that a thing can name what
it survives in the in and gives hell on the way out
—Canisia Lubrin, The Dyzgraphxst
Canisia Lubrin’s Voodoo Hypothesis works wonders in the undergraduate classroom. I have taught it twice as a tutorial leader in Nick Mount’s year-long first-year course “Literature for Our Time” at the University of Toronto. In a class constituted by students mostly from the life sciences and various humanities departments, this book of poetry invited their collaboration. We focused on the poem “The Mongrel,” whose six sections begin epigraphically with a mathematical symbol. Divided into six groups, students were excited to share their expertise with peers outside their disciplines to identify the scientific contexts of the symbols and to trace their figurative significance. Whereas some students prioritized the hermeneutic possibilities of symbols, others worked with the poetry’s approach to such themes as hybridity, history, violence, and knowledge to question the functions of mathematical symbols, interrogating the assumptions on which they are based. This interdisciplinary collaboration is facilitated by the poetry’s own interdisciplinary methodologies, a form of Black art as study that operates through, as Katherine McKittrick explains, wonder.
For McKittrick, Black interdisciplinary study “is a way of living, and an analytical frame, that is curious and sustained by wonder (the desire to know)” (Dear Science 5). “Wonder is study,” writes McKittrick (emphasis mine). This study is not aligned with the “epistemological project that ‘grasps’ and ‘seizes,’” as Kyle Kinaschuk clarifies when thinking with Édouard Glissant elsewhere in this forum (pp 161-62). Wonder, as a “desire to know” in the encounter of different things, is a generous position, an openness towards the world’s movement into multiple futures, pasts, and presents; in other words, it produces a temporality/poetics/episteme of relation. The opening and titular poem in Voodoo Hypothesis announces the text’s poetic methodology of convergence, of assembling disparate and formally diverse knowledge-materials, or “black miscellanea” (McKittrick, “Dear April”). Lubrin’s poem unfurls in wonder about the possibilities for Black worlds:
Before sight, we imagine
that while they go out in search
we stay in and become god,
become: Curiosity[.] (1)
A tool of scientific study and literary study, Curiosity is the NASA-launched Mars rover, an instrument of colonial epistemology, and an ideal personified as a woman: “She doesn’t need to know our fears / so far too grand for ontology, reckoning” (1). In neoclassical poetry of the eighteenth century, personification as a device for universal ideals and values, like faith and truth, typically contemplates “a harmonious universe” (Wasserman 435). The personification in “Voodoo Hypothesis” creates an allegory for the contemporary colonial project whose Curiosity literally takes the observable universe as its field of representation and as harmonious with colonial invasion. Against “they,” the invaders, who manoeuvre Curiosity, a collective “we” speaks back and beforehand. This collective offers an alternate encounter with Mars, recognizing it as a planet of “unsentimental magma” (2) onto which Earth’s human history of colonial, capitalist, and environmental violence is projected, anticipated, and denied. The speaker analyzes the colonial machinations and patterns of violence formulating Curiosity’s presence on Mars and thinks, “[W]e move too quick for understanding” (3). The collective “we” becomes an Anthropocenic “we” as the entanglements of our era call (differentially, unequally, unfairly) on everyone. In this first poem of the collection, Lubrin sets the stage for an epistemic poetic movement that is slower—both against and beyond the flow of colonial “comprehension”—and that approaches the world (and other worlds) in its entanglements. This Black knowing allows for curiosity about worlds in their emergence, rather than in their capture, and it is presented in a form highlighting the possibilities and conventions of Black interdisciplinarity, which McKittrick suggests work partly to unsettle the “suffocating and dismal and insular racial logics” of coloniality (Dear Science 4).
However, what aesthetic power does a wondering text like Lubrin’s wield against the “racial logics” underpinning general reading practices and receptions of Black art? In my tutorial settings, the group, consisting primarily of non-Black students, registered Lubrin’s inventions within their own expressions of wonder. Many students who struggled gaining interpretive footing in Lubrin’s text nevertheless had ideas about Black Canadian arts and poetics that could reshape their experiences with an institutionalized English literature. Some found that Lubrin’s writing spoke to their desires and visions in a way that Western disciplinarities of literature had not before, while others were forced to grapple with a deficit in their experience—that their perspective and knowledge, as reflected by a canonical literature, represent a narrow reality. Still others extracted from Lubrin’s work what felt legible to them and dutifully performed their awe at the uniqueness of the racialized voice before moving onto the next text the next week. Lubrin’s poetry thus also functions in a settler-colonial undergraduate classroom as an object of wonder. This production of wonder fits what McKittrick, in earlier considerations, conceptualizes as “the emotion evoked by surprise, or in this case, blackness” (Demonic Grounds 92). McKittrick conceptualizes the colonial perspective of the geographic, epistemic, and affective place of Blackness and Black people in Canada as wonder or surprise because in “a nation that has and is still defining its history as Euro-white, or nonblack,” historical and contemporary Black presences are “unexpected and concealed.” “In Canada,” McKittrick continues, “blackness and black people are altogether deniable and evidence of prior codes of representation that have identified blackness/difference as irrelevant” (93). As per McKittrick, expressions of wonder in the classroom about Lubrin’s writing therefore risk revealing an attachment to prior codes of representation that exclude and disavow Black art.
While some students’ surprise at, for instance, the range of literary allusions in Lubrin’s poems could stem from, in part, their settler-colonial K-12 education in literature, it is on the same spectrum as the surprise evoked by reviewers of the book who betray their non-Black conceptions of so-called great work. For example, the poet and reviewer Michael Dennis discusses Voodoo Hypothesis on his well-known blog, where he admits to not responding enthusiastically to the book at first. He realizes his mistake, however, during a reading by Lubrin. Breathlessly, Dennis recalls monumental readings that he has attended by poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, Al Purdy, and Milton Acorn. He then exclaims that after Lubrin’s performance, he and another poet friend could only agree that it was “one of the monster readings we’d ever witnessed. Hands down. It was stunning to behold.” Though Dennis seeks admiringly to correct his misperceptions of Lubrin’s literary power and to promote her poetry, his wonder at Lubrin’s brilliance sits in relation to a canonical collective of poets that defines the norms of great poetry by settler, masculine, and white characteristics. An appreciation of Black Canadian poetry, through the affective structures of surprise and wonder, ends up reiterating non-Black conditions and contexts for literature.
I cannot pretend we were able to curtail or thematize such engagements and expressions of wonder in our tutorials, but they raise questions for me now: Can surprise about Black art be an ethical relation to its forever unfolding experimentation that invents and reinvents? Or is our awe always and already an othering of Black writing and art? For some students, our classroom study of Voodoo Hypothesis was shaped by different expressions of wonder occurring simultaneously: wonder at Lubrin’s insurgent experimentation, but also wonder as a discriminatory and differentiating gesture that situates Black experience outside an intellectual and artistic commons. As Kyle Kinaschuk reminds me in our conversations on wonder, if we, as readers and pedagogues, were to attend to the Black methodologies of wonder that a work of art enacts, then we could be better positioned to practise a more ethical relation between wonder, study, and Black experimental poetics.
Was I ever that young to come back now, like rain
Fingers the colour of blossom, plucking hibiscus from their mien
While at dusk the leisure star falls from altitude sickness
—Canisia Lubrin, “Bricolage”
The wonders of Voodoo Hypothesis make urgent demands on our reading practices, something I grappled with when presenting a mini-lecture on the text. Apart from our classroom duties, Nick Mount provided tutorial leaders opportunities to lecture in front of more than three hundred students. In early February 2019, during the week that we read Voodoo Hypothesis, I chose to present on the poem “Bricolage,” whose title further illustrates the interdisciplinary lens through which Lubrin imagines Black artistic methodology and Black life. I began by introducing the poem’s form, the villanelle, in which the first and third lines alternate as the last lines of five tercets and then appear together as the final couplet in a quatrain. For a modern and strict example, I read them Dylan Thomas’ famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Lubrin’s version of the villanelle departs from the conventions of the form. In free verse, “Bricolage” eschews the traditional rhyme scheme, which conventionally weaves the refrains into the tercets to sonically reinforce the thematic or narrative unities between the refrains and the ideas in each stanza. Instead, Lubrin’s refrains refuse sonic similarity to the rest of the lines while producing their own repetitive identical rhymes. She also employs one fewer tercet than the conventional villanelle, the impact of which becomes clear in a graphic mapping of the poem. I presented such navigational mappings to the students.
The patterning of the refrains in Thomas’ poem resembles a double-helix structure as the lines criss-cross and end with the promise of another intersection if the poem were to continue. In Lubrin’s villanelle, the pattern becomes parallel in the quatrain and then trails off, ending the poem absolutely and without the hint of formal continuity. Her poem, one can argue, rejects gestures to the genetic predispositions, DNA, of poetry. There is a disconnect between both refrains—the first trails off and the second follows suit, but the lines are asymptotic, never able to touch.
I encouraged students to examine Lubrin’s poem as a navigational map that could be overlaid atop other maps. In fact, Voodoo Hypothesis prompts us to use maps as interpretive frameworks, since page-wide topographic maps with epigraphs superimposed on them mark the different sections in the book. Such an interdisciplinary form offers a set of visual and linguistic codes through which the reader, too, may wonder about modes of literary analysis that elaborate a kaleidoscopic/diasporic relation to the world. For example, what analytic possibilities and interpretations emerge if we superimpose “Bricolage” and its formal patterns, its internal routes, onto a map of the Atlantic Ocean?
In this mapping, the pattern of Lubrin’s refrain lines immediately recalls the murderous routes of the transatlantic slave trade. However, the pattern also reveals more complicated networks of travel, the entanglements of slavery and Black diasporic movement in their afterlives. The first line of “Bricolage” focalizes the specific spatiotemporal movements of the speaker: “Was I ever that young to come back now, like rain” (Voodoo 75). The poem reveals haunting, chiasmic connections between “then” and “now” and struggles with full sensual access to the speaker’s past. If we link one iteration of the “now” to where the route begins in the cartographic poem, a present is located in Canada. From Canada, the speaker therefore looks back—south then east on the map—to the Caribbean, where the “routes” run close together, and then to Africa, into which they descend.
When read through an interdisciplinary practice bridging cartography and literary study, the refrains demonstrate experiences of Black diasporic life to be world shattering and world making. Here, diasporic movement is cyclical: “Was I ever that young to come back now, like rain” (75). As part of a hemispheric water cycle, the waters of the Caribbean Sea become raindrops in Canada. Something like memory is lost, and something is gained in the transformative movement; but it is dizzying: “While at dusk the leisure star falls from altitude sickness.” The star, primarily a symbol of guidance and eternity, has altitude sickness not dissimilar to the nausea the speaker may be feeling, if we imagine the poem overlaid on the map. Looking backward (and forward) to the past but downward spatially to the Caribbean and to Africa, the speaker feels nauseated in Canada. We can call it latitude sickness, or vertigo from being “in and out of place and time” (Sharpe 76), in the shatters of a world. This vertigo marks an important response to the Euro-Western world we live within. The speaker’s nausea, caused by spatiotemporal warps and distances, reveals the colonial and anti-Black conditions that make the world appear stable, whereby certain subjects are allowed to feel settled, while others are made unsettled. To articulate this sense of vertigo and diasporic dis-ease is to recognize how place and time are constructed, not naturally occurring. Because this reality is a construction, it can be re-constructed, a task Lubrin takes on in The Dyzgraphxst: “[W]hat is I / but to always have been (t)here, I’ve asked it, what is I: I in an own place” (9). Black vertigo, therefore, is also produced by the experience of momentarily dropping into (and creating) different and already existing worlds within the cracks and spaces of the colonial world. In the last refrain of “Bricolage,” “the leisure star falls and altitude remains” (75). Without losing altitude, or its place in the world, the star falls into an alternate present. Its vertigo, therefore, is a portal. The refrainic and asymptotic “routes” at the end of the poem that map onto West Africa create a doorway (in the sense Dionne Brand theorizes) into a Black diasporic world that orients itself back into (enters) and out of (exits) Africa. Again, experiences of Black diasporic life are both world shattering and world making.
This extended lesson plan and reading unfolds chiefly to learn from Lubrin’s methodology of wonder as it deconstructs colonial conceptions of time, space, and knowledge as much as it becomes a portal into Black life lived otherwise through interdisciplinary and vertiginous sites of knowledge and being. Attending to the wonders of Voodoo Hypothesis, thus, is attending to sustained, committed, and curious relations with Black poetic methodologies, Black epistemologies, and pedagogy.
Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging. Penguin Random House Canada, 2002.
Dennis, Michael. Review of Voodoo Hypothesis, by Canisia Lubrin. Today’s Book of Poetry, 12 May 2018, michaeldennispoet.blogspot.com/2018/05/voodoo-hypothesis-canisia-lubrin.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2021.
Lubrin, Canisia. The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem. McClelland & Stewart, 2020.
—. Voodoo Hypothesis. Buckrider, 2017.
McKittrick, Katherine. “Dear April: The Aesthetics of Black Miscellanea.” Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 26 Sept. 2021, onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ anti.12773.
—. Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke UP, 2021.
—. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. U of Minnesota P, 2006.
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, 2016.
Wasserman, Earl R. “The Inherent Values of Eighteenth-Century Personification.” PMLA, vol. 65, no. 4, June 1950, pp. 435-63.
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