Bearing and Scale

  • Cecily Nicholson
    Wayside Sang. Talonbooks (purchase at
  • Canisia Lubrin
    Voodoo Hypothesis. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at
Reviewed by Ryan Fitzpatrick

In her debut collection, Voodoo Hypothesis, Toronto writer Canisia Lubrin adopts a dense lyrical voice that bends together the geographical and historical intimacies of life in the wake of the Atlantic slave trade. Her work collapses moments, events, spaces, and relations into a deft and difficult examination that opens at the planetary scale, imagining the first imperial steps of humankind onto the soon-to-be pulverized surface of Mars. Jumping from these “grander schemes,” the long and ongoing histories running through Voodoo Hypothesis stretch from the longue durée of the Black Atlantic to this speculative future where imperial and colonial impulses beeline off-planet in the name of “Curiosity” (both the rover and the abstract concept).

In the face of these rampant and extractive structures, Lubrin writes against what she sees as the “mathematical” logic of anti-Blackness. Lubrin troubles colonial measure, map-making, and cataloguing, stacking her affectively charged lines against the “equations of hardness” that not only “speak into” the human, but that determine who or what even gets to be human. Her sentences resist easy interpretation even as they drag the “European imago” at the heart of North America:

I sing its America, Caribbean, Canada.
I fable a European imago cut off from the
of its prolonged impulse. Who repairs this
mise en scène of
coiled centuries, interludes and opalescence
you congratulate
in a still of sunlight as this skeptic
that entry sign still bound with bars and

As her poem frets over the “repair” of the snares set at the figurative and literal borders of imperial nationhood that capture and imprison Black life, Lubrin examines over the course of her book the ways in which White supremacy winds together inherited pathology, corrective impulse, and “rapt mathematics.” At the same time, the lines and poems in Voodoo Hypothesis seep Black life into the cracks of this structure not to cure it, but to crack its logics apart to make room here on Earth for transformed spaces without having to rocket our imperial desires off-planet for another spatial fix.

Similarly mapping the tense relationship between massive structures and intimate everydays, Vancouver writer Cecily Nicholson’s third book, Wayside Sang, focuses on the car, working from production lines and traffic lanes as they connect to the uneven porosities of the borders in North America. Her previous books, Triage and From the Poplars, anchor themselves site-specifically, focusing on the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood and New Westminister’s Poplar Island respectively. Her new book similarly sites itself in the cross-border auto industry between Windsor and Detroit. Nicholson takes this spatial frame to work at the expanded scale of car culture, opening her book with an extended survey of a landscape composed of factory long arms, displaced workers, contaminated groundwater, and the commodity call of the open road. At the same time, Nicholson dwells in the way highway romanticism tangles with the necessity of movement for migrant and itinerant workers. In pairing these, Nicholson is able to reflect simultaneously on both the retreat of capital from post-industrial spaces and the movement of human capital across the continent.

Nicholson’s short and sonorous lines consider the value of spaces and lives made surplus, posing the way flowers sing from the roadside and relations shine at the way station. At the same time, spaces reflect tense struggles as the displacement, dispossession, violence, and carceral logics at the heart of capitalism and settler-colonialism make it difficult to build and rebuild forms of community for racialized and Indigenous communities. Nicholson marks a seeming contradiction in her Afterword when she argues that “[t]o realize profound mobility and belonging in black aesthetics is to build solidarity unrestrained by borders.” She touches on the problem of escaping from a capitalized anti-Blackness when she asks “have I lost / lifted and moving / in multiple moments,” posing movements as a pendulum swing from “escapements.” Tangled here is the reality that movement can be structurally determined by policed borders and economic pressures, but transformative and fugitive forms of solidarity can reshape spatial possibilities for Black communities.

This review “Bearing and Scale” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 162-163.

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