On Reading Maps and Memory

Canisia Lubrin, Voodoo Hypothesis (Hamilton, Ontario: Buckrider, 2017); 95 pages; ISBN 978-1928088424 (softcover)

• February 2020

To claim power, one must claim cartography.

Canisia Lubrin’s debut poetry collection, Voodoo Hypothesis, transforms the poetry of geographic and historical memory into a conversation between spirituality and science, with a particular interest in the placement and power of black bodies in the African diaspora. Of the book’s five sections, four open with an epigraph from Derek Walcott, Mike Mariani, C. L. R. James, or Christina Sharpe, set against a background of a topographic map made of contour lines. A map is also the image on the book’s cover. For some poets, interiority means an inward exploration separate to material reality and the physical quality of places. Poets such as Lubrin, in contrast, observe the social texture and cartographic points that connect to inward feelings, thoughts, and memories. Maps, therefore, drive the aesthetic, political, and literary mission of the collection.

In the title poem, Lubrin confronts the cosmological and cartographic in her reflection on the imperial domination of landscape, perennial invasions, and conquests of groups throughout global history. She is also interested in the construction of the alien “other.” She reminds us that “the alien we think we know is the alien we only dream” (3). Her most powerful poetry is plainspoken language, as she writes in the opening stanza of “Voodoo Hypothesis”:

Before sight, we imagine
that while they go out in search
of God
we stay in and become god,
become: Curiosity,
whose soul is a nuclear battery
because she’ll pulverize Martian rock
and test for organic molecules
in her lab within a lab within
a lab. She doesn’t need to know our fears
so far too grand for ontology, reckoning. (1)

The lexical precision and references to mythological and scientific terms create a complex world of meaning poem by poem. Almost entirely, the collection explores cartography as an extended metaphor that plays itself out through questions of scale, measurement, time, distance, and even the relations among planets. Essentially, Lubrin grates against colonial and imperialist constructions of places and bodies. She critiques othering and racist imperialist structures of thought that continue to wield power in mainstream epistemology. Mapmaking was a form of political control deployed by imperialist Western forces that divided the world into rulers and subjects, civilized and primitive, enlightened nations and “darker” regions, and developed and undeveloped. Where colonial and imperialist forces subjugated places and bodies, maps described and even conscribed the territory on which this subjugation occurred. Lubrin’s “The Frankenstein Universe” brings this political act into its clearest explanation:

I can’t tell you how maps the trail retouched
with the hushed tune of the denigrate

or that instrument carving time out
of where was nothing. I can’t tell . . .

from which the cartographers came,
stood and looked up at the lipped beauty of a half moon

and christened star, iris, too. And like one Columbus
pupil ‘membering an early death quickened like a lie. (18)

Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion similarly approaches the issue of knowledge systems, territory, and cultural memory, albeit Miller tackles these subjects more explicitly by formulating a conversation between a cartographer upholding Western modes of thought and a Rastafari articulating a sense of place rooted in Jamaican history.1 Neither maps nor geographic concepts are new to the field of Caribbean literature; writers such as Aimé Césaire, Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, Wilson Harris, Olive Senior, and Lorna Goodison, to name a few, have long taken up these themes in their work.2 It appears that contemporary Caribbean literature, especially in its poetry, continues a dialogue with the disciplines of geography, expanding the scope of literary geographies where literature itself contributes to geographic knowledge and debates.

The collection’s title juxtaposes two knowledge systems: “Voodoo” and science. These are not discrete categories in Lubrin’s approach to exploring the experiences of black bodies across place and time. She bends and stretches concepts in religion and science, interlacing them with each other. Yet what is perhaps left wanting in this collection, for me as a Caribbean reader, is a more exact and unreserved engagement with Caribbean geographic places. This would complement what Lubrin has done with her mapping of Caribbean literary and language influences.

In a parcel of three poems—”And If Today I Die” (49), “Sons of Orion” (50), and “At the End of the World” (51)—the reader sees the imminent threat to black life in North America because of a history of institutional racism and violence. Lubrin presents the poems as both a reflection on the individual loss of life and a collective suffering of the black community in response to these murders. In “And If Today I Die,” dedicated to Tamir Rice, she writes, “I have not seen your death / not sung for the gathered. / A girl can only do so much” (49). Rice was a twelve-year-old African American boy who was shot by a police officer on 22 November 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. The poem is weighty with questions about the issue of racial violence in America:

It is not your song that smalls the world,
not your pseudo-trigger that misses the world.
Is it the crowd of mothers and kids
who rained on the umbrellas
held above your bloodied self?
Or is it their shadows generations apart
that beg the watchmen show up and answer? (49)

Poems such as this show that writers can meaningfully engage in current political matters with a historical memory and geographical imagination that expands the meaning of a single political moment. Through the use of more epigraphs, Lubrin seamlessly situates some poems in relation to the musings of literary figures such as Derek Walcott and Saint-John Perse as well as to the words of popular cultural figures such as Jesse Williams. The poem “Village Crescendos” opens with an epigraph from Williams’s 2016 BET Award speech: “Just because we’re magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real” (35). Lubrin possesses the ability to speak to a young and new audience for poetry that not only engages the politics of the day but also masterfully offers a creative vision and poetry for the political moment.

There is rhythm, tone, and procedure as Lubrin travels through different geographies in order to understand and detail the complexity of black subjects between Canada and the Caribbean and elsewhere in the African diaspora. In this collection, she brings to our attention the weight of a bloody past that helps us understand black shared futures. In a language of pain and soberness that comes with a deep connection to landscape and historical memory, Lubrin leaves a sharp message with readers that the “anthologized dead / still touch everything” (65).

 

 

Amílcar Sanatan is a PhD candidate in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. His poetry has appeared in the Caribbean Review of Gender Studies, Cordite Poetry Review, Interviewing the Caribbean, Moko Magazine, PREE Lit, the Caribbean Writer, and Sargasso. Sanatan is an alumnus of the Cropper Foundation’s Tenth Caribbean Creative Writers’ Residential Workshop. For over a decade he has performed spoken-word poetry and coordinated open mics in Trinidad and Tobago.


1. See Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2014).

2. See Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Paris: Présence Africaine, 1956); Edward [Kamau] Brathwaite, The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973); Derek Walcott, The Fortunate Traveller (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981); Wilson Harris, The Four Banks of the River Space (London: Faber and Faber, 1990); Olive Senior, Gardening in the Tropics (Toronto: McClelland and Steward, 1994); and Lorna Goodison, Travelling Mercies (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2001).

 

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