Canisia Lubrin’s sophomore poetry collection The Dyzgraphxst has received a share of attention in the form of reviews commensurate with the prizes it has received. Some of these reviews—those by Bertrand Bickersteth and Jason Wiens in particular—unpack the book’s formal choices, an increasingly rare phenomenon in contemporary reviews culture. In The Malahat Review, Bickersteth writes of Act IV that
the reader is offered a choice of either continuing to read conventionally (i.e., vertically) or leaping across the space between the columns to the orphaned stanza. Semantically, both choices make sense here . . . These disconnected connections introduce another plane of dialogue that boldly strives to work beyond the limitations of the poem’s form. In Lubrin’s hand, limitations can be both confining and redefining. (99-100)
Following Bickersteth’s fluent formal description is the insight that Lubrin’s text offers “a masterful engagement of Black life re-worded” (101). It is my hope in this short essay to focus on a critical tendency that confines and redefines, as it is germane to The Dyzgraphxst—namely the rush to link text to context or theme.
In Quill and Quire, Wiens also does an admirable job of describing the text’s structure: The Dyzgraphxst is a “long poem . . . divided into seven acts with a dramatis personae, prologue, monologue, and epilogue,” divisions that “further complicate its relationship to genre, while the titles of each act—which invoke Sojourner Truth’s ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’—insert the poem into a wider diasporic African tradition.” Wiens continues with form in mind, explaining that “the first two acts maintain a consistent pattern of tercets” only for The Dyzgraphxst to “open up into eclecticism” in the third act, where “alternating ‘Dream’ and ‘Return’ sequences” appear “in varying forms, from prose poetry to shaped or visual poems.” He concludes with an important statement: that Lubrin’s poem “can be at times an overwhelming, dense poetic text. And that is the great challenge, but also the gift, of The Dyzgraphxst: each individual poem demands (and rewards) careful attention, an attention that can be difficult to sustain across the book’s ambitious length.” The concept of “attention,” the poem’s orchestration of form, and the challenges that Lubrin’s chosen forms pose to attention’s sustainability are key elements in my reading of her work. Bickersteth refers to limitations that confine and redefine when considering Lubrin’s formal deployments as they connect to “Black life” as a theme, and Wiens refers to poetic density that resists attention while mentioning the link to “a wider diasporic African tradition.” How then can The Dyzgraphxst be read such that poetic attention itself is sustained alongside the no less important context of the diaspora? Wandering the field of form against the grain is one way.
In the same year that Lubrin’s book was published, a new scholarly text by Lucy Alford appeared. Forms of Poetic Attention bridges philosophy, literary studies, and rhetoric, using the familiar technique of close reading to suggest a myriad of ways that poetic form is created by and influences how attention is formed. Alford’s project is to supply alternative interpretive tools for reading poems, using attention as her organizing principle. The text is a rare resuscitation of formal analysis of poetry in contemporary scholarly discourse. Alford writes that “what is formed by and in poetic language is an event of attention generated in the acts of both reading and writing . . . [A] poem might be better understood not simply as a gathering of composed formal features, but as an instrument for tuning and composing the attention” (3-4). The Dyzgraphxst, as suggested by Wiens and Bickersteth, is crafted in an almost overdetermined manner, with conspicuous and ornate formal choices within each section. Despite the skill with which Bickersteth and Wiens identify some of those choices, the end point of their accounts remains a familiar yoking of form to theories of race and diaspora. Alford’s text is an excellent tool with which to think about The Dyzgraphxst in a different way because, as I see it, Lubrin frequently writes in an intransitive fashion, generating what Alford refers to as a “mode of poetic attention that [is] objectless” (6). Can Alford’s critical tools show how attention is not only formally influenced and directed, but also how this attention offers an opportunity for social justice, in Lubrin’s work and elsewhere?
The book’s cover copy refers to a collectivity:
The Dyzgraphxst presents seven inquiries into selfhood through the perennial figure Jejune. Polyvocal in register, the book moves to mine meanings of kinship through the wide and intimate reach of language across geographies and generations. Against the contemporary backdrop of intensified capitalist fascism, toxic nationalism, and climate disaster, the figure Jejune asks, how have I come to make home out of unrecognizability.
Wiens effectively supports the case for an objectless quality to the poetry (and thereby suitability for intransitive attention) when he writes that “[t]he poetry here gestures toward a dystopic global condition of climate change . . . war, and mass migration, rather than presenting it directly.” Furthermore, the book at times espouses what I take to be a poetics of entreaty, which, Alford contends, “can sometimes produce a double dynamic in which transitive, desirous attention turns into intransitive vigilance. The acts of desiring and of asking are transitive, yet their respective objects in these cases are ultimately unknowable, ungraspable, and unguaranteed” (154). An objection that comes immediately to mind runs like this: The Dyzgraphxst is so deliberately crafted that the formal elements reflect a concerted, organized effort. How can such a book be “objectless?” This is where distinctions get interesting.
Alford concedes that “[p]oems, being composed of language, a medium of representation, are full of semantic objects . . . Yet some poems produce a very different experience out of this transitivity. Sometimes the object of attention serves as a frame and foothold that allows the attention to open into a wider awareness” (156). Consider a passage of The Dyzgraphxst that begins with that classical frame and foothold known as the pronoun “I.” In Lubrin’s hands, “I” is a means of allowing attention to open up:
I is here breeding out of the deadland a definable origin
where everyone is—yet-to-be-named-equipment, as if whole
where news of uncut humanities discarded—whole, islands
made of antagonizing food—lift today—Pacific Ocean, tomorrow
Indian Ocean, and then another tomorrow another ocean
surge clearing wave, where nothing is open, where things exist
to be drawn outward by singing (10)
Here we have a seemingly clear subject (“I”) that soon becomes subsumed in a temporal inflection that includes past, present, and future, a mix that Alford explains is a means to make attention intransitive and thereby to de-create the self. The poem helps this to happen by creating disparate immensities to contrast with the self ’s relative smallness. These immensities include “uncut humanities,” a space where “everyone is,” and specific and vast oceans (Pacific, Indian) that in their naming pour out into a more generic ocean during a more generic tomorrow. The waves of these oceans become legion, individual entities lost in the whole. At work in The Dyzgraphxst is a kind of writing that, in terms of its whole effect, constitutively encourages a shift into intransitive attention.
“Because it is difficult to intentionally shift into intransitive states at will,” Alford explains, “this capability must be practised, through cognitive exercises, rituals, and, in poetry, the use of repetition, semantic ambiguity, and constraints” (153-54). Achieving intransitive attention involves “letting go—of effort, of self, of objective, of ambition—primarily so as to allow the subject to slip towards immersion in objectlessness awareness” (154). The result is, in Alford’s words, an “intentional unintentionality or active passivity.” Reading The Dyzgraphxst as intransitive generates new possibilities. With form reconceived as an interdependent conduit for and of attention, something of flux and not of classical fixity, what changes might open up in the world if our practices of close reading are redirected from intervention to dwelling? Might we uncreate what we know by pouring ourselves out towards new discoveries?
To itemize all the ways The Dyzgraphxst focuses intransitive attention is beyond my scope; more could be written about how Lubrin’s temporal inflections create intransitive attention, as well as how her use of hypotaxis and parataxis contribute to this effect; a paper or three could dig in to Lubrin’s poetics of entreaty as a generator of intransitive attention. To read a page of The Dyzgraphxst is to encounter intransitive attention arrived at by a myriad of strategies for creating relative objectlessness. Why the hurry on the part of critics to infuse such attention with direction?
Perhaps a less obvious question. Why is reading Lubrin (or any poet) in such a manner important? The reasons are simple. As Alford explains, “an examination of the subtler forms of attention . . . illuminates poetic qualities that play a vital role in poetic history and practice, but have fallen beneath and between the generic spotlights” (164-65). By the same token, “[g]iving language and attention to these modes . . . also enables a recognition of poetic dynamics that cut across existing generic boundaries, causing them to either be overlooked or lumped into an ill-fitting mold” (165). Surely the critical reflex to link formal choices to specific contexts in an overly straightforward manner can be reformulated by paying closer attention to the medium of language itself. This is the kind of attention that Alford demonstrates at length with virtuoso reading after reading, and also the kind that Lubrin’s text offers beneath its surfaces.
Alford, Lucy. Forms of Poetic Attention. Columbia UP, 2020.
Bickersteth, Bertrand. Review of The Dyzgraphxst, by Canisia Lubrin. Malahat Review, no. 213, 2020, pp. 97-101.
Lubrin, Canisia. The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.
Wiens, Jason. Review of The Dyzgraphxst, by Canisia Lubrin. Quill and Quire, vol. 86, no. 3, Apr. 2020, p. 20.
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