Poetry

Give Us the Black Prometheus: Canisia Lubrin’s Voodoo Hypothesis and the Anthropocene

This paper was originally presented as part of the Text/Sound/Performance conference at University College Dublin on Saturday, 27 April 2019. 

This is my first attempt at writing a conference paper on a book of poems that have been written with words that have meanings and are meant to be read. I am trying something new. My primary scholarly interest is in a process of reading that privileges the reader’s interventions into a text as a central part of the text. That is easy work in the conceptual or formally-experimental poem, where meaning is less tied to which words are on the page. I have always argued that this method of reading is equally applicable to more lyrical or traditionally-composed works, but I have yet to try it out. So, this is me trying it out on Canisia Lubrin’s poetic force, Voodoo Hypothesis. And, I think the way in is how the work sounds.

I want to talk here about how Lubrin uses polyvocality to invite the reader’s voices into the immanent polyvocality of Voodoo Hypothesis as a resistance tactic. I don’t know any other way to do that except to tell you how I got in to this book. To do so, I’ll tell you a story of the interview I did to start this paper. I meet Lubrin in a sunny east-Toronto seafood restaurant. We order fifty oysters, which is too many oysters, but we make easy work of them. The restaurant is decorated like a fancy seafood restaurant; everywhere there are designs of water, of waves. She talks and I write as fast as I can. She is brilliant. My writing is erratic. There are some questions, some answers, no line connecting it all except waves.

The ocean in Voodoo Hypothesis quickly becomes a symbol for a critique of anthropocentrism, a critique of the deeply colonial idea of humanity as what Lubrin describes to me as this “primo species who came and set up this idea” of us as central. I tell her what I found. I went into Voodoo Hypothesis looking for the ocean as radical resistance, the big darkness of the middle passage that rises up all tsunami and bales down on colonial rule. But, I didn’t find that. The ocean instead seems to watch human affairs with a bougy air of indifference and moving along as it wants, as it must. The ocean of Voodoo Hypothesis watches us title this era the Anthropocene and bemoan our destruction of our own homes. Anthropocene. I think about it as I watch Lubrin’s and my pile of oyster shells grow; I think about walruses and carpenters. I think about how oyster farming is not only sustainable, but beneficial to the surrounding environment.

I don’t deny that human behaviour in late capitalism contributes negatively (even catastrophically) to the natural world, and in particular to that natural world’s ability to continue to house and support human behaviour. But, I wonder about the power dynamics and the separation of humanity from the natural world that we presuppose when we talk about the Anthropocene. “This Anthropocene as we know it,” Lubrin tells me as she carves the oyster flesh from the shell, “is just as susceptible to the forces of nature.” When we tell the story of the Anthropocene, we do not consider that the environmental catastrophe we face is catastrophic for us; the natural world, we may argue as a thought experiment, is simply doing what it needs to do to erase us as a threat. This is fantasy, of course, and neither I nor Lubrin are climate change deniers. Rather, Voodoo Hypothesis asks us to rethink the Anthropocene as a resistance tactic of the earth to oppose human colonization. Lubrin reminds me as she sips her shandy that “we are just a tiny fucking blip” on this planet and in its histories. Looking at it this way, the concept of the Anthropocene is deeply colonial and the natural world presented in Voodoo Hypothesis is uninterested in being fixed.

Strangely enough, Voodoo Hypothesis initiates this discussion of colonial rule and resistance through the metaphor of space travel and the figure of the Mars Curiosity. The collection’s titular poem begins:

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.

For Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis, space travel is inherently colonial and violent: Curiosity “pulverizes” as she tests. When resources from our homeland become sparse or inadequate, so we move to colonize other places. The poem sets up a clear us-versus-them dynamic. “They” go out searching for theistic power structures, but “we” are marked by our immanence.

So, here it makes sense that I turn to the voodoo of the collection’s title, looking at voodoo etymologically to understand the relationship between humanity and the earth in this collection. The “before sight” that starts the poem is a signal of the lack of intermediary between human and god. Voodoo, Lubrin tells me, does not require an intermediary (priest, temple) to access god because voodoo understands that god (read: immanence) is within the practitioner. Voodoo’s etymology is hard to trace because its roots in the Niger-Congo family of languages have few early written records; it is linked to early Niger words meaning spirit or possession, distinctly implying an immanent spirit within the practitioner rather than outside of but accessed by the practitioner. Thus, Lubrin reads voodoo as humanistic, meaning within humanity, a break from linear models of theistic power that require a medium through which humans access the divine.

All of this is strangely-enough summed-up by Lubrin’s allusions to Greco-Roman mythology, emblematized by the poem “Give Us Fire or the Black Prometheus.” Juxtaposed against the “before sight” of voodoo is the “(be)fore thought” of Prometheus, whose name means forethought. The poem opens:

We saw no need to keep

on our intoxicating cocoons,

to show our best parts

swallowing the sun. Miss me

with that predecessory sort

of exorcise. Or magic-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.

When I ask Lubrin while we eat why she has set up this dichotomy of Prometheus against Ulysses, she rails, laughing: “Ulysses is ridiculous.” And perhaps this is neither a good city nor a good audience to shit on Ulysses, but here it is. Pictured here is one of the most famous paintings of Ulysses: Herbert James Draper’s turn of the century “Ulysses and the Sirens,” where Ulysses’s hubris has him tied to the mast of his ship and thus able to hear the sirens’ song where no one else is ever able to survive their aural violences. Ulysses’s power is his ability to render himself impervious to aural resistance tactics. Against Prometheus, Ulysses here becomes emblematic of the silencing power of colonial rule. Prometheus, on the other hand refuses such linear power dynamics, and offers us one way of speaking to and against power.

In Voodoo Hypothesis, Prometheus becomes more than simply a warning against exceeding humanity’s bounds. He becomes Black Prometheus, a literary and artistic figure that became popular alongside colonial expansion. As Jared Hickman argues in his exceptional book-length study of Black Prometheus, the emergence of the stories of a Black Prometheus at this historical time and social milieu is emblematic of the colonized subject’s use of language, especially in secret codes, as a way of circumventing or opposing colonized rule. Prometheus’ power is to break the theistic separation between human subjects and deities, suggesting a powerful immanence of humanity as opposed to the kneeling oppression of the mortal at the altar of the gods. As Madison Chapman puts succinctly in her review of Hickman’s book, “[he] claims that non-transcendent human ‘immanence’ gives power to the distinctly othered and non-Absolute black Prometheus: the colonized/enslaved always represent anarchic potential to overthrow the so-called divine power of their oppressors.” Prometheus is punished, but he offers us potential to overthrow oppressive rulers. We may often make him a warning against stepping out of our bounds, but Black Prometheus disregards Mary Shelley’s and Michael Fassbender’s warnings.

What Prometheus has always offered us is a babel, a language that requires it being spoken in not just polyvocality, but a medley that resists telos or historical progression. Sure, Ulysses travelled a roundabout way to get there, but as his nostos algos always indicated, Ithaca was always the final destination, the telos of that journey. Prometheus is cyclical and anti-logical: a Titan who fights for the Olympians, the forethought who offers the planning of earthly life to his brother, Epimetheus (or, “after thought”), a Titan whose love for humanity both saves and plagues them, and then him, in a punishment that is clearly both cyclical and anti-logical, an attack on the liver where the ancient Greeks believed emotions to reside. Prometheus’s narrative of the fire, the liver, even the trick at Mekone, seem to survive most, but we so often forget that Prometheus gives humanity speech (puts the sapien in homo sapien). Lubrin’s Prometheus here is markedly genderfuck. Their pronouns shift wantonly from the masculine to the feminine, and the masculinized body often depicted in paintings of the fire-bearer (as in this famous example by Peter Paul Rubens) is dressed in feminized afro and jewellery. Lubrin’s Black Prometheus is not just unbound, its in drag. What’s more, Black Prometheus has been codified for insurrection, a metaphor for the colonial subject’s repeated and insurgent offerings of literacy or the speaking of native languages where the colonizer would prohibit such linguistic multiplicity. The figure of the Black Prometheus thus becomes a figurehead for Black insurrectionary histories that rely on linguistic multiplicity, clandestine oral storytelling, and polyvocality as anti-oppressive tactics.

It is that history of storytelling, of oral histories, that most clearly marks Voodoo Hypothesis’s aurality. Lubrin is holding the lobster po’boy that I am now not ashamed to tell you we ordered after the oysters, and tells me about the influence of her grandmother as a storyteller on the sounds of Voodoo Hypothesis. These stories, alongside a life-long interest in folk tales, song, community theatre, and polyvocal performance, all contribute to the vast array of voices, languages, and Englishes that populate the collection. Ultimately, while the collection is clearly political, emotional, and provocative, what seems to be most important to Lubrin’s writing process is the way it sounds, a facet of her work that seems to be underdiscussed in the few writings on her. “Language,” she asserts to me as I sip my wine, “has to be pleasing to the ear.” So, the ebb and flow of the language of Voodoo Hypothesis is not just abstraction, it is an attempt by Lubrin to echo the oceanic aural quality of language, a tidal element highlighted by Phoebe Wang’s review of the collection. Lubrin’s collection is thus marked by staccato hard vowel sounds placed against the soft, creating an aural push and pull.

Lubrin’s poetry in Voodoo Hypothesis is also marked by creolization, a feature found in many poetic works of the Caribbean diaspora. What’s more, Lubrin tells me she made a point of not italicizing the words in her work that are not in English (or even standard English). For example, the poem “Children of the Archipelago” contains references to pom d’amou trees, mizi maladi, toutouni, and bacchanal. For Lubrin, different aural sounds come from a place of generative play, wherein a multiplicitous polyvocality is not simply aurally pleasing, but also a generative opening, a place wherein the reader’s voice can be added, disjointedly and uncomfortably, to the choral voices of the poems, and thus placed not in passive reception but exchange. Sound and music, and in particular the non-melodious or atonal influence of jazz music is a starting point for the aural qualities of the poems. These sounds, Lubrin insists, are meaningful in and of themselves, as Dennis Lee’s “cadence” reminds us, too. This aural disjointedness as invitational is beautifully demonstrated “Children of the Archipelago,” which Lubrin tells me is her favourite to read aloud because of the many and various “o” sounds and repetitions or revisions that she argues “angle toward hope.” The poem’s off-set conclusion goes:

            Something slipped by current

from the Nile welcomes us back. Our foreign dollars

stretching the tongue—big time Mongrelian road twisted

to re-walk mizi maladi. We roil to re-remember.

This world—even at its most toutouni.

The way we traverse the environment here is mongrelized, mixed, medleyed. The world is laid bare—“toutouni”—and we walk as tourists, watching and re-watching.

Rather than serving as a warning against humanity reaching beyond its limits, the poetics of the Black Prometheus uses creolized sound in poetry to oppose larger unilateral power structures like colonial expansion or the dominant narrative of the Anthropocene to consider an ocean (and not a Neptune) that might be trying actively to keep Ulysses from Ithaca, to envision Black Bloc sirens that pull the wax from his men’s ears and untie his hubristic body from the mast, to see Prometheus not as a warning against insurrection, but a mongrel roadway to it. In this hypothetical Anthropocene, we’re colonizers and the world, in its small ways, is wearing us down.

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