On Canisia Lubrin’s Tercets

Readers of Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst will notice that the tercet is the long poem’s predominant mode of lineation. In what follows, I hope to say a few words about the parameters of the tercet in Lubrin’s poetry. I am especially interested in how the tercet can be imagined as a formal index of what one might term the pronominal ensemble at work in The Dyzgraphxst. The pronominal ensemble is Lubrin’s triangulated structure of address that holds down and ruptures the “I” so that it is irreducible to a single form of appropriable being. As the poem’s “Dramatis Personae” establishes, this triangulated structure of address, which oscillates among the first-person singular, the second-person singular, and the third-person plural, is facilitated by the figure of Jejune, who makes sensible the poem’s immanent address to the self. Shazia Hafiz Ramji describes this poetic operation as one that “occupies the ‘I’ so that it is re-populated with a performative chorus that blooms . . . to imagine alternate ways of being and knowing” (121). Indeed, as Bertrand Bickersteth notes, “The Dyzgraphxst is a masterful engagement of Black life reworded” (101).


In this regard, Lubrin’s aesthetic itinerary both interrupts and exceeds colonial grammars by explicitly taking up Christina Sharpe’s assertion that the “orthographies of the wake require new modes of writing, new modes of making-sensible” (113). Sharpe defines the orthography of the wake as “a dysgraphia of disaster, and these disasters arrive by way of the rapid, deliberate, repetitive, and wide circulation on television and social media of Black social, material, and psychic death” (21). I want to ask how the tercet might anchor Lubrin’s “ocean drama” (1) in its production of alternative modes of sense-making despite global formations of anti-Blackness. And what is the relation between Lubrin’s triangulated, collective self and the poem’s tendency to stage again and again its perceptive generosity by way of the tercet?


Before attempting to address these questions, I want briefly to describe a general movement of the tercet in order to outline at least one of its routes in The Dyzgraphxst. The opening two acts of The Dyzgraphxst are sustained by percussive tercets that slow into the occasional monostich and then explode into a miscellany of stanzaic improvisations in the third act. As the tercets seemingly fade, the antiphonal relation of the third act—the call and response between “dream and return” (49)—brings back the groove of the tercet. On the final page of the act, a pair of near-triadic lines unfurls behind an aquatic parabola. In the fourth act, Lubrin expands the visual field of the page with an ode of wayward tercets (and a lone quatrain) that differ from the tercets on the left side of the page not only because of their position on the right side of the page, but also because of their typographical distinctiveness. This experimentation with the visual intensifies in the fifth act, in which a sequence of interrupted tercets shifts the phenomenological gravity of the page from the flush upper-left corner down to the world of the footnote. Lubrin carries incomplete lines to the bottom of the page in a way that formally intimates the interdiction of Black life, tilting the perception of the page to acknowledge Blackness as centrifugal to modernity. In the sixth and seventh acts, the percussive tercets return with full force, echoing the opening two acts. These tercets (and another solitary quatrain) complete the long poem, which concludes with a series of three tercets, variously indented, each on a page of its own.1


How is the pronominal ensemble of The Dyzgraphxst tied to Lubrin’s handling of the tercet? To make an argument for correspondence, I focus on a pair of tercets from the penultimate act, “Ain’t I a Madness?” Lubrin writes,


or were we unaware that we had cracked I

to save us, split us three ways

as the centuries that made us possible left us

with all possible comprises, we have this one

existence, this so many elsewheres, in others,

I, and in every elsewhere, us both (128)


In one sense, these tercets are a program for the triangulated self that orients The Dyzgraphxst. Lubrin arranges an immanent address in the plural that questions whether the triangulated self has knowledge or perception of that which “cracked” the “I” in order “to save us.” To “crack” the “I” alludes, in part, to the poem’s structure of address, which sonorously breaks the “I” open to “split us three ways”: the first-person singular, the second-person singular, and the third-person plural. This triangulated structure proffers another way to inhabit the “I,” an indirect return to Lubrin’s Voodoo Hypothesis and its pronouncement that “I break apart in the only vowel we have begged / to exclude: that I, that dreadful I” (73). This “I” prompts dread precisely because of its function within an individualistic schema that maintains a monological and exclusionary conception of the human that is inextricable from capital and white supremacy.


Beyond this phantasm of individuated subjectivity that forms part of racial capital’s logic, Lubrin estranges the “I” to mark the unknowable depth of its relation. This relation emerges from transatlantic slavery and its aftermath: “as the centuries that made us possible left us // with all possible comprises” (128). Here the tercets suggest the terrifying unknowability and possibility of Édouard Glissant’s abyssal “nonworld” that is synonymous with the Middle Passage: “the belly of this boat dissolves you, precipitates you into a nonworld from which you cry out” (6). As Katherine McKittrick notes illuminatingly, Glissant’s “nonworld” is “one (but perhaps not the only) beginning of blackness. . . . Suspended, undifferentiated identity, removed, not-yet, without names, nowhere at all, unmade, unknown, unclaimed richness of possibility” (32). Glissant’s nonworld clarifies at least one aspect of the x in the poem’s title: in this light, x signifies unknowability and possibility as well as violability and infinity. One might also hear the word “comprises” in Glissantian terms as obliquely naming an epistemological project that “grasps” and “seizes” rather than “gives-on-and-with” (Glissant 144), since “comprises” is etymologically tied to the Latin comprendĕre (“Comprise”). Over and against this “seizing,” the second tercet invokes “one / existence,” a certain unknowable totality, that is paratactically recast as “so many elsewheres.” This tercet effects a tidal movement that opens “we,” “I,” and “us” to an abeyant zone that defies being seized by and for individuated thought. The enjambed clause—“we have this one / existence”—is seemingly infinite as it overruns itself while falling to “so many elsewheres” that are “in” (immanent to) “others.” These “so many elsewheres” immanent to “others” enunciate the opaque and ordinary worlds that The Dyzgraphxst honours with momentary clarity.


I want to suggest that the triangulated structure of address and its sense of possibility, its “so many elsewheres,” are distributed across every tercet in The Dyzgraphxst. One might register “split us three ways” in the passage above (128) not only in the context of the structure of address, but also in reference to the poem’s principal mode of stanzaic organization: the tercet. “[T]he tercet anchors,” Dionne Brand tells us in The Blue Clerk (77). Likening Rashied Ali’s drums in John Coltrane’s “Venus” to the tercets that constitute Brand’s long poem Ossuaries (2010), Brand’s figures in The Blue Clerk, namely the clerk and the author, touch on how tercets are “consistent, sheltering, pushing” while also “conducting the ideas” (76). A tercet “is not regulated,” Brand’s author continues, “by rhyme or equi-metric length of line but by the sense of infinity or possibility, in-betweeness” (77). The tercets in The Dyzgraphxst might thus be taken to anchor and sustain the pronominal ensemble. If the poem’s triangulated structure of address bends the first-person singular, the second-person singular, and the third-person plural, then the tercet perhaps can be seen as a formal complication of another tripartite structure: the past, the present, and the future. To perceive each tercet in this manner would be to envision the tercet as giving form to an atemporal movement that holds time at a triadic standstill in its refusal of dialectical movement. In an interview, Lubrin mentions how the long poem “also depends on a kind of nontime or at least a kind of cyclic rhythm/movement, which, in the manner of Kamau Brathwaite’s tidalectics, the ocean best represents” (“Interview”). Read from this vantage, the tercet effects an atemporal rhythm and makes felt an infinite glimmer of other worlds. The Dyzgraphxst and its tercets produce a perceptive openness that invents an alternative syntax for making sense within and apart from the propertied grammars of the present.



1 For an insightful discussion of The Dyzgraphxst, especially its structure, please listen to Lubrin’s conversation with Layla Benitez-James.


Works Cited

Bickersteth, Bertrand. Review of The Dyzgraphxst, by Canisia Lubrin. Malahat Review, no. 213, 2020, pp. 97-101.

Brand, Dionne. The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos. Duke UP, 2018.

“Comprise.” OED. 2nd ed. 1998.

Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. 1990. Translated by Betsy Wing, U of Michigan P, 1997.

Lubrin, Canisia. The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.

—. “Interview with Canisia Lubrin, Room’s Poetry Contest Judge 2020.” Conducted by Hope Lauterbach. Room, roommagazine.com/interview-with-canisia-lubrin-rooms-poetry-contest-judge-2020-2. Accessed 3 Dec. 2021.

—. “Tell Tell Interview Series: Canisia Lubrin.” Conducted by Layla Benitez-James. Tell Tell, telltellpoetry.com/tell-tell-interview-series-canisia-lubrin. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

—. Voodoo Hypothesis. Buckrider, 2017.

McKittrick, Katherine. Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke UP, 2021.

Ramji, Shazia Hafiz. Review of The Dyzgraphxst, by Canisia Lubrin. Arc Poetry Magazine, no. 92, 2020, pp. 120-21.

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

This originally appeared in Canadian Literature 247 (2021): 159-163.

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