Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst is a book of poetry in the form of seven acts. Dedicated to “the impossible citizens of the ill world” (v, emphasis original), it is embedded within a state “of intensified capitalist fascism, toxic nationalism, and climate disaster,” as the cover copy reads. Theatre and performance are integral to the structure, and the naming of each act echoes Sojourner Truth’s speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” In this essay, I focus on Lubrin’s rewriting of the pronoun I as a noun and proper noun. The characterization of “I” slowly establishes “I” as the impossible citizen(s). “I” is simultaneously singular and plural, as stated in the book’s dramatis personae:“i: First person singular. I: second person singular. I: Third person plural” (1). The speaker and subject change throughout the acts, creating a fluidity between self, other, and collective. I concentrate on Act I (“Ain’t I at the Gate?”) and Act II (“Ain’t I Nickname for Home?”) to consider how Lubrin establishes who “I” is and the world “I” inhabits. Lubrin cites the influence of Black scholar Christina Sharpe’s book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, as well as mentorship from poet and scholar Dionne Brand (165). I cite their scholarship on language and Blackness to analyze how Lubrin reshapes and reinterprets one of the most common and familiar words of the language we know. The plurality of “I” makes “I” a citizen of the world rather than an isolated individual. Ultimately, because “I” is figured in terms of plurality, Lubrin opens up the possibility of multiple and collective ways of being.
Making readers rethink how they approach language is a central aspect of The Dyzgraphxst. Dionne Brand’s words on dysgraphia in “An Ars Poetica from The Blue Clerk” read as a challenge that Lubrin has taken up. Brand writes how “Poetry, perhaps, with its capacities to deposit and unearth plural meanings, with its refusals of a particular interrogative gaze might cut out a space toward a description of being in the diaspora” (59). The plurality of poetry makes it an ideal setting in which for Lubrin to upend language amidst a falling and failing world. In the prologue, she writes,
where the world is full of reasons to push
the back seat down and set a life-force soaring back to its ragged world | to the
ones preoccupied with the ragged that is I | the ragged that implores the ragged
that turns all narcotic and detour | that a thing can name what
it survives in the in and gives hell on the way out[.] (3, emphasis original)
Within the ragged world—and surviving the ragged world one day at a time—is “I.” This is Lubrin’s stage; “I” is every impossible and ragged citizen who “gives hell on the way out.” In the first act, Lubrin writes that “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” (10). The collapse of language in The Dyzgraphxst is subsequently a collapse of time as “I” returns to the beginning to find the point of origin. Therefore Lubrin describes the circumstances from which “I” comes. These circumstances of discarded humanity stand in contrast to a certain beauty in how “I” takes back language.
The Dyzgraphxst itself does not exist apart from a lineage of influence. Sharpe’s writing in In the Wake gives context to the historical and present conditions of Blackness that Lubrin expands upon. Sharpe writes that she has “been thinking about what it takes, in the midst of the singularity, the virulent antiblackness everywhere and always remotivated, to keep breath in the Black body” (109). From this emphasis on breath comes the base structure of The Dyzgraphxst: a narrative told in poetry and performance, art forms for which the breath is a necessity. When Lubrin writes the character of “I,” she takes away from a sense of singularity and isolation. In reference to centuries of Black subjugation, she writes, “[B]ut let I go, given the choice now to speak / after five hundred years of dysgraphia / let I approach the witness stand in any chosen language” (22). Using the pronoun “I” for the third-person plural evokes a sense of “I” as a chorus of Black voices choosing the language in which they now speak after centuries of erasure of language and personhood. Readers must retrain themselves to read “I” as narrator and subject, rather than individual pronoun, in order to extract meaning from the words; reading the poem out loud allows for a better hearing of “I” as proper noun.
For Lubrin, Sharpe, and Brand, the destruction of language is a great violence that for centuries has had rippling effects, which continue in the present. Sharpe’s influence on Lubrin is evident from Sharpe’s writing about Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip:
Language has deserted the tongue that is thirsty, it has deserted the tongues of those captives on board the slave ship Zong whose acquisition of new languages articulates the language of violence in the hold; the tongue struggles to form the new language; the consonants, vowels, and syllables spread across the page. (69)
“I” carries this deserted language at the beginning of The Dyzgraphxst, but as the acts and the narrative move forward, “I” reaches out to find ways to reclaim language. “I” switches between English and Créole and is constantly concerned with language and belonging: “I becomes: the Créole mouth // hem ya haos blong mi kaye sà là sé sa mwen / him here house belong me” (13). In such instances, “I” is at the gate, taking language and seamlessly moving between tongues. While Sharpe writes about what has been, Lubrin imagines the possibilities of what “I” can become. Brand identifies how “character in narrative . . . [is] weighted with whiteness as a fundamental/originary category” (60). Lubrin leaves no doubt about the Blackness of “I,” switching between English and Créole as “I” returns to the point of origin of language. This origin is not limited to English, nor is it a colonial place of beginning. The place of origin is as plural and expansive as poetry. Though Lubrin sets up “I” as a plural voice, she also establishes the Blackness of “I.”
Though The Dyzgraphxst is set within “the ill world” (v), “I” is in a constant state of reclaiming language. However, within these considerations of voice, speech, and language is still the body. Sharpe writes, “We, now, are living in the wake of such pseudoscience, living the time when our labor is no longer necessary but our flesh, our bodies, are still the stuff out of which ‘democracy’ is produced” (112). In the context of Sharpe’s observations, voice and language become even more crucial as a mode of resistance to the ill democracy of the world. Lubrin writes that “I layers its new language taking back / the miserly mouth, mouth that sours the pot / in our bigbeautiful bigbeautiful” (36). The shift from the language of origin to the language of the colonizer was, as Sharpe identifies, wrought with destruction. Therefore the reclamation of language is one of love and care, of taking back unapologetically. At one point, “I” speaks directly to the tercet forms of Acts I and II, breaking down a wall between observer and inhabitant: “[B]ut love, it is one hour before the morning ties / your tongue to every tercet here, one hour / before the loved world arrives by the wild of our tongue” (27). The reclaimed tongue brings the loved world out of the ill world, but the reclaimed tongue is also contingent on “trust / to have in the idea of our voices altogether calling home calling home” (30). “I” has always been responding to its direct experiences of the world, rather than simply observing the world from the outside. This type of embedded living informs “I’s” calls for language reclamation as decolonization.
As the second act—“Ain’t I Nickname for Home?”—closes, Lubrin introduces “i,” the first-person singular, shifting away from the second-person singular and third-person plural “I” that we have come to know. Lubrin writes, “i wake remembering nothing / but the locomotion of lips, maybe mine / maybe the page and some faulty language” (48). Unlike previous encounters with “I,” “i” is the singular self, waking up devoid of memory. In this state of “remembering nothing,” the movement of lips is the first to come. Even when Brand writes about poetry’s ability to shift ways of thinking of language, this thinking is embedded in the act of speaking language. Brand writes that “Poetry, in my formulation, changes what I see as the racist alphabets of narratives—the prevalent modes of speech and key impediments to Black being” (59). Language, as Lubrin writes it, is contingent on speech, the ability to speak, to speak language in a chorus. The plurality of “I” throughout the first two acts establishes the importance of the collective over the individual. “I” is a collection of shared histories, shared violences, and shared encounters with the world.
With The Dyzgraphxst, Lubrin takes on Brand’s suggestion of what poetry can do. She explores a collective consideration of language and speech as they have affected Black people from the slave ship Zong to the future. The primary characters are “I,” “I,” and “i,” each of whom inhabits what Lubrin calls “the ill world” (v). By using the familiar pronoun “I” in an unfamiliar context that initially seems to break grammatical rules, Lubrin forces the reader to approach language from a different perspective, one that comes from a place that builds language up again after violence and colonization. In order to reshape language, Lubrin has to articulate the new rules of this language to the reader, which she does successfully. Structuring the collection as a drama emphasizes, right from the beginning, how important performance and speech are to understanding the narrative. As the reader becomes familiar with “I” as a character, the language becomes as natural as the speech we use daily. The Dyzgraphxst breaks the individual “I,” a key destruction if we are to dismantle “intensified capitalist fascism, toxic nationalism, and climate disaster.” Thinking beyond the confines of individuality, “I” is now the collective. “I” is the chorus.
Brand, Dionne. “An Ars Poetica from the Blue Clerk.” The Black Scholar: Journal of Black Studies and Research, vol. 47, no. 1, spring 2017, pp. 58-77.
Lubrin, Canisia. The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.
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