now even with a percussed tongue
I can put the world back together
with the twisted timbres of a ship.
—Canisia Lubrin, The Dyzgraphxst
The multiple “I” in Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst distorts the environment that I, as a reader and visitor, am brought into. Often I am not certain where the speakers are taking me, if what is real is truly real, or if what is real is a dream. Yet the three lines above sum up for me the kind of environment that Lubrin attempts to build and reimagine in this stunning book: it is neither place nor country, but space that exists in liminality.
In a current project,1 I define the liminal environment as one in which individuals exist among overlapping movements that require, or invite, a renegotiation of their cultural identities and expressions.2 The liminal environment can be a space to make sense of a new world, or a moment of transition into a process of building a new world. The world that Lubrin reconstructs in The Dyzgraphxst is not only imaginative but also ambitious in scale: it pauses, breathes, listens without compromising the movements of the poem’s personas. It is obviously not the world we are currently living in. Instead it is an active counter-narration of the world we inhabit, where ghosts of deep space-time come to haunt and are welcomed with open arms. What I find most compelling about The Dyzgraphxst is the portion in Act III (“Ain’t I Épistémè?”) that juxtaposes “dream and return” (49), as if in a chiastic conversation about the image and the reality that is right in front of the speaker. These juxtapositions somewhat correspond to a pause in the chaos of the multiple personas, with each rendition of a “dream and return” constituting a new space:
but what for & for whose sake do I feel
only anger, sweet jolts, disappointment
gone from me and hope ran cold—say
nothing of art, nothing of the variable logs
again, here: I have this problem with dream (Lubrin 63)
The phrase “I have this problem with dream” repeats and resonates throughout this part of Act III. Through a language that resists the colonial and imperial tongue, the speaker processes all that negates the self and the identity that bubbles up from beneath the surface. Both the “dream” and the “return” have a problem with dream. What this problem is becomes clear (or not) through the verses: it is fear, hope, denial; it is oppression, anger, disappointment; it is losing land, leaving land, and finding new land but not being accepted by the land. It is the self facing the inevitability of a volatile world. It is a space where dreams from the “impossible citizens of the ill world” (v) are unwelcomed, discarded. I think the dizzying conversations in this section force me as the reader into a kind of dysgraphia: I am not entirely sure I am supposed to know what is going on. I accept this, however; I am okay with it. The Dyzgraphxst is not an invitation; it is the opportunity for me, us, to be silent and listen. It is an opportunity to accept the perplexity offered in front of me.
When I talk about the liminal environment, I also think about “verging,” a word I borrow from René Dietrich. It is a phenomenon that individuals experience when they are in perpetual awareness of instability and ambivalence (Dietrich 463). In verging, the world at large is realized through reversals, opposites, and inversions (Thomassen 104). If one is able to pause in the liminal environment, the transition into a new space—a new world, a new beginning—may not ever be completed. Some are paralyzed by the enormity of this “rite of passage” and are perpetually in between, constantly verging and neither here nor there. They are frozen in time.
The verging that happens in The Dyzgraphxst is momentary but powerful. The multiple personas come together to make sense of the liminal environment and the environments they will be transitioning into. There is no future if there is no past, and there is no future if all pasts are unaccounted for. Maybe that is the problem with dream; maybe that is the key to the process of self-reflexivity, embodied in the liminal environment, so that one can transition and move away from verging. Luckily, the personas in The Dyzgraphxst are not trapped in liminality as they narrate their bodies, identities, memories, and futures. The idea of verging ends, I believe, when “I” declares, “[A] city is time for me, so I cut the road / I exit that spastic age, pamphletless / that decade, I reject” (158). The last few verses of the book open up possibilities of creating an identity outside of place, language, gender, race, and the liminal environment. This identity involves an acceptance of movement away from verging: “wondering what we might have become were we not so alive” (164). The self moves on but does not leave everything behind. One is often tempted to stay within the liminal environment, to continue verging and resist the transition.
I think a lot about that possibility myself. As challenging as it is to read The Dyzgraphxst at times, when I accepted that the poem is a conversation that I am listening to and not participating in (it is not my “I” who is called upon), it flowed better, and each word started to sing within me. I recognize this liminal environment, this tentative “I” in all its iterations. I know Jejune—the “voice addressed” on “every page” of the poem (ix)—and I know a problem with dream. I too have crossed oceans and am trapped in a land that is not my own but that feels familiar to me. I have images in my head of how my heartland was, but I know it will be different when I go back after three long years of feeling paralyzed here in this continent. I too know how the brain short-circuits in the midst of exhaustion, of oppressions, and how I reset back to the tongue my ancestors speak. I dream—a lot. Sometimes I dream in Tagalog, sometimes in Taglish.1 My English is never Canadian, but it can pretend very well.
I share the liminal environment in Lubrin’s work and know that transition is as unwieldy as the verses she has written in abrogation of the colonial tongue. When I mention abrogation here, I think about Filipinx writer E. San Juan, Jr., who writes that in syncretism, abrogation is used to appropriate the colonial tongue and invent hybrid “interlanguages” that become adept at expressing what cannot be fully expressed in, say, Canadian English (75). He also mentions that choosing to write in the colonial tongue is not a genuinely free choice because of the limitations of literacy and translatability. It is clear to me that Lubrin’s intricate process of unwriting may be a resistance to choices that were not hers to begin with. It becomes an active and embodied choice to reclaim the many choices that were not available.
Yet the self remains intact at the end of The Dyzgraphxst, just as the “I” of this reader remains intact despite many movements and the never-ending cascade of liminal environments. At the end of Act II, Lubrin writes, “I won’t come back now / from imagining into I / there are worst fates” (48). The pause in these liminal environments will not bring back the pasts that we are all moving, running away, from; however, we can write about them, sing them at the top of our lungs, and make everyone else listen. We can make our space and claim it. We will always have something that is not, never, theirs.
1 This project—“Migrant Ecocriticism: Unbinding Movements and Spaces in Anthologies of Ecopoetry”—attempts to define a migrant reading practice in ecocriticism as a “pause” in the movements of a space that the migrant encounters. This pause allows for self-reflexive inquiry into personal and interrelated counter-narratives that might have been rendered invisible or erased by dominant and homogeneous meta-narratives of “place” and “environment.”
2 The movements mentioned here are specific to migrant movements. I also think about Elizabeth DeLoughrey’s discussion of how recognition of migrant movements offers a distinct method for deterritorializing the historiography of European colonial models of the past—models that forget these invisible narratives (22).
3 Taglish is a mix of English and Tagalog that many Filipinos use in daily conversation. It is often associated with the upper middle class, especially when it is accentuated with specific terms associated with resistance to how the “masses” speak.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth. Routes and Roots: Navigating Caribbean and Pacific Island Literatures. U of Hawaii P, 2007.
Dietrich, René. “Towards a Poetics of Liminality in ‘This Space between Spaces’: The Shore Lines of Contemporary American Poetry.” Anglia: Zeitschrift für englische Philologie, vol. 125, no. 3, Dec. 2007, pp. 448-64.
Lubrin, Canisia. The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.
San Juan, E., Jr. “Philippine Writing in English: Postcolonial Syncretism versus a Textual Practice of National Liberation.” Ariel, vol. 22, no. 94, 1991, pp. 69-88.
Thomassen, Bjørn. Liminality and the Modern: Living through the In-Between. Routledge, 2014.
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