A Review of Canisia Lubrin's Voodoo Hypothesis
Review by Carl Watts
According to its press sheet, Canisia Lubrin’s book of poems, Voodoo Hypothesis, seeks to subvert “the imperial construct of ‘blackness’” and reject “the contemporary and historical systems that paint black people as inferior.” This description is somewhat misleading, though, in that the collection is less a targeted, restrained application of scholarly ideas than an ambitious, unrelenting profusion of literary tropes, pop-culture references, abstruse imagery, and social commentary.
The raw abundance of ideas is apparent early on in the collection: the eponymous poem with which Voodoo Hypothesis opens personifies the Mars rover, Curiosity: “she has many clues to calm our fears / for what’s coming. / Mars and her epic storms, her gargantuan / volcanoes have long ceased their trembling.” The poem subsequently refers to Viking Missions, Phoenix, Tribe Traders, and the Pharaohs, while lines like “she’ll pulverize Martian rock / and test for organic molecules / in her lab within a lab within / a lab” draw attention to this at once excessive and irreverent referentiality.
Lubrin’s approach is refreshing. I’ve long been frustrated by poets whose work is purported to be immediate and innovative yet whose actual poems are built entirely of the mythological references that have propped up English verse for hundreds of years. Lubrin seems interested more in draining these references of their remaining meaning and then discarding them. “Give Us Fire Or The Black Prometheus” uses bodily imagery to fuse the layers of tradition and modernity inhering in its title’s allusion to Frankenstein. Lines like “teething skin in the black guts / of slave ships, we’re through with being // you, or that Ulysses, figure: let us squall / with old Prometheus any day” stay close to its key themes without seeming literal or didactic.
Many of the book’s strongest passages are quick and compact. “Sons of Orion” reduces the multiple facets of identity into dialogue, asking, “Who were you before? SOS. Sol. And if not the names / on this subsolar roll call: do not try to pull or remove your stitches on your own. / Whose Sol are you, then, Son?” Lubrin frequently swaps parts of speech in a way that disorients, even as her repetition and consonance prevent the reading process from being interruptive, such as when “Turn Right at The Darkness” begins, “Not a single could at summer’s centre, so hot / vapours rise having run out / of pavement to disappear into.”
When Lubrin’s lines lengthen into prose, her play with repeating sounds and syntax occurs less frequently. These passages seem instead to comment on the arbitrariness of genre, like when “The Stations of the Cross” rambles through swaths of prose before organizing itself into almost equally unrestrained verse:
But never mind what we eat, what portraits the naked
bowl with more-thirds of our lives marooned from a crevice of ground.
Ripen in us what is hard to possess, like God-speech but loosened,
how we ferry this earth, by such strange cyclic chemistry—all of our fruitless
in the gaped rays of some Easter sun.
These archaic phrasings may to some invoke George Elliott Clarke, but Lubrin seldom adheres to the more rigid structures of Clarke’s work. This tradeoff makes for lines that are less considered, and perhaps more potent, than Clarke’s efficient, dizzying navigation of registers. In some of these passages, though – like “hear me full of the tragedy of her life, / the black rubber keeping silent the exploding atoms in the power lines // who now still bespeaks the province,” also from “Turn Right at the Darkness” – the quick turns of the tightly lineated sections disappear in the relentless flow of content.
“Epistle to the Ghost Gathering,” the final, multi-section poem, captures the collection’s verse and prose techniques in efficient vignettes. But its last section looks quite different:
Homo Denisova Man from the Valley of Denisova
. . .
Homo Ergaster Working Man
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Homo Sapien Wise Man
The poem’s scattered ellipses bind the Latin of anthropology with histories that lie, partially exposed, throughout Voodoo Hypothesis. This piece is the most minimalist of the book’s ambiguous appeals to structure and arbitrariness. It’s hard to imagine that Lubrin’s future work will settle for choosing either of these paths; what will be interesting to see is if she can somehow repeat this final poem’s feat of tightening up all that juxtaposition without sacrificing the abundance and ambition that characterize her debut.
Carl Watts holds a PhD from Queen's University and teaches in the Department of English at Royal Military College. He researches Canadian literature and North American poetry, and he has published a poetry chapbook called REISSUE (Frog Hollow Press, 2016).