A Poetics of Elsewhere

I remember a year during my growingly distant undergrad in which my final essays routinely became contemplations of the failures and inadequacies of language. I saw this trope everywhere. And now that I sit to write this, I’m realizing that I’ve been writing and talking about language, its treacheries and opportunities, in one way or another ever since. How it fails, how it frustrates, how it empowers, how it—to borrow from Daphne Marlatt—both “sustains and contains us” (9). Although I’ve been interested in the bounds of expression for a long time, in encountering The Dyzgraphxst, I realized I was facing new challenges and contemplations. The content itself may point towards a complex, even torturous, relationship with language: the “illegible hand overcrowds what I need to say” (136); “language” sits beside “(languish)” (123), which hearkens to NourbeSe Philip’s “Discourse on the Logic of Language”; “footnotes lodge the throat” (29); the tongue is “slash[ed]” (12, 105); the mouth is “sewn” (19). And yet it is less this narrative of language and more so how the reader is positioned in language that is the gift (and perplexity) of The Dyzgraphxst. Lubrin figures The Dyzgraphxst as contemplating the question, “What does one do in language—and in writing and in books?” (“Canisia Lubrin Uses”; emphasis added). I very much take to heart that repetition of “in.” Language is a space and time inhabited. The Dyzgraphxst creates a “word-world” (58) in which the reader is asked “who will stay here long enough / to exit with me” (69). The reader is implored to “rest here in this sentence where nobody knows I, or you already” (30; emphasis added). This is a text that positions the reader not as witness to language but as resident in language, a positioning at once empowering and unsettling. As Lubrin describes it, “A reader is in control of their reading. The imagination is a great—and troublesome—guide” (“Exploration”). Reading may be a “creative act” (“Canisia Lubrin Wins”), but to be creative in reading, as with other arts, is to enter an unknown with risks and trepidations.


As I settled into The Dyzgraphxst and my slow—often halting, often recursive—reading of it, the question that most poked was, what was my reading process communicating? More specifically, what was Lubrin’s form, and the reading process that it motivated, communicating? What I discovered—or created—was a sense that Lubrin’s poetic form consistently points towards an elsewhere beyond the text we have in front of us, an elsewhere still within language but offering an alternate path where meaning’s possibilities multiply.


Thanks in part to Lubrin’s overt acknowledgement that she “owes a great debt to Christina Sharpe” (Dyzgraphxst 165), my reading imagined Lubrin’s poetic form into a manifestation of Sharpe’s conceptualization of “otherwise” in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Throughout In the Wake, Sharpe seeks “ways of knowing” (13) that involve “imagin[ing] otherwise” (18). If “to be in the wake is to occupy and to be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (13-14), then “to imagine otherwise” (51) is to ask, “What lives would Black people have had outside of slavery?” (11). What is it “to confront [one’s] inability to think blackness otherwise” (11)? Lubrin’s elsewhere spaces may not offer answers to these questions, but they motivate an engagement with the imaginative act of discerning and interpreting alternate discourses. As such, these elsewhere spaces become training ground for imagining otherwise.


I am not sure when I started to notice the elsewheres throughout The Dyzgraphxst. I do not know what line first caught my attention. Was it the “unrecognizable versions of elsewhere” (121)? Was it when “this one / existence” becomes at the same time “this so many elsewheres” (128)? Or was it earlier when the “I” admits, “porous as I am elsewhere a dream” (80)? What I do know is that when I recognized the pattern of the act titles, I knew that there was something going on. Each of the seven acts in The Dyzgraphxst is titled with a question beginning with “Ain’t I”; each act is also said to be “elsewhere called” something else. So, for example, Act I’s “Ain’t I at the Gate?” is elsewhere “the means by which to burn” (5); Act II’s “Ain’t I Nickname for Home?” is elsewhere “a matter of fact” (31); Act III’s “Ain’t I Épistémè?” is elsewhere “the transaction of dream and return” (49); Act IV’s “Ain’t I the Ode?” is elsewhere “to be” (95); and so on. Possibly crafting a further elsewhere, I also played with the thought that perhaps solely the “I” in the act titles is named differently elsewhere. I wondered if, for example, “Ain’t I at the Gate?” is elsewhere “Ain’t I the Means by Which to Burn?”; that “Ain’t I Nickname for Home?” is elsewhere “Ain’t I a Matter of Fact?”; that “Ain’t I Épistémè?” is elsewhere “Ain’t I the Transaction of Dream and Return?”; that “Ain’t I the Ode?” is elsewhere “Ain’t I to Be?”; and so on. In this second interpretation, the questions about the “I” multiply and thus the need to define the self against how it has been defined by others intensifies. In the first interpretation, however, the elsewhere that is envisioned is one in which, for good or bad, the “I” is no longer part of a question, is no longer questioned. In this elsewhere, as much as there is an assertion that one can speak from a position of being—namely Act IV’s “to be” (95)—there is also the implication that the loss of questioning is a loss of self. After all, Act VI’s “Ain’t I a Madness?” becomes merely “archaeology or case closed” (117), a movement suggesting that the self becomes of the past with little of it left to navigate and/or to define for the future. I would acknowledge too that even Act IV’s movement towards “to be” is a movement away from “the Ode” (95) and the ode’s function as a celebration of its subject.


Lubrin’s crafting of the act titles as shifting subsequently pointed me towards other aspects of the text’s form where we are given the opportunity to glimpse elsewheres and/or to create them. Strategic repetitions, for instance, created a déjà vu of sorts, sending me back through the text and making my reading process itself an engagement with elsewhere. In essence, in encountering a word, phrase, or image that I thought I had encountered before, I went in search of it, and thus in search of what it had meant elsewhere. These repetitions, particularly those that formed patterns—the “elsewhere called” of the act titles, the “problem I have with dream” in Act III (64), the phrase with variations “Jejune, all these words . . . anyway” that appears throughout—made me hyper-aware of the meaning created by the subtle differences between each instance. This attention to detail likewise sent me to an elsewhere beyond The Dyzgraphxst itself; much as Lubrin’s Prologue, Monologue, and Epilogue engage in acts of definition, my attention to detail sent me to the dictionary, to multiple dictionaries, so as not to take a term and my understanding of it for granted. This movement beyond the text offered alternate ways of thinking about a word and therefore further elsewheres to glean.


It is in the multiplication of meaning that The Dyzgraphxst creates its elsewheres. Parentheses, for instance, often signal an additional meaning haunting the discourse. One grows “cold” and “old” through “growing (c)old” (28); “somebody’s wor(l)d” (43) is “word” and “world” at once, perhaps even becoming the “word-world” (58) that Lubrin later references; “family” holds onto “familiarity” in “famil(iarit)y” (106); “a life now (re)fuse(d)” (121) is “refused,” “refuse,” “fuse,” and “fused.” Frequently these palimpsestic parentheses create a confluence of opposites, “there” peeking through “here” in “(t)here” (9, 22, 25), and the negative and positive of a word coexisting—“(un)rewound” (13), “(un) openings” (23), “(un)flagging” (26), “(un)thinkable” (48), to name a few.


In this text, meaning too is multiplied through delay. What is “war” on one line becomes “war / -ning” (61) by the next. In other words, that which can be seen as complete is revealed also to be continuing. For example, “a sewn mouth, or what could be” (19), which can seem like a statement with closure, becomes “a sewn mouth, or what could be // whole” in the jump to the next stanza. The opening between stanzas allows both possibilities to coexist (while also performing its own segmentation of a whole). The Dyzgraphxst, in fact, often deploys open spaces to create multiple reading paths which thereby function to point towards the elsewhere of alternate narratives. Where, for instance, do we travel if we read “Dream #27” or “Return #36” as two columns rather than as horizontal lines broken in two? In “Dream #27,” would we find “an offer / I can / light / a dream” (80)? In “Return #36,” would we overlook the plethora of “ifs” and land on the imperatives freed from the conditional? Could we “dive in / dig / make do | bend / keep watch / spare no country / skim I loose / sing wind / say so / make do / give us” (89) without worrying about “if” we are “given” anything?


In The Dyzgraphxst, there too are elsewheres intimated that do not find voice. For example, pages end with a colon or a dash (21, 25, 71, 77). These punctuation marks are meant to link, and yet here they do not lead readers towards any further text, nor do they discernibly connect the syntax across pages. As such, readers seem to be sent towards some space beyond the text, a destination to which they cannot arrive, remaining instead in the open space of the page. In other instances, absences are marked; space is held for the existence of a discourse beyond the text even as that discourse does not reveal itself: “a night” is “too heavy with _____” (81); “[blank]” is the alternative to “what the fuck was I thinking?” (88); “I clear the wave / crease the [_______]” to “where everything opens” (104). These marked vacancies suggest an elsewhere glimpsed but not quite entered, an elsewhere where the diaphanous curtain remains drawn. Similarly, the superscript x of the title The Dyzgraphxst at once marks the absence or displacement of the i and appears as a reference mark without its corresponding footnote/marginalia. In assuming the visual appearance of a reference mark, the superscript x points towards the existence of another space of discourse, even if that space does not manifest or speak within the text itself.


As The Dyzgraphxst concludes, the speaker leaves us in a state of pondering, asking “what we might have become were we not so alive” (164). This is a vision of and demand for an elsewhere in which there is room for such imagining. In the end, the elsewhere spaces that The Dyzgraphxst makes known may be ephemeral, a h(t)aunting, much like Kamena’s Terre Bouillante in Dionne Brand’s At the Full and Change of the Moon. They may be spaces that you glimpse but don’t necessarily enter, spaces that call without promise of arrival. But these elsewheres also hold space for imagining otherwise, granting hope that things need not be solely as they are.


Works Cited

Brand, Dionne. At the Full and Change of the Moon. Vintage Canada, 1999.

Lubrin, Canisia. “Canisia Lubrin Uses the Language of the Past to Explore the Future in the Poetry Collection The Dyzgraphxst.” With Ryan B. Patrick, CBC Books, 23 Apr. 2020, www.cbc.ca/books/canisia-lubrin-uses-the-language-of-the-past-to-explore-the-future-in-the-poetry-collection-the-dyzgraphxst-1.5538588. Accessed 16 Sept. 2021.

—. “Canisia Lubrin Wins Griffin Poetry Prize for The Dyzgraphxst.” With Adina Bresge, Globe and Mail, 24 June 2021, p. A17.

—. The Dyzgraphxst. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

—. “An Exploration of ‘I’: Poet Canisia Lubrin on the Book That Won Her the Griffin Poetry Prize.” Interview with Allison LaSorda, Globe and Mail, 26 June 2021, p. A20.

Marlatt, Daphne. Readings from the Labyrinth. NeWest, 1998.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Ragweed, 1989.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.

This originally appeared in Canadian Literature 247 (2021): 176-181.

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