Osbey, Brenda Marie
OSBEY, Brenda Marie
Born 12 December 1957, New Orleans, Louisiana
Daughter of Lawrence (Sr.) and Lois Hamilton Osbey
A native of New Orleans, Brenda Osbey grew up in seventh ward, the largest downtown black community in the city, and attended McDonogh 35, an all-black examination high school in Faubourg Tremé. The area next to the French Quarter, Tremé had once been the site of Congo Square where before the Civil War, slaves congregated, practiced their religions, and carried on what recreation was allowed them. The area was also the focus of free black life in the city. Osbey attended Dillard University (B.A. 1978), a historically black college, and the Université Paul Valéry at Montpellier, France. In 1986 she received an M.A. from the University of Kentucky.
Writer in residence at Loyola University in New Orleans since 1989, Osbey has taught at Dillard University and the University of California at Los Angeles. She has been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the MacDowell Colony, the Millay Colony, and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College. A writer of narrative poetry, Osbey has published three books to critical acclaim. In 1980 she won the Academy of American Poets Loring-Williams Prize; in 1984 she was honored with an Associated Writing Programs Award; and in 1990 won an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship.
Her first book of poetry, Ceremony for Minneconjoux: Poems (1983), is about the women of New Orleans, and it is their voices that are heard in the poems. There is Lavinia, who lives in the tan house on Calliope Street and sings, as she says, "to tell the truth as i know it." And there is Minneconjoux whose mother named her "so that people would not mistake / her indian blood." The women—Eliza, Minneconjoux, Ramona Véagis ("who fell off the earth in 1916"), Eileen—make connections with each other and with women from other generations. In their stories there is a map of the city and a tapestry of black New Orleans life.
In These Houses (1988) speaks again for generations of women. As in her earlier book, Osbey depends on many of the oral traditions of black New Orleans, and she appends a glossary to clarify phrases and to highlight the special traditions of the city. Divided into three sections, "Houses of the Swift Easy Women," "House of Mercies," and "House of Bones," the book is a chronicle of the spiritual lives of women, and hoodoo, or voodoo, is evident not simply in rituals but in the spiritual care people take of one another. Elvena in her madness has lost touch with her neighbors, as Ramona Véagis did in "Ceremony." It is the work of mothers or healers, central figures in Osbey's poems, to bring them back to the community. As with the women, the houses have stories: if "you go inside for the first time / its stories come out to meet you." In the final poem in the book, Osbey sums up the intensely spiritual nature of the lives of women and urges her readers to connect themselves to houses: "this is the house / i have carried inside me / this is the house / made of artifact and gut / this is the house / all my bones have come from / this is the house / nothing / nothing / nothing can tear down." Bodies and souls are one in the house of life, and nothing can destroy the spirit of the powerful women whom Osbey portrays.
Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Women (1991) is a long narrative poem set, as is much of Osbey's poetry, in the Faubourg Tremé. The speaker of the poem asks at the beginning, " do you know what hunger is? " and sets the tone for the rest of the narrative. It is the story of mothers and daughters, women and lovers; it is the story of rituals that heal and those that destroy; it is the story of obsession and loss; and finally, it is the story of the Faubourg and its "slave-bricked streets" and the rains that threaten to wash it all away.
All of Osbey's poetry is redolent with a sense of place and time passing. Past and present mingle in the lives of her women and in the vibrant and exotic life of the city. It is in her memories that Osbey conjures up race memories of the Faubourg and of its people.
All Saints: New and Selected Poems (1997).
American Book Review (April 1992). Louisiana Lit. (Fall 1987). Mississippi Quarterly (interview, Winter 1986-87). Parnassus (1985, 1992). Southern Review (Fall, 1994).
—MARY A. MCCAY