Poetry Review by Bertrand Bickersteth

Canisia Lubrin, The Dyzgraphxst (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2020). Paperbound, 176 pp., $21.

The DyzgraphxstCanisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst is a startling and ambitious work on several levels: its sustained meditation on the limits of “I,” its subversion of poetic genre, its radical preoccupation with language’s negating effects, its insightful realizations of the body: historical, gendered, racialized. She reconfigures self, place, history, and language so much that the book can be a dizzying and at times overwhelming read. But ultimately her rewordings are rewarding.

Briefly put, the poem positions four characters, Jejune, I, I, and i, in a series of meditative and often philosophical considerations that span the globe (mostly, the African Diasporic globe) and also zero in on family relationships. But no “briefly put” can do justice to this work, a long poem divided into seven acts plus a prologue and an epilogue, plus a monologue and dramatis personae. This co-opting of theatrical conventions is only one of its multilayered literary appropriations. Each act reopens the question of self and, significantly, how Black selfhood is often negated. In refraining the words “ain’t I,” the title of each act summons Sojourner Truth’s legacy and begins a discourse with forceful declarations of both Blackness and womanhood. For both the “I” and the “ain’t” demand accounting and this dis/juncture between abnegation and self pervades the entire poem.

Most striking is the deft way in which Lubrin questions the unity of “I” as subject by linking the creativity of art and writing to the suppression of racialized and gendered voices. “… i exist, yes, but where am I // as much as I can enter / these terms of feeling / i know, here I am fiction.” But what is the fiction? It is a historical, literary, and familial legacy that has subverted who “I” can be. According to the dramatis
, there are three versions of “I”: two, capitalized, express second-person singular and third-person plural, respectively; the conventional first-person singular is attributed to the unconventional (in English) lower case “i.” This threefold usage creates grammatical displacements that underscore what is rarely seen as the convenient arbitrariness of the subject I: a unified subjectivity as a matter of how one looks at things: “… Jejune and I and i find / the highest point in the
city, we rub our eyes.” There is, too, a resistance to being objectified
by resisting the grammatical me:

okay, maybe give I some spices
give I the whole shape of a meta-

morphosis to wear, give I
the Labrador Sea and
the nine hundred feet

between the black skein and
the blow it dislodges, give I
the sharp and weary self.

Part of this resistance evokes Diasporic English (english) from the Caribbean as well as the historic traumas that unleash unusual sites for the self. There is an epic feel to this reorientation of self, evocative of Derek Walcott’s and Edouard Glissant’s respective formulations of Caribbean literariness and créolisation. Certainly, Lubrin can be read within these engenderings (as well as the haunting spryness of Dionne
Brand’s sensibilities), but her language is also unique: many-tongued, figurative, literary, and, steeped in the possibilities of its own reinventions, fruitfully ambivalent. In lines like “I breed out / the deadlands” or “some years are newly cysting” or the prayer-like “father / make me againword / a disappearance,” absence and negation are living contentions.

This restless creativity appears to be at the heart of Lubrin’s general poetic project (Voodoo Hypothesis and augur have similar though differently realized leanings) and particularly central to The Dyzgraphxst. When not shifting between pronouned contortions of the self, or between English, French, Creole, and various other smatterings of language (“an exhumed patois”), or between elegiac poetry and subverted semantics (see the imaginative redefinings of graphisme and graphics in Act iii), she is remaking poetry itself. In Act IV, “Ain’t I the Ode,” the shortest section, there are only three poems, each accompanied by one or two stanzas as orphaned but related asides in a separate column. “i have not been written / not merely,” Lubrin writes, “there is no cure for this / stretch of my hand back / to the fostered love ringing.” At this point 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. Perhaps this contradiction speaks to the “ordinary / unordinariness” Lubrin evokes elsewhere. 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. “j’suis une édition limitée,” we are told. Indeed.

At other points the poem is as concerned with unwriting as much as writing itself, constantly reinventing its own form and challenging expected forms, using unusual superscripts, footnotes continuing the poetic line, discontiguous epigraphs, font shifts, semantically slippery definitions, blatant omissions. But like the orphaned stanzas, these adjustments are not ornamental. If “everything is orphaned,” then, in so being, everything is “returned to famil(iarit)yword.” These apparent discontinuities are at home and continue to do the work of the poem: interrogating identity, being, knowledge, history, and language. “[H]ave i faded from the miswritten main,” Lubrin asks. “The signature will wipe I out.” And, as the ultimate work of a poet is, perhaps, to make, “Return #2” turns to this question. “What am I to make” is the poem’s first and last line. Here, making is both a matter of meaning (as throughout The Dyzgraphxst) and the unique work of women. While Trinidadian Canadian poet Claire Harris’s classic long poem on pregnancy and birthing has her drawing down a daughter, Lubrin is drawing up “two or three small sons // … Up as early and as well as anyone, up until Uphood.” This part of the poem extends itself, line by line, to its halfway point, and then subsides again, literally shaping itself into a fertile bulge: a meaningful response to the violence of racism and history of erasure that (mis)defines Black experience as marginal, Black love as unrecognizable. Is it any wonder Lubrin has chosen a disrupted and disruptive form for her text? If readers are to make anything of this innovative read, “first,” a poetic footnote instructs, “leave out the fantasy of the discontinuous.”

In keeping with her efforts to deconstruct the subject self, lacunae are brought into being. And why not? If anything, Lubrin’s poetry insists that there is something to reckon with in the overlooked, the absented, the dismissed. There are so many levels to a historical trauma that lodges itself in familiar, and even familial, encounters, so
many ways to confound and be confounded, that one should blank at the possibilities. Just one of those possibilities is finding something new when history repeats itself. “I was that speck in the multiplier of myself / déjà vu,” Lubrin writes, “an early stage, what I have learned, new langu- / age held in the nowhere of my blood up against the page.” The Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer attest to a frustration around the “early stage” of mainstream awareness. While, for me, much of the frustration stemmed from the recognition that none of what we Black people were saying on systemic racism was new, Lubrin, somehow, manages to say something “utterly, utterly” new on the topic. Working through this many-layered text left me dizzy, divided, warranted, and rewarded. Make no mistake: The Dyzgraphxst is a masterful engagement of Black life reworded.


—Bertrand Bickersteth

As in The Malahat Review, 213, winter 2020