Navigating Vision, Meaning, and History

Canisia Lubrin, The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2020); 167 pages; ISBN 978-0771048692 (paperback)

• October 2022

To navigate challenging and difficult passages of a major work like Canisia Lubrin’s The Dyzgraphxst: A Poem is to be always looking for stars in that night sky. These might serve as harbingers, comet streaks, prophetic signals that offer some way in, some translation, some exegesis for the turbulence one feels when reading. Alerted by Lubrin, this Caribbean reader listens for the Zouk and Konpa of the Creole islands. St. Lucian folk chantwelles (singers) stop us in startling and powerful lines that demand rereading and underlining. Our ears tune for kaiso and reggae in rhythmic pulsations that pull one from line to line. We pause for seeing and thinking.

This reader hears all that, and yet the transiting from section to section leaves me with a feeling of baffled incomprehension. Even as one is trying to find a place to stand, Jejune, the poem’s persona(e) with supposed dysgraphia (read, sly, cunning smile at the corners of a griot’s lips, over eyes that gaze unwaveringly at you), is shaping these pixels in ways that offer little regard for conventional uses of the white space on many pages. Okay, so what am I missing, especially because this work is gathering prizes, awards, critical attention, and praise? Relief comes, a feeling of inadequacy dissipates, when I read Anthony Vahni Capildeo’s remarks in their announcement that The Dyzgraphxst had won the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature. Capildeo, also a major innovative poet, declares,

These poems take apart our individual personal pronoun, the “I,” questioning and finding new ways to feel and think and know what we suppose to be our “self.” . . . This book shifts what language can be and do. It is thrilling to read it and to relish giving up the illusion of mastery of meaning; to revel in not fully understanding.1

Ah! I hear! Huge sigh of relief from this reader. I step back from the tapestry woven by Lubrin to get a better view, and I (eye) begin to see shapes and figures of Jejune, their life, and to hear/follow the “itations” in the musical/poetic score that is The Dyzgraphxst.

I propose that Lubrin’s first work, Voodoo Hypothesis (2017), which has also attracted much critical attention, is a prelude, with The Dyzgraphxst as the second installment. What Sonnet L’Abbé says about the first book rings true for the second: “Lubrin’s speakers seem to have lived in generations of bodies of the African diaspora, and through centuries of migrations, slavery, and neo-capitalism. Yet hers is still one single, contemporary vision.”2 In both books, what grabs one’s deep attention, what brings one upright before the pages, are the powerful lines of genuine poetry. I open Voodoo Hypothesis at random as I write now, and these amazing words come at me:

We have both of us landed now in the ruins
of a dusk so brave it waits for us at the door
lime-scented and liquored, empty like the washed-out pages of old phrase books
and us as we were born. Not free but eclipsed by our nakedness.3 

These are the early voices of a Jejune who will be given center stage in the seven-act soliloquy that is The Dyzgraphxst.

Crossing genre boundaries, playing with the drama form, The Dyzgraphxst begins by announcing its dramatis personae (1), with “JEJUNE: THE VOICE” as the main (solo) character (in all their selves). The subversion that Lubrin is after, in fact begins with the title. Dysgraphia is defined as the “inability to write coherently, as a symptom of brain disease or damage.”4 Jejune, this neurodivergent figure standing outside standard Western logics, analyzes their world with a keen perception and analytical mind, in their own language and idioms. The Dyzgraphxst is a “poetic drama” in seven acts, bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue consists of a “definition” of dysgraphia, and one wonders whether we are in the presence of an Anansi or Compere Lapin dissembler, spinning riddles, pretending an incoherence, engaging in a subversive technique of protest, a huge dramatic irony, that confronts the enemy, saying that “a thing can name what it survives in the in and gives hell on the way out” (3). A monologue between act 3, “Ain’t I Épistémè?,” and act 4, “Ain’t I the Ode?,” defines graphisme and graphics (51). Following act 7, “Ain’t I Again?,” the epilogue seems a summing-up resolution of all that has gone before in the poem’s searing statements. The “definition” offered here is that of grapheme, a term from linguistics that means “the smallest meaningful contrastive unit in a writing system” (145).5 The poem moves to its conclusion as it began, with a challenge to the very roots of language by those whose lives are diasporic, that began in forced enslavements and displacements. Jejune has “found new ways of saying what is not ever enough to say” (148). Interesting to note that act 7 and the epilogue bridge the speaker’s lives in rural St. Lucia and cosmopolitan Toronto.

The Dyzgraphxst would make an enthralling dramatic presentation, whether as a monologue or with other voices, perhaps a trio of musicians, all to carry the weight of the marvelous of this poetry. The titles of the individual acts, each asking “Ain’t I . . . ?,” are questions that reference the “I” and search out concerns around what Lubrin describes in her letters with Ted Nolan as engagement with the self in its world and its totality, “relation to . . . a kind of collective, to kinship.”6 The “Dramatis Personae” articulates the self in relation to self and community: “i: First person singular. I: Second person singular. I: Third person plural.” The “stage directions” say, “This is an ocean drama” (1). If for Derek Walcott “the sea is history,” in The Dyzgraphxst Lubrin is more closely concerned with the enforced shipments of millions of Black bodies from Africa to the Americas and the reality of that horrendous experience.7 Here she echoes Christina Sharpe’s In The Wake, which posits that the slave ship experience still deeply haunts Black diasporic life, and Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, which movingly searches out the traumatic experiences of the unexpected and forced separations of Black peoples from their lands into the prison holds of slave caravels.8 Both Sharpe and Brand are acknowledged as major influences on Lubrin and this work.

In passing, one notes the strong presence of St. Lucian folklore and Walcott’s poetry in Voodoo Hypothesis and might conclude that Lubrin’s creation here of a poetic drama around the forced Atlantic crossings may reflect the influence of Walcott’s dramatic verse plays (Ti-Jean and His Brothers and Dream on Monkey Mountain) that have contributed much to postcolonial literature. Jejune is arguably Lubrin’s “muse of history.”9

At the roots of the language used to describe the “political” situation of Jejune (an exiled Caliban?)—singular and collective—is imagination.

given the choice now to speak
after five hundred years of dysgraphia
let I approach the witness stand in any chosen language,

let I bend into a touch of the supernatural, let that be all
you need to know, where the heart is bruised with unfeeling. (22)

Lubrin’s native St. Lucian Creole/Kwéyòl, nurtured in her early years in the rural community of Jacmel, is heard in lines alongside other nation languages of the Caribbean and her current home of Toronto. She channels the voice of Jejune and their formulations from her personal groundings. And that, without translation. Indeed, as Lubrin tells us, “The poet who speaks truly must always risk showing up in the work, must present the body from which the vulnerability of the work finds its location in thought and feeling and possibility.”10 And she launches from this personal voice in the first stanzas of the poem, throwing her gauntlet down:

                                                                          if that morning
i hadn’t the thirst to lean into the world with an ear to a mouth

begging for the happened thing, for something disguised, what could
prove this dust is freshly mouthed, not some cyclic newly vaporized
empire settling its faithless wages: I’s masses, these bent backs, enough

mwen ni malè, ma ni lè, that never-ending soukou, sé-sa
nou, this is it, our deadland, raw as the last bomb leaves
our storied hand, kité nou la, which mother té manjé yish,

look, we (a) conversation (b) pointing ceaselessly homeward.” (8–9)

If, as I suspect, Voodoo Hypothesis and The Dyzgraphxst will grow into a trilogy, as with Kamau Brathwaite’s The Arrivants, it will generate many book-length studies as it takes its place alongside classic works of postcolonial, “new world” literatures. This short review, starting out as a confession of baffled admiration, barely skirts the surface of this powerful work by Canisia Lubrin, a new, strong, assured voice from our Black diaspora, even as the author is clearly rooted in her beloved St. Lucia and adopted city of Toronto. Much more needs to be said about the dramatic form of this long poem—about its voice(s), about the deep searchings that emerge from Lubrin’s meditations on our lives as Black (and Caribbean) persons in a “total climate . . . of global anti-blackness” (and that, centuries-old), and about the poetry itself, with its unique typographical arrangements/scorings.11


John Robert Lee is a St. Lucian writer. He is the author of Elemental: New and Selected Poems (2008), Collected Poems (1975–2015) (2017), and Pierrot (2020), all from Peepal Tree Press; and the editor of Saint Lucian Writers and Writing: An Author Index of Published Works of Poetry, Prose, and Drama (Papillote, 2019). His Belmont Portfolio, Poems is forthcoming from Peepal Tree.

[1] Anthony Vahni Capildeo, quoted in Carol Quash, “St. Lucian Poet Canisia Lubrin Wins OCM Bocas Best Book Prize,” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, Sunday, 25 April 2021;

[2] Sonnet L’Abbé, blurb for Canisia Lubrin, Voodoo Hypothesis: Poems (Hamilton: Buckrider, 2017).

[3] Lubrin, “Let the Gods to Do Their Work,” in ibid., 73. 

[4] Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th ed. (2011), s.v. “dysgraphia.”

[5] Ibid., s.v. “grapheme.”

[6] Canisia Lubrin, “Letter One Response: July 6, 2020,” in “‘The Wonder and Turbulence of This Existence’: Letters between Canisia Lubrin and E Martin Nolan,” Puritan, no. 50 (Summer 2020),

[7] See Derek Walcott, “The Sea Is History,” in The Star-Apple Kingdom (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979).

[8] See Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); and Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2001).

[9] See Derek Walcott, Dream on Monkey Mountain, and Other Plays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970), and “The Muse of History” (1974), in What the Twilight Says: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999).

[10] Lubrin, “Letter Two Response: August 8, 2020,” in “‘The Wonder and Turbulence of This Existence.’”

[11] Lubrin, “Letter One Response: July 6, 2020,” in ibid.


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