Crate Digging to Remix Sylvia Wynter

Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Dub: Finding Ceremony (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020); 320 pages; ISBN 978-1478006459 (paperback)

• February 2021

How can a feminist African American literary poet work with the understanding that African-descended people’s manipulations of sound-recording technologies interacting with their people’s music and speech have played a pre-eminent role in shaping Black modernity?1 How is her practice affected by knowing that African Jamaican dub poets had found one powerful answer in developing dub poetry from dub music? What if she has ancestral connections to the Caribbean and finds herself highly attuned to the Sorplusi principles—self-knowledge, orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness, and integrity—of international dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika but resists appropriating a Jamaican poetic form?2 And how can she remain accountable to both ancestors and all life in the hyperprecarious present ecological moment?

Dub: Finding Ceremony can be read as Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s current answers to these questions. Its title signals not a study of dub music or poetry but an Afrxsporic (African + diasporic) phonological framework for Gumbs’s “doubling” (xiii) of the thought journey of intellectually revolutionary US-based Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter. Though Gumbs declares herself “influenced by the promiscuity and prolificity of dub music, the confrontational homegrown intimacy of dub poetry, and the descendants thereof” (xiii), Dub’s centering on sound further accords with Wynter’s take on Afrxsporic oral culture as independent self-making in the face of humanism’s negation of Black people’s humanity. To create alternatives to humanist, neoliberal, and dominant Western biopolitical versions of the human and what Robin James identifies as their “sonic episteme,” Gumbs thinks through sound to explore the poetic potentialities of a Black feminist sound episteme and a Wynter-inspired ecopoetics that decenters the human.3

Dub rounds out Gumbs’s trilogy of response to Black, freedom-seeking feminist thinkers that began with Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, where Gumbs riffs on the words and insights of literary critic Hortense Spillers to investigate “the contemporary afterlives of slavery” (x). Then, routed through the ideas of gender studies scholar M. Jacqui Alexander, Gumbs offers in M. Archive: After the End of the World “postdated evidence of our imminent apocalypse” (x–xi).4  Dub in turn responds wholeheartedly to Wynter’s call for “heretical poetic action against our deepest beliefs” (x), deriving its primary emotional energy from her assertion “The rule is love” (276) and enacting the “potentially creative poetics of a non-divided society of the future” that Wynter envisions.5Accordingly, despite Dub’s representing various aspects of both the “inhumane history of man” (x) and the “violent imposition of a supposedly universal humanism on variably dispossessed communities,” the book’s dedication, “For all / (my relations)” (v), is a formal recasting of oral traditional phrasing of North American Indigenous ecological vision, a vision that marks Gumbs’s Shinnecock ancestry.

The structural elements of Gumbs’s scholarly and creative hybrid text enact its refusal of discrete disciplinary and generic practices, beginning with a five-page note that explains Dub’s marked intertextual relation to Wynter’s oeuvre and that identifies the book as “an artifact and tool for breath retraining and interspecies ancestral listening” (xiii). Dub’s thirty multipart prose poems engage with both Gumbs’s genealogical roots contextualized within histories of Black peoples and the Wynter-inspired sense of radical interbeing, thereby performing both memory and a new kind of Afro-futurist possibility. Gumbs’s commitments to intersubjectivity and creative community manifest in her acknowledgments section, which exhaustively rehearses her debts, while her endnotes cue a reading of Dub as a remix of samplings from Wynter. Hence the citations of a bolded word or phrase from a minimally identified Wynter work are not enclosed in quotation marks. Enabling the intellectually curious to discover the context of the endnotes’ sometimes cryptic words and phrases does, however, require the fuller citations provided in the book’s concluding section, “crate dig.” In other circumstances, this section would be identified as a works-cited list, but here it is titled with the DJ’s term for the attempted unearthing of vintage, often rare treasures from crates of vinyl records so as to sample them. Moreover, the section’s subtitle, “Source Riddims from Sylvia Wynter,” uses the dub lexicon’s term for ancestral rhythmic inheritances.6

The way Gumbs’s phonological framing is privileged over clarity is exemplified in the cryptic endnote to section 1 of the poem “remembering.” The endnote indicates the source riddim is the single word abstraction in Wynter’s essay “Ethno or Socio Poetics,” but section 1 addresses the mutually constitutive relationship between an unspecified “we” or “us,” perhaps ancestors, whom ethnocentric Western scholarship would likely (mis)represent as oral—or worse, illiterate—and a descendant (an autopoetic persona?), whom such scholarship might well identify as highly literate. Providing the fuller, contextualized quotation—“To re-invent the concrete self it is necessary to first recognize abstraction of the self which, imposed on us [by humanism’s propagators], we have inherited”—would have clarified the meaning of Gumbs’s endnote without subverting the prompt to the intellectually curious to read Wynter’s discussion of humanism’s dialectical constitution of the equally abstract idealized Western Man and subhuman “nativized” man.7 Sampling’s succinctness would, however, have been lost.

Section 8 of “remembering,” though, clearly renders its endnote’s citation of Wynter’s “code made flesh” (284) while augmenting section 1’s subversion of colonial discourse’s depreciation of orality in binary relation to literacy. Whereas section 1 supplements hegemonic notions of writing with the idea of biological inscription of family resemblance, section 8 affirms the potency of rhythm and sound more generally: “when they made me they tapped on the sound between the stars.” Privileging the oral/aural over the visual, the poem moves to counterbalance Western oculocentric poetics: “the important thing is not to look. it is to listen and find the rhythm. is it speeding up or slowing now. tap tap. tap tap” (29). Such is the pedagogy arising from Dub’s Afrxsporic sound episteme.

Gumbs frequently allows sound to lead poems’ development. As the prefatory note says of her poetic practice, “This writing, and Wynter’s rigor, required me to let go of my voice and to surrender to language practices outside my memory and education” (xii). Dub’s soundscapes are created by incantatory repetition of phrases, frequent alliteration and rhyme, and a rupturing of breath-flow effected by punctuation or its lack in expected places to signify a white chokehold on Black lives. Gumbs pries open this stranglehold to vivify new potentialities of meaning. For example, her address to a starfish flows in phrases built around the verbs find, mind, mine until the latter is abruptly made into its own sentence and verb doubles as personal pronoun indicating that star and speaker share a life-source: “dig down star until you find the water. mine the water. mind the water. mine. the water waiting in you” (73).

Inspired by Wynter’s vision of reclaiming vast areas of our being from distorting dominant narratives, Gumbs experimented with a daily writing practice that connects all lives, human and other-wise. Daring herself to let go of predetermined ideas of self/identity, Gumbs made of herself a portal, attending to a range of ancestral voices including those of the Arawak, of Ashanti and Irish ancestors who rooted in the Caribbean, and of “kindred beyond taxonomy” (xii). Listening intently and respectfully to whale-song, her persona reports, “they find each other by calling out. like i am calling you” (153). In the poem “opening,” she additionally claims kin with the finned and the clawed, with microorganisms, and even with those whom she characterizes as “the ones who sold and who bought and who tossed overboard” (6–7). This process of opening to and gathering in such a disparate range of ancestors is self-re-creation outside hegemonic constructions both of the human as rightly dominant over other beings and of Western Man as proper archetype for all other dominations. Of the newly embraced ancestors, Gumbs writes, “they will unfound you and surround you unfind you and unwind you travel to you unravel through your own needle” (7).

The book recurrently tutors readers on how to engage in the “finding ceremony” of Dub’s subtitle. “Another Set of Instructions,” for example, opens with “we are asking you to trust your hands. . . . trust your heart. . . . trust what you hear. we are asking you to build a circle. always a circle. not almost a circle. . . . make the sound that calls us in” (69). Such is the ecopoetic pedagogy that makes Dub a balm yard to medicine the ills of those who suffer from the failure to see the interdependence of all beings and those who, after the workings of (klepto)colonialism and commodification, sexism, and racism, need to (re)learn respectful relationship to women, people of African descent, animals, and land.

 

Now retired, Susan Gingell still pursues the interests announced in the title of a volume of essays she coedited, Listening Up, Writing Down, and Looking Beyond: Interfaces of the Oral, Written, and Visual (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2012). She co-peer-leads a Saskatoon Buddhist sangha and ran Serenity Space Yoga until March 2020.

 


[1] See Alexander G. Weheliye, Phonographies: Grooves in Sonic Afro-Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005). By italicizing the word Black at this first occurrence, I am marking its implication in race-making.

[2] Gumbs refers to the “sorplusi method” (xiii); anitafrika has renamed the framework the Anitafrika Method, as described at d’bi.young anitafrika, http://dbiyounganitafrika.com/the-anitafrika-method.

[3] Robin James, The Sonic Episteme: Acoustic Resonance, Neoliberalism, and Biopolitics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), 6.

[4] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); M. Archive: After the End of the World (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

[5] Sylvia Wynter, “Ethno or Socio Poetics,” Alcheringa/Ethnopoetics 2, no. 2 (1976): 92n43.

[6] I am grateful to Ronald Cummings for explaining crate digging to me.

[7] Wynter, “Ethno,” 86.