Today Is a Good Day to Dream: Canisia Lubrin’s VOODOO HYPOTHESIS
(Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2017, $18.00, 96 pages)
Review by Julie Mannell
Canisia Lubrin’s seminal book of poetry Voodoo Hypothesis is one of the most artful and influential works to emerge in Canada in 2017. It raises the bar for what can be expected of debut collections. Voodoo Hypothesis reconstructs history as visceral, bodily, and endured as perpetual, intergenerational psychic injury. The poems are a map of historical displacement depicted by Lubrin as mental and physical manifestations that are both purposeful and lyrical.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that I have been good friends with Canisia Lubrin for a year and a half. However, this friendship formed from my involvement in the Canadian writing community: a particularly small community where it is difficult to not have personal encounters with other authors.
Voodoo Hypothesis is referentially thick. It recollects modernism through frequent allusion both to history, canonical texts, and authors/public figures (Dionne Brand, Jesse Williams, Priscila Uppal to name a few). One could venture to call this book an academic’s wet dream because of the depth of research a single poem requires of its reader in order to fully realize the multiplicity of layers and how these layers poetically conspire to render a single multifaceted and rich collage. For the speaker, the body is not ever a blank slate but is born of and into history. “I am a simple child, then, a tilled site of history.” Before their first breath, a person is already a palimpsest of linguistic signifiers that only becomes further compounded by the experiential. Writing (or becoming) oneself is always a process of writing over what has already been written, experience in conglomeration with that which has already been experienced.
Consider Lubrin’s poem “The Mongrel,” which heavily leans against allusions to Haiti: the Creole language and the Nèg maron (creole for maroon or “wild negro” in the pejorative and can also refer to a statue commemorating the Haitian slave revolt against France in 1804), as well as the Shakespearean island “monster” Caliban (The Tempest was set on an unnamed Mediterranean island but has been often set in Haiti in modern adaptations), to name a few. The word “mongrel” itself is a charged word that refers to a dog with no definable breed and has been unfortunately adopted as a slur for someone of mixed descent. The poem interestingly opens with a quote from Nobel Prize winning poet and diplomat Saint-John Perse, who was heavily influenced by Robinson Crusoe (an author who notoriously treated Caribbean characters with a British Colonial agenda), and was the son of plantation owners in Guadeloupe—fleeing to France on the occasion of the election of the first Guadeloupian President. Yet the quote Lubrin has chosen is one of longing and displacement: “There was no name for us in our mother’s oratory.” What follows renders the quote ironic, if one meditates on its context. However, it is not strictly accusatory. It takes the sentiment of displacement and namelessness and reconstructs it as experienced by “the Mongrel”—those whom Shakespeare, Crusoe, and Perse simultaneously benefit from and blame. Here I point to Lubrin’s striking line, “What else reveals us, a species of amnesiacs, cut off from the trembling that tore—our continents apart? And with so much unknowing.” The longing is as enchanting as it is elevated—it is enchanting because the strength of imagery evoked by “a species of amnesiacs” and elevated by its originality. Yet, the speaker is direct in their inquiry and treatment of historical tropes and colonial agendas that have been adopted and taught: “our knowledge of the Mongrel is only fragmentary.” Throughout the poem, not only are the thoughts and the ideas that accompany the Mongrel elevated, but the “Mongrel” itself as a posited identity is elevated through repeated capitalization:
brutality loves us this side of the name, while
only misted, our ears stretch to still the Mongreled
air landing, broken, invented again as history
in the rusted coils of coffee shops, inked
Mongrel skins, whose only escape is one cosmic
While the breadth of information is intimidating, the universality of the many small observational phrases ground the poems in relatable sentiments that render the work immediately accessible. A dangerously thin line that Lubrin navigates well is that of the wise voice and the casual observer. Lubrin draws upon a wide array of research that for many might point towards someone who has aged into stark seriousness—but she is young, and her material is interlaced with quotable, twitter-esque observations. From her poem “Frankenstein Universe” is a favourite of these lines: “today is a good day to dream, it doesn’t matter if it rains.” Another, this one from “Up in the Lighthouse” goes: “You must know, black isn’t always the void” And here is one last one from “Epistle to the Ghost Gathering”: “Today I insist on the tenderness I may soon forget and remind you.” She successfully marries both the prudent voice of a judicious academic with the passive vulnerability of late-girlhood and the final product is pretty cool:
Nowadays I like to say cool
cool cool thrashing my tongue like an iguana
Tonally, poems often shift from reflective to angry and take you on an emotional odyssey in a fashion akin to an album of music: this is partially due to Lubrin’s expert lyricism and perhaps also due to the careful consideration allotted to the ordering of the poems—no doubt influenced by the editorial team at Wolsak and Wynn’s Buckrider Books. This shift is exemplified in the final line of “Fire of Roseau,” which seamlessly moves from indignant to elegiac: “I rebel, I like any nigger with a demand: tell me my thoughts are jagged but never why they bruise.” Little attention is often paid this kind of tonal movement, both between poems, within a poem, and as Lubrin does frequently, within a line. Something that can be witnessed in too many collections of late, is the focus on a central premise—and there is much to be said for how the Canadian grant system encourages this approach—which often ends up treating poetry collections as if they are an essay. The final product of such endeavours is often a grouping of poems of a singular tone around a central metaphor. It is obvious, for example, that an essay could be written on the Caribbean-Canadian experience in Lubrin’s work, the role of allusion in this collection, integrating pop culture within explorations of colonialism, the aesthetic of the emotive in the reflective speaker. Yet none of these is the central concern of the book as a whole, nor do all of the poems employ the same tools or muses. When a poet permits themselves this sort of freedom, the final product has some variance within it and allots the reader room to breathe. This is an integral element in the enterprise of world creation, even if that world is largely internal and confined to thought. No world is any one specific thing (trauma, ecstasy, disappointment, or accomplishment) all of the time, always, forever.
The more literary term for a “turn” in a poem is a “volta,” and these are classically featured in sonnets which often have a dramatic curve in tone. Lubrin has multiple per poem and they never tire, they are strategic so as to keep the reader alert and engaged, evoking suspense:
If proof is what you seek: these doors, clear with fright
and conscience burst at the hinges and turn out all ill this life deposits,
however cosmic the unease, into the black sweater
of nighttime. I can’t tell you what marks the hills that wait
like hexagrams of frost. But behold the sweet, holy reprieve
of a hoodie pulled over the eyes in wanton praise
of the pre-bang dark when the world is too much.
Instead the sun comes up announcing it has touched the parts of us that hurt
In this passage, the speaker employs metaphysical conceit to move from grand existential observations to the specific of a black sweater. The voice switches from philosophically instructional to pragmatic and personal. Then what follows is a transition into something simultaneously reflective and collective, implicating the speaker as part of a larger experience: one who perceives the sunlight as illuminating the historical and individual pains of the past synchronously. All the while maintaining its musicality through creative word choice and graceful imagery.
There is far too much quality material for a single review to adequately cover Voodoo Hypothesis. I will, however, state that I think this collection is absolutely perfect and wholly anticipate its presence on the awards shortlists in the coming months.
Julie Mannell is an author of poetry, prose, and essays. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing at University of Guelph. Mannell is the recipient of the Constance Rooke/HarperCollins Scholarship, the Mona Adilman Poetry Prize, and the Lionel Shapiro Award for Excellency in Creative Writing. She splits her time between Montreal and Toronto.
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