Skip to main content
book review

Voodoo Hypothesis

By Canisia Lubrin

Buckrider Books, 96 Pages, $18

Prison Industrial Complex Explodes

By Mercedes Eng

Talonbooks, 104 Pages, $17.95

Canisia Lubrin's Voodoo Hypothesis and Mercedes Eng's Prison Industrial Complex Explodes both accomplish what many poetry debuts do not. Neither book is self-indulgent. Both collections reveal writers who are questioning and resisting systems of power and oppression.

Mixing Creole and English, mixing the formal and the demotic, the poems in Voodoo Hypothesis resist being any one thing. Sharply drawn and metadiscursive lines such as, "As if I'm still standing here in ghosted cane fields turning every age / without ever breaking gaze" reveal a poet-speaker who lives (in) multiple temporal moments and locations at once.

The poems I return to are the ones that appear more slimly on the page, due to their shorter lines: Aftershocks, Our Mapless Season, Give Back Our Children and On Being at the Dawn of Remembrance. Here, the language is taut and syntactically arresting, the music apparent, the final passages powerful and affective.

By contrast, my experience of reading the longer-lined poems feels akin to falling down a rabbit hole – the diction overly abundant. I think that I'm not completely off the mark with this sense of uber-richness, this sense of being led deeper and deeper into undoing, unlearning, unknowing: as Lubrin's own recent International Festival of Authors interview response reveals, her "inspiration" comes from "anywhere" and the very "facts of life […] offer an abundance of descriptive impulses that send [her] slipping into many imaginary spaces." Indeed, Lubrin notes that "once [she] can recognize a descriptive escape route into a subject, [she] will follow nearly every clue down its road, usually the more challenging the better." This is exactly what Lubrin demands of her readers – that they follow down every clue.

Allusions and metaphors are dense, drawing from science, slavery and migration histories, imperial constructs of the savage or exotic black body, popular culture and literature itself. The book's intertextual strands include works by prominent Caribbean luminaries, including Derek Walcott, Christian Campbell and Aimé Césaire.

This density on occasion makes the work feel impenetrable – although perhaps this is the kind of terrain that one needs to approach over many weeks, months and years to fully appreciate. In Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries, Yusef Komunyakaa talks about "search[ing] for a little door [he] can leave ajar." Interestingly, one poem that leaves a door ajar for the reader is Aftershocks, despite the fact that the poem is "for Dionne Brand." I find myself meditating on the multifaceted nature of verses such as "A world that could not / last without the lye of her."

Ironically, in one instance, Lubrin's work suffers from being too clear: The poem Up the Lighthouse includes the lines "You must know, black isn't always the void" and "black isn't always a void," which both cheapen the poem by making the valuable sentiment explicit.

However, the simultaneity of subtlety and clarity, of elegance and power, in such phrases as "the long journey the hand / must make towards self-portrait" (The Hour of Ascending) confirm that Lubrin's is a voice to listen to – a voice that will only become stronger with time.

Lubrin's is a mind that is roving – attempting to catch, speak and sift everything – not unlike the Mars Curiosity rover that features in the book's title poem, but for her own subversive ends. The scope of Voodoo Hypothesis is ambitious. I look forward to what comes next as this writer continues to investigate her craft.

Mercedes Eng's Prison Industrial Complex Explodes is a long poem that interweaves lyric poetry and extensive found materials from government questionnaires and reports, corporate websites, photography and Eng's father's prison correspondence. Simple – but not simplistic – lines such as "i think about that yellow bead a lot" reflect Eng's exquisite attention and make me feel intimately connected to the poet-speaker. Furthermore, verses such as "Carole flies through the sky as big as an ocean / her oil slick hair streaming behind her for eight city blocks / murders of infant crows clutching strands of it / she sights the prison holding Jessi's daddy's body, mind, / and spirit / descends to his window" reveal imagination and attention to lineation. As a poet, I am often quite wary of found poetry, because it takes skill to incorporate found materials in effective ways – although books such as Soraya Peerbaye's Tell have won me over in the past. Eng, too, has won me over. At once powerful and beautiful, gentle and urgent, I await more from this voice.

Both poetry books deal with the complexities of life, but also celebrate it – especially in the face of systems that attempt to control, devalue, erase and eradicate persons of colour and Indigenous and black bodies. In impulse and scope, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes and Voodoo Hypothesis make for ambitious and welcome debuts.

Doyali Islam is an award-winning poet, Arc's poetry editor, and Write's new editor. Her second book is forthcoming.

Interact with The Globe