Dionne Brand’s Inventory is a brooding rumination on the, as its back cover states, “tumultuous early years of this new century.” Brand tackles consumerism, post-modernism, the media, and other 21st century artifacts with the vicious bite of a rattlesnake, bodyslamming defenders of Western solipsism through an elegantly ferocious poetic voice, equal parts Frost and Baudelaire. Her overarching repudiation is crippling comfort; the proclivity of humanity to indulge Freud’s pleasure principle, ignoring the emboldening potential of discomfort and clinging to a commercialist apparatus that acts in loco parentis, shielding (viz., blinding) the infantilized populace from the plights of victims, disparate either geographically or otherwise. Inventory sees Brand reject the sybaritic consumerist culture that hedonistically prioritizes, over all else, pleasure, insisting “I have nothing soothing to tell you, / that’s not my job, / my job is to revise and revise this bristling list, hourly” (100).
Brand recounts horrific tragedies with the unflinching eye of a callous reporter. She notes that “nothing personal is recorded here” (22), and subsequently writes such resolute passages as “demonstrator shot dead in Samarra, / woman in mortar attack in Mosul, / five poultry dealers shot dead in Yusufiyah” (38). For another example, observe the following passage, from towards the beginning of Part III:
“but never mind that, here is the latest watchful hour
– twenty-seven in Hillah, three in fighting in
Amariya, two by roadside bombing, Adhaim,
five by mortars in Afar, in firefight in Samarra
two, two in collision near Kahllis, council member
in Kirkuk, one near medical complex, two in
Talafar, five by suicide bomb in Kirkuk.” (23)
Brand’s witness is journalistic, presenting events baldly, sans flinch or sugar. Through these palpable promulgations she transports readers into the events’ heartless cores, condemning the propensity of audiences to digest tragedies unilaterally. Brand shatters the partisan glass of media coverage with a crowbar of candid verbiage. Indeed, ‘glass’ is an apt analogy, as Brand relatedly writes of a woman who “has to keep watch at the window / of the television” (28). Televisions are, of course, unilateral devices; they are, as Stewie Griffin would say, ‘infernal boxes’ into which human beings dump “the total contents of the brain” (15). Windows, conversely, permit reciprocal perspective, as parties can react to one another through the transparent glass. Thereby, Brand’s equation of ‘window’ to ‘television’ is ironic, undercutting notions of the latter as somehow gifting the viewer an untainted perspective of the event. Rather, Brand suggests, television warps the event into “unreality” (29), innately othering the happenings brandishing its screen.
This pivots into Brand’s contempt for mass culture at large. She writes tragically of squandered time: “there’s another life, she listens, each hour, each night, behind the flat screen and the news anchor, the sleek, speeding cars, the burgers, the breaking celebrity news” (29). Further, she calls Miami “an orange slick blister” (15), sardonically refers to shopping malls as “the malls of all desires” (9), and insists “the earth is corroding already with cities” (40). She also chastises the penchant to care for inanimate objects more than human brethren by anthropomorphizing the former: “roads of viscera… buildings mechanized with flashes and acreages / of tender automobiles” (7); “the chrome muscles of grocery carts, / the hearts of ubiquitous concrete barriers” (42). These uncanny images plunge readers into the depths of introspection, the comicality of a ‘tender’ automobile pressing the issue of what really is tender and, therefore, what is really worth prioritizing.
How, Brand asks, is the populace content to take refuge in “the secret seas of living rooms here” (39) while ignoring the rampant atrocities that occur around them? She suggests mass culture encourages humanity’s individualistic impulse while stultifying its empathy. This results in a society that indulges in superficial assistance, but neglects earnest backing: “the cafes with students plotting / rebellion, / wreathed in thin cigarette smoke and flagrant lust, / the brains angry and lovely with doorways… the tattoo parlours are full as if making / warriors, but nothing happens” (40). Indenting ink upon the body in perfunctory solidarity is an equivocation of responsibility; the offender is merely an imagerial charlatan. Similarly, brains “angry and lovely with doorways” are by no means undesirable, but thoughts alone are immaterial. To step through the physical doorway is a true act of unity. Brand recognizes the unfortunate eagerness of the so-called ‘first world’ to satisfy morality in mere cursory fashion; to superficially satiate the charitable impulse while in effect turning from the frightening, the uncomfortable, and instead luxuriating in “the mollient burdens carried in knapsacks, / all the footwear and headgear and SUVs, / the anodyne poets of jingles” (41).
Brand’s opening line is telling: “we believed in nothing” (3). Perched atop the pillars built by Baudrillard, Derrida, and other postmodern philosophers, the occupants of this new century exist in a sphere where ‘truth’ has been deconstructed to the point of falsifiability. The consequences of this view, Brand suggests, are detrimental to the appreciation of suffering: if “the earth was never the earth, / we were never anyone, / everything we were preceded us, / foolish in the heady days” (4), individual responsibility is sacrificed for its apparent lack of validity. Uncaring immorality is depicted stemming from this philosophy: “she heard one today, veiled, on her cell- / phone say, ‘Tell that dumb bitch to get it’ / sick modernity ciphers sick tribalism / everywhere” (71). The mediascape has merely encoded tribalistic mentality under a veil of circuitry and Sno-cone machines and convertibles. In Inventory, Brand depicts a compassionless society inhabited by a seething, Borgian collective of heartless goblins eager to not only devour your dreams, but wipe their mouths with your hopes afterward. Through straightforward recounting, she attempts to metaphorically ‘open the eyes’ of the reader to the global injustice and horror occurring behind the frameworked one-way glass.