbook The Dodo Heart Museum (Dancing Girl Press). Her work has received Pushcart nominations and has appeared or is forthcoming in The Laurel Review, Brevity, The Missouri Review, Cream City Review, Palette Poetry, Southeast Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives in Colorado with two rescue cats. More of her work can be found at kellymweber.com.