Avant Desire

The definitive survey of an essential feminist poet.

In June 2019, Nicole Brossard was awarded the Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Poetry Trust. Rarely has a prize been so richly deserved. For five decades she has been writing ground-breaking poetry, fiction, and criticism in French that has always been steadfastly and unashamedly feminist and lesbian.

Avant Desire moves through Brossard’s body of work with a playful attentiveness to its ongoing lines of inquiry. Like her work, this reader moves beyond conventional textual material to include ephemera, interviews, marginalia, lectures, and more. Just as Brossard foregrounds collaboration, this book includes new translations alongside canonical ones and intertextual and responsive work from a variety of artist translators at various stages of their careers.

Through their selections, the editors trace Brossard’s fusion of lesbian feminist desire with innovation, experimentation, and activism, emphasizing the more overtly political nature of her early work and its transition into performative thinking.

Devotees of Brossard will be invigorated by the range of previously unavailable materials included here, while new readings will find a thread of inquiry that is more than a mere introduction to her complex body of work. Avant Desire situates Brossard’s thinking across her oeuvre as that of a writer whose sights are always cast toward the horizon.


Sina Queyras

Sina Queyras is the author most recently of the poetry collections Lemon Hound and Expressway both from Coach House Books. She is also working on a novel titled, Autobiography of Childhood, which an excerpt from appeared in translation in Siecle 21 out of Paris. She has lived across Canada, in New Jersey, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Currently she lives in Montreal where she teaches and keeps a blog, Lemon Hound.


Genevieve Robichaud

Geneviève Robichaud is the author of Exit Text (Anstruther Press, 2016), a nano-essay on the errant and secret life of ideas. Her research focuses on twentieth- and twenty-first-century writings with an emphasis on translation as the poetry of thought still to come. She holds a PhD in English literature from the Université de Montréal.


(On Notebook of Roses and Civilization ) [L]yrical descriptions of lesbian desire coupled with a continued meditation on language. Brossard conflates writing with lovemaking [… ] the poems forming a grammar of desire, like a diagrammed body. [T]he nearly hundred poems in Ardour appear as fragments, but their brevity belies their breadth. [… ] I feel saved by their intimacy, partly owing to their diminutive size: they feel like whispered truths, or at least consolations. (On Baroque at Dawn) The book is studded with long poetic riffs that cry out, even in translation, to be heard. Brossard is the master of the headlong, breathless, involving description. [… ] It is an arresting beginning that showcases the talent that won Brossard a Governor General’s Award for her poetry, as well as Quebec’s Prix Athanse-David for the whole of her work. (On Selections) [A] text lush with sensuality and sharp angles, precise and lacking fear. Even through translation it’s impossible to fail to notice Brossard’s control of words: the way they hold together with obvious strength yet create delicate movements as well. (On Fences in Breathing) The voices of fiction and truth bleed in and out of each other; relationships ebb and sharpen; portraits are etched and blurred; the summer gives way to autumn and steel” in one breath. [… ] The atmosphere of reverie that mesmerizes the novel’s characters and sends them careening into other selves also overcomes the reader – we are taken by the slow eroticism of great masses of language and meaning moving into each other, by the precisionof “the dry sound of the piano cover being lifted,” the lyricism that Brossard nimbly doles out [… ] The English version is suggestive without being overt, and playful without seeming clever; it’s the perfect translation of an elegant, complicated book. Her language moves between sensuality and deconstructionism in a luscious interplay between the abstract and the corporeal. [… ] The new translations in Selections are a provocative delight. (On Fences in Breathing) The language with which their stories are built conceals as much as it betrays, not only about the characters but also about the writer-narrator. Full of tantalizing loose ends and teasing suggestions, this novel invites the reader into a psychological landscape as complex and remote as the chateau in which the action takes place. (On Notebook of Roses and Civilization) Nicole Brossard is a national treasure, and we don’t need the Molson Prize and her two Governor General’s Literary Awards to remind us of that. [… ] Brossard summons up the sorts of words that drive and haunt us: names of places and people, of cherished objects, words of pleasure and pain, words that “shoot up before our very eyes like cloned shadows replete with light and great myths.” The word is entangled with civilization and its discontents, but also preserves and exalts the realm of the rose. (On Intimate Journal) [A] a gorgeous, organically coherent and fully formed meditation on the nature of biography, self-reflection, anger, art, friendship and lesbian life. [… ] This prose is so eloquent, so precise, you feel privileged to be allowed inside her head. I just wish the book were longer. Nicole Brossard’s White Piano dwells along a series of temporal and physical borderlines: between the apocalyptic panic of the future and the archival pleasure of the past, between the body’s politics of touch and language’s typological risks, and between concrete detail and totalizing abstraction. [… ] Brossard works in a space defined by both a worry about the potential violence carried in the body and language and an understanding of the need forstory. “


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Excerpts & Samples ×


from Notebook of Roses and Civilization

tr. Robert Majzels and Erín Moure

It’s fears slow and fascinating that enter life each morning at coffee time while she wonders if tomorrow there’ll be war and brusquely as she does each morning slices bread and cheese. It’s gestures of uncontrollable avidity that proliferate in the throng and its worldly febrility, its parquet fever on the trading floor and stage. It’s hesitations, heart cries that crisscross broad avenues full of shade and dust that attract and make us think of our legs and elbows, our knees too when desire bumps and bounces words and feelings upward, it’s simple things with prefixes like cyber or bio that hold thoughts fast, float them a moment till we believe them aquatic and marvellous. It’s certainties that in tiny increments of dust and light are soon mixed with our tears. It’s inexplicable feelings made of small hurts strung over long years and vast horizons, it’s blues ideas that settle in where the happiness of existing threatens to take the breath away or to lodge itself in the throat like an instrument of fervour. It’s glimmers of intoxications impossible to look at for long, thoughts so precise that engage us beyond shade and wind, far beyond crude words, so noisy so terribly close to silence that the world all around seems suddenly engulfed in high seas and continual rustling like the music in our heads that in one stroke of the bow dislodges all that resists torment. It’s underlined passages, fragments of happiness that traverse the body and raise bridges all around because elsewhere and in the wild blue yonder they say there’s euphoria. It’s written down with bruises, abundance of life burst to fullness in a world and its niches of worn paths that lick at the shadow of bones.

Cahier de roses et de civilisation

2003, tr. 2007


from White Piano

tr. Robert Majzels and Erín Moure

        stubborn backbone

        that chafes the depth of thoughts

in the plupresent of fear and ecstasy

in the simple present of our intelligent tissues

anon a landscape that rises like an ancient beast

flexible from throat to sex capable of flight and sudden

plunges of inebriate blue

the present wants the present up to the ears

then pain marks who is present; in the distance, cicadas

phrases unfurled 2ice without infinitive

at the time of the best sketches of solitude


An Introduction by

Sina Queyras, Geneviève Robichaud, and Erin Wunker

‘I occupy space in Utopia. I can push death away like a mother and a future.’

In the epigraph above, taken from Picture Theory, the speaker makes a statement that is both factual and futuristic: I occupy space in Utopia. 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. None of these structures that fundamentally shape our different lives make space for Utopia, and yet Brossard writes that future into the present. The confidence and power of her speaker is both seductive and generative. Here, in Utopia, the speaker can push death away like a mother, without having to be a mother.

Nicole Brossard’s work is both thrill and balm – and now, in Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader, readers can encounter the full range and scope of her trajectory. We have worked to curate selections that will be relevant and, we think, exhilarating to new and returning readers of Brossard’s work, and we have moved across genres and through time, not in a linear way but in a way that fits the always-aliveness of her work. If Utopia seems impossible to readers in 2020, 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.

Over a fifty-year period, Nicole Brossard has published more than forty works of poetry, prose, essays, and non-fiction. She has broken through the bonds of sexual and linguistic repression, and in doing so has reached across several generations and two solitudes to enchant avant-garde, feminist, and academic readers and writers nationally and internationally, creating a radical, complex, and influential body of literature. It is work that never forgets the importance of pleasure, and that never loses hope in the possibility of Utopia. For the scholar Susan Rudy, Brossard’s writing is comparable to Virginia Woolf in being ‘uncompromising’ in its ‘critique of patriarchal reality, unrelenting in her love for women, and unequalled in [its] aesthetic experimentation.’1 Has any other Canadian writer enjoyed the kind of feverish collaboration and translatory attention paid to Brossard? And has any other Canadian writer had the kind of attention that comes not from the established literary complex down but from the ground up? Poets, writers, and translators have taken up Brossard’s work largely as a labour of love. This is quite impressive when you consider that at the core of this fervour is a radical lesbian innovative writer who comes to English only through translation.

Brossard’s work was initially made accessible to non-French readers through her collaboration with the late Barbara Godard. In an interview with Smaro Kamboureli, Godard noted that she, a bilingual feminist academic, was working to create ‘institutional spaces for intellectual work … and especially feminism in the 1980s when it emerged as an academic discipline.’2 Godard translated Brossard’s poetry for a reading with Adrienne Rich for the Writers in Dialogue conference (1978), as well as her editorial work for Room of One’s Own (1978). Then, frustrated with the lack of conversation between feminist writers in English and French Canada, Godard held the Dialogue conference (1981), which was designed to bring together ‘people across language barriers.’3 A similar urge for connection between English Canada and Quebecois writers would push Godard and Frank Davey to create the Coach House Press Translation Series, which ran from 1974 to 1986.4 Brossard’s work was among the first to be published in the series. Godard largely introduced Brossard’s work to readers in English Canada, translating L’Amèr (1977) and in turn introducing her to the writing of continental French theorists such as Gilles Deleuze: ‘I recognized in particular the serial system of Brossard’s diction and its exploration of “surfaces of sense,” of making the textual body a virtual surface for the inscription of desire.’5 The significance of this collaborative moment is striking. Here, Godard underscores not only the labour involved in translating writers from French to English in Canada, she also acknowledges Brossard’s theoretical influence on her own feminist intellectual development beyond national borders. We see, too, the threads of connection woven between a feminist theorist translating a feminist writer-intellectual in the title of the final publication in the Quebec Translation Series (Surfaces of Sense, 1989). Brossard’s work has forged transformative connections between English and French feminist writers in Canada, and beyond.

The fabric of Brossard’s poetics is one that is also, and importantly so, an invitation to a sensory experience. She has been involved in founding editorial projects like La Barre du jour (1965), Les Têtes de pioches (1976), and La Nouvelle barre du jour (1977). She has helped create numerous anthologies (Anthologie de la poésie des femmes au Québec, 1991; Poèmes à dire la francophonie, 2002; Baiser vertige, 2006; and Le Long poème, 2011). She has also been involved in collaborative stage productions and monologues such as La Nef des sorcières presented at the Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde in Montreal in 1976 (translated by Linda Gaboriau and published as part of Coach House Press’s Quebec Translation Series in 1980 under the title A Clash of Symbols), and Célébrations, which was also presented at the TNM in 1979, as well as Je ne suis jamais en retard at the Théâtre d’aujourd’hui in 2015. There is also her most recent multisensory spectacle and collaboration with Simon Dumas, Le Désert mauve, at L’Espace Go in the fall of 2018.

It is hard to oversell the benefits of the kind of space Brossard creates, even as we are in the midst of an exciting feminist publishing renaissance – a space rooted in many particularities of time, politics, aesthetics, and community, but perhaps foremost this space is an example of the potential of what can be created when thinking through language and in relation to others. This is crucial and central to both Brossard’s work and her position as writer and thinker. In addition to those scores of books, there are countless collaborations, including the documentary Some American Feminists (1977), an endeavour between Brossard, Luce Guilbeault, and Margaret Wescott. The collective buoyancy of the feminist moment in the seventies is well captured in the documentary film, which chronicles the uninhibited powers of a feminist utopian imaginary. For Brossard and her contemporaries, establishing a ‘system of feminine values, the movement and strategies of feminine and/or writing’6 became a way of subverting the patriarchal language that occluded them. How can writing, reading, theorizing, and translating be rethought, they asked, and how can language and literature alter or mark one’s presence in the world? Collaborative thinking, utopian thinking, desiring thinking: all these theoretical models matter.

As the writer Lisa Robertson puts it in her introduction to the English translation of yet another of Brossard’s collaborative engagements, Theory, A Sunday (excerpted here), ‘theory was not only an institutional discourse but a manual and testing ground for political revolution.’ It is our hope that this reader will work as both archive and incentive. As an archive, we aim to show Brossard’s artistic and intellectual work both. In turn, we hope that the resonance of her thinking in these texts acts as motivation and material for future revolutions.

Our selection process has been a dynamic one. In addition to working across provincial borders and time zones, we editors have been thinking together across linguistic and lived experiences that differ from each other. We feel this is a strength, and that the dynamism of our process is in conversation with what we see in Brossard’s work. Avant Desire is organized by thematic sections, which we will go on to describe more fully below. Readers will notice the ways in which these sections cross-pollinate. This is both deliberate and inevitable: Brossard has been orbiting and evolving her writerly attention around some key themes. Desirings; Generations; The City; Translations, Retranslations, Transcollaborations; Futures: each of these descriptors hails, for us, some of the central concerns and beautiful obsessions of Brossard’s work.

Readers familiar with Brossard will recognize some key texts from her oeuvre. Mauve Desert, for example, with its feminist innovations on the form of the novel and its translative play is indispensable to new and returning readers. Likewise, the poetic consciousness-raising of The Aerial Letter reminds those of us familiar with her work of Brossard’s ability to intertwine historical reflection on the effects of heteropatriarchy with a buoyant hope in a feminist future we so desperately need, then and now. We have worked to present some of Brossard’s less-known, less-accessible writing, as well as some new translations of her work. Our thinking, throughout this process, has been to highlight the importance of collaboration, of translation, of returning to key themes, images, and concepts over the course of this writer’s life. Readers will encounter some of the compromises we have made, as well. For example, in order to make tangible the discursive nature of Brossard’s translations, as well as her work with translators, we have sacrificed the usual airiness of her layouts in service of more crosstalk. We are confident that our commitment to bringing these particular selections together plots a course full of delicious tributaries for the reader. Our work, which has taken us to archives and libraries, through emails and conversations with each other and with other writers, and, wonderfully, to Brossard’s dining-room table, has led to some joyous discoveries.

Reader Reviews



320 Pages

1.25lb1.0in5.75in * 8.75in


August 18, 2020


Coach House Books



Book Subjects:

POETRY / Canadian



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