Dionne brand and canisia lubrin are writers whose work elides clear distinctions between poetry and criticism, essay and fiction, the archipelagic and the diasporic. In this special issue, they decided to share a discussion mediated through art by revisiting and responding to works they’d seen together. Their correspondence animates an underrecognized facet of deep friendship and artistic collaboration: even when longtime friends think they are speaking directly to each other, they are also speaking through their individual and shared experiences. Language is one form of mediation. Brand and Lubrin remind us that art, and witnessing art, is another.
“We encountered these works,” they explain, “over the past few years, at the Graham Foundation in Chicago, at the 2019 Venice Biennale, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. In various ways we have lived with these works and we return to them often, and now.”
look, the heart has moons. So perfect they are crescents. The heart exceeds its chest. Makes its own turbulences. The skull’s insufficient orbit held, too, in the hand. Our selves surpass. We arrive plural and beyond our recognition. This solitary everything. The forest of reeds we become. The red balance of mist, the incipient blue of us. Jenesuispasseul.
All your life after will not make sense until you remember that perfect time standing at the window in your perfect life when you were ten and you heard that song which you will hear again and remember everyone and everything and miss them. Barbara Lewis will sing “Hello Stranger,” and you will listen to your perfect time. “Although…,” she sings, “it seems like a mighty long time…” Your grandma was dancing in the kitchen and you watched her, and you laughed with her. Laughing, you danced with her. This will last you. Everything you love is in that moment. The next day you will see a ditch filled with jacaranda flowers. Your heart will leap from its cavity. dionnebrand
I don’t know how to draw but I drew a thing once: upside-down Ls crowding into a spot of land. A clearing framed by upside-down Ls. Why did I do this? I had recently, reluctantly, acquired a spiritual adviser, J., who declared his methods to be unorthodox. I should be careful with him, he told me. But before all that he said I needed someone like him. To his credit, he had correctly sensed my discontent, though he could not have known that this was prelude to my leaving. He said, It doesn’t matter that you can’t draw, just draw things. Just free-draw. He said this sure of whatever it was he would eventually show me. Of my first drawing he said, Hmmmm. He shook his head. I could almost hear the full, peppered accordions of his eyebrows. There’s something to hearing a thing you see. That’s interesting, he said, what does it look like to you? I thought a brief thing and I said, Some upside-down Ls. Look closely, J. offered back. I said, Well, I see the same thing. That’s interesting, he said, because I see many people around a central figure. As though they are feasting from a plentiful source. J. supposed something about salvation and sacrifice, and that it is sometimes better to note when generosity is too much. In our conversation, I had delayed a sense of the color red, the sun, no moon, though the sun could suggest the moon, its millionth crescent. This was an image rushing back. But these felt only temporarily like mine. A person can be a slit in the earth, alone or not, among other slits in the earth. I did not begrudge J. his commitments, but I knew that my days there were numbered, as was my availability to his insights. To be Black, alive in any place requiring total surrender, is a particular kind of grief. On the same day J. told me of the little people feeding from the same source in my drawing, I thought, I am free like a red wave eating a cloud. I am so far out of this door, passeul, but already. canisialubrin
Arrested. I saw Marie-Galante across the sea from Calibishie one evening in 1983. An evening pierced in sea foam and tectonic with intention. Perhaps it was the day Nankin was imprisoned. There we were in our fierce translucence. And that October everything else came loose. The moons deserted us. After sunset we gave off our neon-blue glow. More ships came. Fighter jets and transport planes. We lined up and were taken away. brand
I had given something. I had given something to a sense. I had given something to the sense of blood. Something in the sense of blood had been given to us. Blood had given us something to sense. Sense like something gives blood. To the something given: blood. Blood: that restless thing. Stop it and it ceases something. Idled. Under rest. Arrest. But then I remember I’ve known some dark places full of greenery, like bamboo patches. A bamboo patch near the main road cutting through the cemetery, green despite too dark, many moons ago. And in it the wind as it came to shed itself, ready for the electricity of possible storms. A skull held up in its shoots might seed some fruit. A skull, seul, signaling that another life had ended or begins. Either way, the heart forms first. The heart insists on music first. When you hear it sounding into the dark chamber of the chest, you are reminded of the splintering conditions of imprisonment. It could mean that we are cut off from the sense of being present, the sense of blood that is itself a long silence. The tragedy of consciousness could be that we are aware of the ways we are severed from the rhythms of our waymarking through the world. We are made to remember that we can uncover our eyes and hold in our mouths a freedom. That we once sat down together, we once broke into meals fully wrought with groaning and emerged from them wined and with our eyes to Nankin’s signpost on a distant wall. Him with his back against a plinth, a crooked smile, a knowing glance in our direction. Telling us we need not utter another word. We know that we know. lubrin
this minute, this exact love that is ahead of itself; that day in the street we saw each other in our cumulous time. You were on your bike at Dupont and Annette, luminous and past and gone and here. We stopped. We spoke. That second you turned? The first thing was joy’s ragged etching. Its spillage in the folds of paper, its ancientness, its duties to survive the uniforms, the buttons, and encasements. brand
So, what love was thrown, the moment to catch it still a decade or two beyond that street. You had slipped a new morning out from the toughening underbody of a glimpse. That’s when I offered to send a rope for your coming garden, for the stretched stalk’s bark— vague against gravity. Would you? Would you know that I dipped each letter of that note in vetiver in case you’d decide to lay your head on it sideways? Or that we kept a field for several hundred years negotiating the weight of its fluency beside our frequencies in the cane’s gossip. The proof, I presume, is to avoid the ruin of leaning on iron and offering ourselves to a hope-full fact on the bare skin of our indifferent globe. If anything was dealt to us in the back-draw between the propeller and the mossed dock where you must have stood once to watch the surf etch our names in rock, I will come to that same corner, in another city with you walking past, wearing my lightest gem, a century’s light spilled in it. Still, this is no freight I’d dare to carry. As with another ocean let us set our good years on a pyre before we leave. Here we come for the shoulder that stops a turning head, a chin, nothing too breathless. Though I would not see you arrive on wheels or in air, you are the one. Supine like a chain rolling past the y-axis of my calf. And soon caught, and sped past something slower than suspense, we’d survive, here, where we were always more weathered than the tumbling years. lubrin
So we carry our distilled limbs, each fractal bone, our hidden syllabary. I will not ask where you are going. Leave us here, we cannot hope, we do not hope to follow ourselves, though we inhabit these blurs with their gasping vowels. brand
And if you had asked after my route, I would have nothing sufficient to say. Except perhaps, that with your voice yielding a question, the day is no longer dim. The pavement collapses some obscene distance. We are as cluster to home. Except in the impossible messengers. Except that I have discovered things to rearrange my bones by mere fact of these entries. By mere pressure of a blur. lubrin
years ago, i knew a blind woman. Her blindness did not jolt me as anything extraordinary would jolt a person on the outside of it. I just knew that what was ordinary to her could not be so to me, a child, wondering at the contours of her life. By the time I was five, we had cultivated a friendship that was mostly full of laughter about any mundane thing. But nearly everyone in the village knew one thing about the two of us. How I would say to her every time we crossed ways, MaDye, ouka’imaché! And she would laugh a laugh that boomeranged. I imagined she sensed that I felt something like fear, not that she knew anything about my own fear of the dark. A fear that shriveled my mind to think of what I would do if I were blind. I also felt something like wonder. Wonder at her confidence in a world she couldn’t see. The world with all of its momentum, and direction, and seasons, and depths and shallowness. It was little instruction to me that she also couldn’t walk. Her wheelchair was a massive thing that I felt the urge to ride in, if she would only step out of it for a moment. So when I sang to her, MaDye,youwillwalk!, I alone knew that what I wanted was a ride in her wheelchair and not her own ability to walk.
I went to her house often enough. In the rust of my memory, I can see her supplying charcoal to the whole community because in those days most houses around hadn’t been outfitted with stoves. Her yard was plentiful with flowers. I remember the hibiscus from whose flowers I sucked nectar. She had a dog or two. A large rectangular wire cage held white bag upon white bag of charcoal. And above the wire cage stood on beams a wooden cage of similar dimension, which housed rabbits. When you arrived and made your announcement about how many buckets of coals you wanted, she’d hand you a bucket, which you would go fill from one of the bags and bring back to her. She’d doubleand triple-check what seemed to be the bucket’s weight—that it was full. Then she emptied the bucket into a plastic bag and took your money. She knew the coins by their shape—and again by their weight. She knew the bills; I could not tell you how. One large full bucket back then sold for $2.50. On the far side of her yard were often piles of smoked herring laid to sun dry on galvanized sheets. If you looked out over the embankment of her yard you could see the Caribbean Sea at Roseau beach. Ma Dye, you looked at her and you felt a deep, flowering knowing. You felt assured of something that could not easily summon a name. Even as a child I felt this, as often I wondered why her dogs (or any other dogs in the neighborhood) never took or ate the smoked herring. These deteriorating documents of our time missing somewhere but very much here, left alone as they dried. Their smell, which carried for what seemed like miles, should at the very least tempt one animal or family going hungry. I did not think anything of it then, because how could I? I’d have to have known then that history, the history of colonial countries, makes a kind of everything, and everything is its own kind of true and funny. lubrin
Surely that is the smell of my childhood. A sea smell, big and Atlantic. A strand of smoke, the burning coir, the voices like odors, too, against the seethe of waves. The six thousand, five hundred and ninety-nine kilometers between us. I thought I was the only one with such a childhood; were you having such a life too, that far away? When I entered your door, it was the smell of then. The wire-front safe where the day was kept. My uncle Johnny baked the anchor, the binnacle, the moonraker, the chainplates. He made them taste like good things. He could do anything with his hands. I recall his hands. They were like bark.
Timeislongerthanrope, my grandmother would say enigmatically. It was a saying passed down to her. At first, I understood it as a warning. As I grew older, I began to understand it as a wry concession to my speed in running away from her. Older still, I understood it as a warning again. And then I had to think it through to its origins in slavery. What it takes to say this. Meaning, we will outlast you; you will not be there forever; rope disintegrates, but time does not. How to feel such a thing, which you know is transient, in your body—a certainty that sorrow and wickedness cannot last. But that again was my childhood. brand
My grandmother used to say the longest rope has an end. There was always an occasion for those words to be drawn into the inventory of this hour, and that hour. And then it was my mother who said it often. It resounds, the rope. It repeats. All the ropes, which are the same rope by different threads. It is as you have said. Parallaxes of half-formed outlines, of warnings today, whole as yesterday. I say it, too: the longest rope must end, mustn’t it? lubrin
Now it is a straight line through the carcass of history. From Kumasi that enigmatic statement made its way, about time and rope and collapse and wonder and bureaucracies of damage, the esoteric papers outlining the routes of harm. The officers in the rope-damp, filled rooms take out their documents as evidence of their documents. And we read their documents and we know their documents. And we’ve made our own documents on time and rope. brand
speechlessness. What a condition. Speechless—we—in that long-rivered place. The exasperation I felt, which caused me to sit with a force that startled me, let me arrive at a thought. Even as scientists were (and continue to be) busy building bad artificial intelligence that means, for instance, to presume our likelihood of criminality, our political orientation, even our sexuality, other computers were learning to write poems. Some critics were praising these computers for writing modernist poetry, or poetry that should cause jealousy by some tired calculus. I had laughed these poetry-writing computers and the critics off, if with a dose of dread. Reina María Rodríguez writes, “who cares about the cold / if you invent heat in the words / that burn…”
I thought I knew a thing or two about loss. Here at Gupta’s gathering of poems written by writers from around the world incarcerated for their writing, my speechlessness at the sensation of having to read the words of these writers felt like a rapier across my tongue. But in that room, on that day, the knowing I carried no longer had a place to land. The form of poetry seemed transformed somehow, like the way water changes shape for whatever holds it. If I could tolerate the thought of being a simultaneist, I would stick a while longer with the thought that occurred to me in that room: that something extraordinary or even ordinary could unravel the world that makes an exhibition like Gupta’s more than mere thought exercise. But I packed that thought away quickly at the weight of the welded absence of presence in those voices, those poems, all unique at the center of something undoing already in my imagination. I hoped, too, that the room could cast its redoubling shadow across the world. lubrin
We sat there speechless. Legless. Bodyless. This is the chamber in our future. I felt the warmth of friends, the weight of them… when I see such a place, I recall the intimacies there, not the outside walls…the dear conversations, the combed embraces, the oiled foreheads. Inconsolable, the sinew of words, the index finger dipped in sugar, the parched corn of the tongue. The air comes in the crack of the window and, too, the night sounds of animals and insects and cars far away on a road; and when it rains or snows every season is as close as people. brand
the sound was first. The roar of missing, the temblor of empty, the train lines, the grit of missing, then the paper with the temporariness of their faces. The ephemera of missing; the thin wall of the stomach that registers missing; the nerves of the throat miss most; search most. Someone is searching for you. The leaflets withstand the rains. Underground, the trains we ride connect capital and femicide everywhere. brand
Some years ago, the news said she was missing while I was walking past a chair in an apartment in Toronto. That morning would have been easier if I were seated, but why ease? Why should ease be the thing? I had just seen her, only just, two weeks before. We had laughed and sung some things—my fingers taut against the topography of a blue guitar—together two weeks before. We had talked about rice and eggs for breakfast two weeks before. Some talk of pork. The pros and cons. The whyever nots. Two weeks. The withheld antipathies and desires about things neither of us could control. About things we certainly could. As I write this, she is still missing and presumed consigned to that permanent state, though there are those who still hold a hope. Consigned. Will the last decade and a half cease its tuck and throw from randomness, from the hours, the drag of days, the shrill fortnight? Two weeks ago, I saw her. The hard contradiction of missing. The many hours, many feet and eyes and ears and hands searching. Of course, we never vanish, even if we are temporary. Of course, the instruments, the pulp and glass, the dense brush, the ink, and the news accumulating dust inside a subway cart. Of course, the stickiness of us as matter. As having mattered. Of course, of harm, of traces, of here and then not. I still hear her laughter, Margolles. The ruthless evidence means what? lubrin
Following Margolles’s directions, you and I will find them, Canisia. They should be in their own lives now, tomorrow. The sound of their living, their breathing must be everywhere. They would be here if the days we live were not dizzy and nauseous from raw hatred. Ayudanos localizarlas. Leticia and Monica and Maria de La Luz, Alma Veronica, Grisel Paola, Jessica, Esmerelda, Gabriella. We should search the disaffected hours, the astringent daylight. We could search the cool tax-exempt portfolios and the FTZ opportunities for acreages of bodies. We could look in the violent anywhere. brand
La búsqueda. Dionne, I consider why I have described this extraordinary thing in such ordinary terms. As though one was describing a mere candy wrapper, a chair, a leaf, a cereal box, some eggs, an empty box on the sidewalk. A missing woman is not a concealed person. It is punitive, ordinary that I should add one more name to La búsqueda: Christina. lubrin
this morning, i woke up weeping. I was aware that I was asleep. Was dreaming. The world of this dream was slightly surreal, though its climate, weather, fully earth-like. After a series of dreams that I had woken up from all night long—seven or eight of them—in the same (sur)real world, I was alone on a boat gliding toward a border where I could see beyond the years that had been marked on the signposts. All of the street signs were marked by years instead of proper names. First, one year—2021—appeared through a thick haze. Then ten years between that border and the next showed through a thin wall of water. Then another few years (though I can’t remember exactly how many) showed through a membrane of smoke and fire. And on it would go, I think, had I not panicked. Had I not felt a truer anxiety than anything I remember feeling in any recent waking hour prior to that dream. A nightmare, in truth. But I had panicked while I slept, aware that I was, in fact, dreaming. You can call this a lucid dream, but it felt like something more.
The night before, I posted a picture to Instagram that I captioned 800+fires.July19,2021. I had shot it earlier in the evening. It was of the orange sun that had seized the attention and cameras of many people that day. How could it not? The internet seemed saturated with many pictures of the haze-filled afternoon with the orange sun stuck somewhere along its orbit. I remember similar scenes from last summer: apocalyptic, so dystopic, wild went many people online. I was struck by the orange sun, too, which I saw first as streaks on the cars parked out front, small orbs like molten metal all along every reflective surface. The afternoon—whose smell K. described as “like poop” as he took his bike out of the garage and proceeded to mount it—seemed close to evening. Though I would soon learn from other people’s social media pictures that my sense of time had also been disturbed by the haze, which had made all day look close to evening.
K. stopped to look back at me with something like horror on his face. And I was scanning the view wondering which house was on fire. “You smell poop?” I said, “more like tires burning to me.” “That’s poop,” K. said. I explained that presently, in North America, there are more than eight hundred uncontrolled fires burning and “the wind carries things,” I said, unable to mask the notes of dread I felt about a future I felt unsure of with K., with anyone in it. Smoke. Smells. Atoms. Warnings. When one thing happens elsewhere it travels. When things happen where we are, they travel outward, or in any direction. Sometimes this is immediate, like Chernobyl, like Hiroshima; sometimes this is the long unfolding, like climate catastrophe, like imperialism. Things inside us, they leave us because we act and come back because we act. Standing in the front yard of that afternoon, I was not filled with the anxiety I would later feel as I slept. Aware as I would become dreaming of a world, however (sur)real, marked by nature and the annihilating invention of humans. The water I was drifting on as I slept, I could see the street beneath it. I could see the future coming toward me—or I was drifting toward it, or its animation, its simulation. In that moment, the dreamed thing was so much more immediate, more terrifying because I was in it as it happened. In effect, too late, as much that is destructive tends to register. My hands clenched around the neck of a white dragon, iridescent designs on its skin. It had embraced me as it spoke in a deep, soothing voice. It told me I was kind. It did not seem surprised that I was offended by its verdict. I wanted nothing to do with such kindness. It wouldn’t let me stop the mercenaries I had no doubt met in the subtext of that dream; that dream fused me to them. I opened my leaking eyes, the circle of the world I remembered, warped in a liquid. lubrin
Each morning I wake up from a dream, weeping. I ask myself, Whose dream is this? I ask myself, Am I awake now? Whose fingernails are breaking my sleep and embracing me? Then I wake up in a sheet of galvanized steel and my eyes are shut with plastic twist ties.
If I were a sculptor or a painter and I read every headline like a pattern and an aspect, I would make every figure with the same face. All my paintings, all my sculptures would have the same look, the same eyes directed at the same thing. And each morning I would wake up weeping as I do. And the figure would have the same tastes and the same preoccupations and the same will for making the world the same way. This sculpture would be dominating, and its most impressive feature would be a large gullet that you could see on the outside; an elaborate apparatus with 106 sphincters. And this thing would have one big eye like Polyphemus, and it would feel under the belly of the world and eat everyone. It would even eat my hands which were making it, if I were the painter or the sculptor, and eat my thoughts which are thinking it. I too have been swallowed until I can’t write this sentence. Or I write this sentence as a last effort to save myself, by which time I would be on a small ledge with a wide chasm after it, in the lashes of its one big eye. brand
these hypershapes, their hurdling and hurtling and hypertense and hypertime, make me think of depth, but an omnidirectional thing. Or places that exist only because some people really know how to make a thing. Or the patience of admitting that nowhere is discoverable. Or definitions of things that expend themselves in gutters and spit bowls, and trashcans, and rivers and oceans, the stratosphere, and a little bit of breath moving fast inside a conch shell sounding off between continents. Or a riot that comes to rest against a doorframe. Or wind that confronts a blouse only to reveal the sturdiness of a woman’s legs and core—a woman you love walking down a potholed road in 1959. Or Serena Williams focusing her force on a rubber ball with Naomi Osaka on the opposite end of the court. Or Naomi Osaka’s force absorbed by a rubber ball toward Serena Williams on the opposide of the court. Or these hypershapes, like breeze or specter or light, water my eyes because Torkwase Dyson, her hands moving in all directions, really knows how to make a thing. lubrin
It must have been curious to fall out of language and to fall into language so abruptly and at the same time. To fall out of body and into body at the same time, to see yourself as wreck and self. You must have been then at the crux of knowledge, speculation, improvisation; knowledge shared, observed by you and millions now consigned in the world you dropped out of, consigned in the world you dropped into—how language must have changed, did change; to look not at the abjection, though abjection is certainly relatable, but as consciousness looking at a/the world go on, observing the angular change of the sky, the wild splinters of a board; what is it to fall out of narrative; hypershapes, hyperlook, hyperthought— the shape that exceeds the space, the look that exceeds the gaze, the thought that exceeds the narrative, the mind. To exceed. What to do, what to do with this view of the world; you now know the intimate weight of a boat, the sweat of wood, the nothing of a house, the density of self; the movement in the parabola, the parable, the isosceles, the livability of the rectangle, someone is in the room, someone is in the room, scalene, the equilateral distance, the obtuse radiation, shall we choose gills, shall we choose water, shall we choose breathlessness, breathless matter, slippery then distance; shall we make a mouth, an eye; a door out of nowhere; between, the weight of themselves in doorways, between veins; floors, hunger is tenacious, undone of compasses; is gone, any given year, salt; have, been, and when. brand
Canisia Lubrin is a writer, editor, and critic. Her books include Voodoo Hypothesis, The Dyzgraphxst, and Code Noir. Lubrin is the recipient of the 2021 Griffin Poetry Prize, the OCM Bocas Prize, the Derek Walcott Prize, the Windham Campbell Prize, and other honors. Lubrin is an assistant professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, Canada, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing.
Dionne Brand is a poet, novelist, and essayist. She has received numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, The Pat Lowther Award, and the Griffin Poetry Prize. Theory, one of her five novels, won the Toronto Book Award. The Blue Clerk, one of her ten volumes of poetry, won the Trillium Book Award. Brand is a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph, Canada.
New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.