Wanderlust and Relative Need for Lightspeed

Voodoo Hypothesis by Canisia Lubrin - Review by Geoffrey Morrison

Wolsak and Wynn - 2017 - $18



In 1977, the two Voyager space probes lifted off from Florida’s Atlantic coast on trajectories that would take them past the solar system’s outer planets and, ultimately, into interstellar space. Each probe carried a golden record containing music, salutations in many languages, images and sounds from Earth, and remarks from various world leaders. The very first track on the record is a greeting from then-Secretary-General of the United Nations Kurt Waldheim, a lauded man whose true history as an SS intelligence officer in the Balkans would be revealed later.

This compromised introduction to one of American scientific humanism’s grand romantic gestures has not gone unnoticed. W.G. Sebald writes about the crimes of Waldheim’s unit in The Rings of Saturn, emphasizing that “without a doubt those who were stationed there knew what was going on.” More recently, Srikanth Reddy makes Waldheim’s story the centre of his book Voyager, a series of erasure poems of Waldheim’s boilerplate autobiography In the Eye of the Storm. Waldheim’s book, written in the lead-up to his 1986 election to the presidency of Austria, completely elides three years of his military service.

That Kurt Waldheim is the first human voice extraterrestrials will likely ever hear is part of a larger constellation of hard truths about space exploration, which is after all a venture almost exclusively carried out by our planet’s various centres of money and power. The names of the NASA spacecraft from the Voyager era, for instance – Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Magellan – often draw without apparent self-reflection from a Eurocentric lexicon of exploration and settlement, and the Silicon Valley space plans of our own time seem to envision an interplanetary future as elitist and inaccessible as Palo Alto*. Space, to put it bluntly, is at high risk of being fucked up in the same ways that Earth is, a sentiment expressed memorably by Dionne Brand in her long poem Inventory:

does she care ‘about the human species
spreading out across the cosmos’
no, God forbid, stop them, and forgive her this one
imprecation to a deity

then the expert on the radio said, ‘It would be
like how they spread across the New World’
the glee and hedonism in his voice

It is with attention to this terrible immanence of the past in the future, and of the crimes of one hemisphere reproducing themselves in another, that Canisia Lubrin proceeds in Voodoo Hypothesis (Wolsak and Wynn, 2017), her debut book of poetry. The first, titular poem in the book uses the Mars Curiosity rover as a complex object of poetic inquiry, at once the contemporary spacecraft and a way of illustrating the reverberations of colonialism and enslavement:

she’ll take us deeper and convince us to send earthlings
to set up Earth colonies on her deserts. They won’t ever
come back, but that’s not so bad when we trade in
the grander scheme.
As though the colonials, the Tribe Traders
and all the pharaonic masquerades of gone times
were not fair threat. That we won’t know the depth
of our homeward seas
is nothing when

the sun’s still got our backs.

The poem concludes with a message from the rover herself:

Set sail for home,
because we will all wear the consequences of this choice. And you never should have said

I read “this choice” as the choice to displace, to occupy, to hold in bondage – one with consequences we all wear because the construction of categories of blackness and whiteness has come to define the contours of life for people thousands of miles and hundreds of years from its inception in European colonialism and the slave trade. Lubrin’s book is about the dislocated psychogeography wrought by that history, working through the displacements of the African-Caribbean diaspora from her birthplace of St. Lucia in the Windward Antilles to the United States and “that cold Victorian country” of Canada to the outermost fringes of our galaxy.

She does so with a kaleidoscopic poetic diction that seems to effortlessly weave myriad times, places, and ideologies together. In a microcosm of this hallmark style, the rover’s message to Earth is described as

her conches blown
in the hard-won postcards travelling
on space dust faster than a bullet.

We move from Caribbean seashells to the paraphernalia of tourists to fast-moving space dust; while the dust is literally “faster than a bullet,” the specific metaphor also introduces the possibility of violence. This extraordinary lexical compression is everywhere you turn in Voodoo Hypothesis – its poetic bread and butter. Lubrin’s poems brilliantly thread together cosmology and cosmological objects (oort clouds, big bangs, quarks), mathematics and cartography, St. Lucian Creole words, biology and anthropology, allusions to history and contemporary culture, conversational speech, and theological and religious terms. This wide-ranging yet precisely honed language allows her poems to evoke the feeling of centuries or millennia or light years glimpsed together in the blink of an eye.

With its expansive cosmic gaze, the book can feel like an answer to Voyager’s golden disc – a second compendium of Earth, sent in pursuit of the first as a reply to the idea that you could or should sum up human life on earth so surely. It is a record carrying what’s been obscured by triumphalist stories from the centres of power, their ethnographies that reduce difference to curio or pathology or amorphous threat. Rather than a series of frozen and curated still images and sounds, Voodoo Hypothesis offers a vivid, ever-changing process – a method.

I want to stress how these big conclusions, rendered broadly and unsubtly in this essay, so often come as intricate premonitions and suggestions in Lubrin’s poems. This is above all a book of rigour and care, the kind of book that seems poorly served by any attempt at pat explanation or paraphrase. Its real work and power is held where it unfolds phrase-by-phrase, word-by-word.

Lubrin’s lines are linguistically complex and euphonious but never precious, never reveling in sound to the exclusion of sense. Behind every word you can intimate an osmium-density of meaning and purpose. Take the final couplet of “Of One’s Unknown Body”:  

There, clout or slave cutlass, cocooned seasons
in absinthe or a scissor-bird’s breach of reason.

Or later, in the book’s final poem, “Epistle to the Ghost Gathering”:

Was it in breaking
we found the symmetry of shrunken
heads in jars or in damp abandon, the fingertips
dug into rosaried shores? Whose blueprints enter
this wreckage of pearls unbloomed
from lightning between ancestral teeth,
from some sarcophagus of rainflies
we do not care to petition

smokeless fires and mother’s blés
all mere approach, all AWOL in frangipani,
indefinite edge of ocean –
sweeping plain the water’s edge.

One of the final pieces in the book is called “Elliptical Narrations,” which offers a good way to characterize how Lubrin’s poems work more generally. It can take a few orbits to begin untangling the “you” of these poems, or the “we” or the “I”; to recognize their settings; to understand just how many ways their words lock together in subtle dialectical tension. I always learned something new by returning to the poems again, a feeling bolstered by the way they sometimes end on hyphens or commas or other non-period marks – infinitude rather than finality.

When reading Voodoo Hypothesis as a whole, certain motifs come back again and again, with different poetic associations. The mathematical and the cartographic bring violence or foreboding, as in “the rogue geometries of a dumb gallows” or the gaze of tourists on cruise ships, who look at St. Lucia and see “the graphed seduction of hills rolling in on themselves.” These numerical languages, perceived to be solid and to always mean the same thing, are contrasted, I think, with the motion of rivers and the ambiguous comfort of distant stars, which are themselves often described by Lubrin in dynamic terms.

A particularly beautiful instance of this comes early in the book, in the poem “≅”:

By now, the seas are vague,
and even the exploded Carina spares us, wanderlust
and relative need for lightspeed, systems and fall-off –

The Carina constellation contains a binary star, Eta Carinae, that may go nova – (or rather, it likely went nova thousands of years ago, and we’ll see that happen soon). It is currently surrounded by the Homunculus Nebula. It seems to me that nebulae offer another useful metaphor for the poems of Voodoo Hypothesis. This is a nebulous poetics in the best, fullest sense of the word: a nebula is a phantasmagorical place of dying that is also the forging-ground of new stars, a coming illumination.

In the essay “Poetry and Knowledge,” the great Martiniquais poet Aime Césaire quotes an Aldous Huxley metaphor to illustrate the inadequacy of a narrowly scientific knowledge:

“We all think we know what a lion is. A lion is a desert-colored animal with a mane and claws and an expression like Garibaldi’s. But it is also, in Africa, all the neighboring antelopes and zebras, and therefore, indirectly, the neighboring grass…If there were no antelopes and zebras there would be no lion. When the supply of game runs low, the king of beasts grows thin and mangy; it ceases altogether, and he dies.”

Having quoted Huxley, Césaire continues: “It is just the same with knowledge. Scientific knowledge is a lion without antelopes and without zebras…And mankind has gradually become aware that side by side with this half-starved scientific knowledge there is another kind of knowledge. A fulfilling knowledge.”   

Lubrin cites Césaire as an influence in the notes to Voodoo Hypothesis, and his ideas about the relationship of poetry to knowledge helped me to think about the function of scientific and cosmological language in her book. It is present, I think, as just one ambiguous part of a more full and complex system of knowledge.

Césaire writes that this “fulfilling knowledge” began with the people of the earliest human societies, the mythmakers and language-devisers who “discovered in fear and rapture the throbbing newness of the world.” It is, in other words, a language of discovery, but without the imperatives to domination inhering in later European sciences and voyages. As Césaire emphasizes further on in the piece, it is also the language of poetry.

Lubrin’s metaphor-laden lines are extremely good at rendering familiar things in ways that make them seem completely new, a sense of radical estrangement that also reminds me of Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda’s idea that to write about race in American poetry might be “to realize one might also make strange what seems obvious, nearby, close.” Consider these lines from “Turn Right at the Darkness (after Afua Cooper)”:

Not yet canonized with folk songs, with the metonymy
of air tornado’d in the throat: hear me full of the tragedy of her life,
the black rubber keeping silent the exploding atoms in the power lines

that here still bespeaks the province.

Lubrin sidesteps the common names and easy shorthands of things. She never says “electricity” in the image above, choosing instead “exploding atoms.” This technique appears again when she refers to the internet not by name but as “matrixed alleyways of telemetry,” or deftly buries the title of The Walking Dead in a poem about the significance of zombies.

Reading Voodoo Hypothesis can feel like seeing the world for the first time – not because of an absence but rather an abundance of attention to history, and to the future, too. Lubrin’s cosmic-scale visions of movement, captivity, and displacement work like a magnetic force that detaches all commonplace associations from one another.

There’s more that I could say about this book, and much, much more that others could say, will say – so I’ll leave you with this. It’s rare for me to express, either in writing or in my personal conversations, that I think a book will endure a long time. Given the vicissitudes of time, taste and distribution, it's just not a claim I'd normally presume to make. But I feel that way about this book. Lubrin has written poems that reach back to historic theft and cataclysm and forward to Cesaire’s fulfilling knowledge. Her lines build a new cosmology, one that searches and questions while breaking down the skeletal cross-hatchings of a latitude-and-longitude-spidered world.

* The city’s demography was historically shaped by policies of racial redlining that forced prospective black residents to live in the neighbouring city of East Palo Alto. The presence of the tech industry today has made it one of the most expensive cities in America.