Maroon of Modernity: A Review of Shane Book’s Congotronic

by Paul Barrett

Paul Barrett is the author of Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). He is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University where he studies Canadian literature at the intersections of race and digital humanities.

University of Iowa Press
119 W. Park Road
100 Kuhl House
Iowa City, IA 52242

2014, 82 pp., $18.50 US, 978-1-60938-307-7

Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise (2007) concludes its history of 20th-century classical music with the observation that the divisions between classical, popular, traditional, and pastiche musical forms are breaking down; “In the empire of noise,” he writes, “formal distinctions disappear.” Ross’s primer on the erosion of distinct musical genres and the emergence of cross-genre aesthetics seems tame and quaint compared to the poetic mashups, remixes, and sampling that characterize Shane Book’s Congotronic. Book draws upon a wide range of aural, historical, aesthetic, and political influences to speak simultaneously from the dislocated space of the Black Atlantic as well as the specifically rooted spaces of the dystopian post-colony, the structurally-adjusted nation, the plantation, the maroon community, the Jim Crow southern United States, and the American city. Book’s geographic crossing is not a clichéd movement from rooting to routing but a smashing together of here and elsewhere, sound and word, voice and text.

As a result, Congotronic is an uneven collection of poems that jumps from describing the affective and political realities of the postcolony, to reflections on the difficulty of writing the body, to the struggle to find a language that speaks to historical and contemporary black life. This is not to say that Congotronic is a failed unity, but rather a deliberately scattered, poly-vocal, and schizophrenic arrangement of poetic themes and forms. Usually this works, but at times, the reader is left behind without any kind of context or symbolic code to decipher who is speaking or what is being said. This is particularly true in the “Flagelliforms” section of the collection, but the whole collection is marked by moments of deliberate opacity. It is, of course, the poet’s prerogative to experiment and poems need not be “about” anything, but some of Book’s experiments are more successful than others. At times the reader is better off asking not “What is it about?” but “What is it?” as Book’s work gleefully defies conventions. Indeed, his poems often privilege sound, acoustic resonance, tricky metre, and a kind of echoing of voice over any semblance of meaning.

Congotronic is divided into roughly four sections. The first is a collection of poems reflecting on black life and what might be thought of as a kind of “maroon consciousness” set somewhere off the coast of Africa. The second section, “The Collected Novellas of Gilbert Ryle” is Book’s riffing on philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind. The third section returns more explicitly to an engagement with race, voice, and history. The final section, “Flagelliforms,” presents a series of increasingly abstract poems partially inspired by the Malinese epic of Sundiata.

While each section of the collection has distinct themes and formal qualities, voices carry across the sections to gesture toward a few central concerns. Language accumulates in the collection and Book drags voices across temporalities and geographies as part of his transnational poetic imaginary. This is a poetic practice of dislocated, decontextualized, and transformed aurality and orality that fits in a digital age. These poems draw on the sampling practices of hip hop, the stark juxtapositions of mashups, and the disrupted temporalities of DJ culture as part of an effort to find “aural truths.” Yet Book’s project is unique in that he at once employs the techniques of pastiche and code-switching that are native to digital culture, yet he does so while insisting on the importance of the history of those voices, texts, and forms.

“Language accumulates in the collection and Book drags voices across temporalities and geographies as part of his transnational poetic imaginary.”

Rather than sampling the past in order to brandish it as a sign of alterity or obscurity, Book attempts not merely to render the past present but make it speak in order to reveal the ongoing legacy of ‘past’ historical forms.

Congotronic‘s early poems are set somewhere in Africa—possibly Cape Verde, Angola, São Tomé, or most likely some imaginative amalgam of many different spaces. These poems describe the meeting of land and water in the locus points of the Middle Passage. It is telling that Book’s collection begins with a depiction of spaces that signify a lack of origins. These are the places where many diasporic black people lost their own origins and history when they were forced through the Door of No Return and into the economy of slavery. The paradox of the lost origins of the Middle Passage as well as the geographic liminality of the coast inflects Book’s conception of place in these early poems:

Entirely windless, today’s sea; of these waters’ many names
The best seemed “field-of-pearl leaves,” for it smelled like the air
in the house he built entirely of doors …
as with everything corroding
the sense of themselves slipping away in the heat,
falling through the day’s brightness the way soldiers
once fell upon him walking home with a bucket of natural
water as he had been recalling the town square
before the tannery’s closing (“World Town”)

The colloquial voice conceals a complex layering of place and memory as the focus moves from object to object. The sea reminds the speaker of the air in the house built of doors which corrode the “sense of themselves” in the heat which falls like the soldiers on him as he recalled the town square. The recollection that “today’s sea … smelled like the air” gives way to a more metonymic chain of equivalencies or comparison where, “with everything corroding,” objects, memories, and experiences leak into one another. Wind and a general sense of corrosion recur throughout these early poems to map the ineffable: the sea, desire, memory. Likeness bleeds into to an uneasy sameness such that differentiating between things is as impossible a task as naming the sea.

The mobility of the speaker’s poetic imagination—leaping from memory to sensation to dream to intuition—contrasts with these images of immobility: windless sea, unused ferry terminal, camera, and the island captured in the European cartographer’s imprint. This tension between an agile poetic imaginary and ossified physical movement evokes the contradictory and painful emergence of black diasporic life under the conditions of slavery: at once transnational and transoceanic while paralyzed in bondage. It is this paradox that leads Fanon to argue that the colonial world is “A world compartmentalized, Manichean and petrified” and that this enforced immobility produces in the colonial subject muscular dreams, dreams of action, dreams of aggressive vitality.” Here in place of dreams of mobility and movement, Book offers poetry and memory as a means of infusing everyday life with the possibility of another existence and thus as a respite to the experience of immobility.

“World Town” concludes with an image of the island frozen on a map pointed to by a mermaid. This image of certainty of place stands in stark contrast to the sense of memory and dislocation that make up the bulk of the poem. Furthermore the final image of “her red hair” suggests both the forms of desire and violence produced in these acts of naming and cartography.

“This tension between an agile poetic imaginary and ossified physical movement evokes the contradictory and painful emergence of black diasporic life under the conditions of slavery … ”

This dislocation continues in the next poem, “Security of the First World,” which concludes with a description of a woman walking into “a crushingly red sea.” The violence of the sea, particularly in its capacity to erase a presence and contribute to a gradual erosion, pervades this section of the book and contributes to a broader experience of dislocation. “Security of the First World” begins:

This place I have not been.
But alone. Other
possibilities perhaps
and even if I am
of two sliding partitions:
the trees’ spacing, tidal
flats punctured by tubular
posts, children—I cannot
arrive at such days, (“Security of the First World”)

The “two sliding partitions” (followed later by an image of “a fly bumping glass”) suggest poetic distance from “This place I have not been” and the impossibility of arrival. This is perhaps a kind of diasporic double-consciousness where Du Bois’s theorizing of black life in America is recast globally. Is this the poet wrapped in his own security of the first world, a pervasive sense of dislocation in knowing that despite being in a place, he is not of it? Is this the figure of the maroon eking out an existence on the margins of the colony? Unlike “World Town,” this poem generates a general vocabulary of placelessness and dislocation such that either of these possibilities is plausible.

“ … at once transnational and transoceanic while paralyzed in bondage.”

As the collection continues, location and language are linked together particularly in terms of the struggle to find a language for the experience of dislocation. The poem “Pore Tune” begins:

Talls up our helmeted stingers.
Marches through the torn up zero farm
casing. Dew boss: ants in tow.
A cup of paintings, atonal moves

The awkward descriptions of “torn up zero farm / casing,” “our helmeted stingers,” and “the noosing glass” suggest less metaphorical adeptness and more a speaker working at the limits of language and struggling to describe their surroundings. Where language falters, sound and rhythm step in. The description of the “dew boss: ants in tow” conjures an image of a morning march of slaves forced into “atonal” movement by their chains. This continues in the poem’s use of sound and malapropisms:

Two bosses
by the foregone blank. It is now or.
Ear turnovers shall ever maroon us.
With our stash of latitudinal rope,
heavy kneels on a guard else he bark out,
“Line and door,” else he squeal out, “Fast root
gondola is here.” Lay shears, grab and ran

Images of listening and of sound indicate the importance of noise as a clue to meaning rather than particular words. In this sense, is “foregone blank” a mis-hearing / mis-speaking of “foregone bank,” and are “Line and door” and “Fast root / gondola” meant to signify words that these phrases sound like but with which the speaker is not familiar? If so this suggests again the struggle to describe that which exceeds language and to find new forms of communication in sound, the body, and intuition.

The poem concludes with the description of the guard being tied up: “Do it on tight. A knot called Sudan Throat.” This final image of throat as binding knot reaffirms this struggle for language as well as gesturing toward the problem of origins in black diasporic life: namely, that the language of resistance and identity of black diasporic communities is partially a product of the violent institutions of slavery and colonialism.

“Language can never be decolonized; it finds its origins in the binding knot.”

Perhaps a central irony of this collection, and one of Book’s points, is that the rebellious and resistant forms that challenge the dominant order cull their language of rebellion from the very structures they seek to resist. Indeed his depiction of maroons, slaves, and ex-colonials tears apart language and reduces it to noise, thereby demonstrating the manner in which those subjects develop a vocabulary of freedom built out of the language of their oppression. Language can never be decolonized; it finds its origins in the binding knot.

In the early poems in the collection, Book is concerned with the inherited language of the Black Atlantic and its contemporary effects on life in the postcolony. The image of the voice as a knot suggests that language binds and controls as much as it is a vehicle for expression and liberation. Yet Book is eager to trace the formation of these knots of language, and in the second section of the book he turns to an aesthetics of sampling to both engage in a diasporic practice of borrowing from multiple cultures and to make that borrowing visible as part of his poetics. Book doesn’t attempt to seamlessly fuse the disparate texts of rap music, spoken word, slave narrative, political tract, philosophy, and the language of protest. Instead he brings together these languages and voices in a manner that foregrounds the divides between them and the value of making them speak to one another.

Black Atlantic theorist Paul Gilroy has raised pertinent questions about the aesthetics of sampling and appropriation of black cultural forms. Gilroy attempts to understand the contradictions that arise when “a style, genre or performance of music is identified as expressing the absolute essence of the group that produced it” while those same “artistic products and aesthetic codes … though they may be traceable back to one distinct location, have been somewhat changed either by the passage of time or by their displacement, relocation or dissemination through wider networks of communication and cultural exchange.” The binding knot of sampling, for Gilroy, is that if black cultural production signifies a particular mode of blackness, what happens to blackness as it is relocated, transformed, and re-sampled across space and time? Congotronic is concerned with precisely these questions about the transformation of racial identity, history, and cultural practices within new aesthetic forms.

How does the artist, drawing on and sampling historical works, negotiate the simultaneous importance of retaining historical context while also transforming those works into something new? At what point does reimagining become decontextualization or historical erasure? These are necessary questions for all sampling practices and forms of historical allusion but it is particularly important for those that draw on transnational black history.

One answer to Gilroy’s question is that meaning is in flux, aesthetic codes are unanchored from any historical or political circumstances, and one can happily take on the style, voice, identity, and politics that one chooses. Blackness occupies a paradoxical position in this arrangement: it is at once a signifier of intransigent otherness and difference but it is also easily and unproblematically ready for appropriation and subordination to consumer needs. Within this view, artists like Girl Talk, Major Lazer, and Iggy Azalea provide a soundtrack to our inner (and sometimes outer) Rachel Dolezals.

Book’s response to Gilroy’s question is more nuanced and urgent. For Book, the global conditions that produce this appropriation of blackness and this sampling of the exoticism of the Third World are unavoidable: they are the material realities of life around the globe as well as the place from which his poetic voice speaks. One can’t pretend to speak from outside global capitalism or return to some idealized “before.” Yet Book also sees, within the flows of transnational culture, within the acts of remixing historical texts with contemporary voices, and within his imaginary of diasporic dislocation, the possibility of reinvigorating political identity and historical consciousness. Congotronic at once traverses the networks of global capitalism, jetting between borders, voices, modes, and identities while at the same time refusing to surrender history and politics to total commodification. Book therefore engages in a kind of historical remix culture—a transformation of historical texts that retains the historical imperative of those texts.

“While there are some thematic similarities between Book’s collection, MIA’s Third-World solidarity, and Public Enemy’s black nationalism, these references seems to be little more than a kind of name dropping.”

His poetics cannot help but be complicit in globalization (to use a by now outdated term) yet he struggles to use the mechanisms of globalization to tell an alternative narrative of transnational existence and black life.

Both “World Town” and “Security of the First World” draw their titles, respectively, from song titles by MIA and Public Enemy. While there are some thematic similarities between Book’s collection, MIA’s Third-World solidarity, and Public Enemy’s black nationalism, these references seems to be little more than a kind of name dropping. Book’s “World Town” has little to do with MIA’s “World Town,” and Public Enemy’s “Security of the First World” is an instrumental track with no discernible connection to Book’s poem. In a later poem “A Laborious Wakefulness or Was It a Most Unapologetic Whistling in the Ear” the speaker wonders, “am I truly in a Potawatomi state of mind”? Crossing Nas’s “New York State of Mind” (or is it Billy Joel’s?) with reference to First Nations people constitutes a more interesting use of allusion and sampling—perhaps contrasting diasporic life with a more rooted, yet equally tenuous, indigeneity.

Book’s sampling is far more effective in “Chinese Blow Up Doll,” where it moves beyond mere allusion to address the questions of language and commodification within sampling. This poem is dedicated to Gil Scott Heron whose soul-infused spoken word performances earned him the misnomer of the Godfather of Rap. Lyrics from Heron’s “Evolution (And Flashback)” and “Ain’t No New Thing” provide the majority of the text of the poem. Heron’s “Ain’t No New Thing” invokes Gilroy’s question about cultural tradition as it rebukes the practice of white singers and musicians stealing black music and culture:

Cultural rape
And no geographical boundaries on white hate
and bizarre scarcely-concealed attempts to eliminate
Black generators of sun heat feeling
Ain’t No New Thing

We’re used to having white people try to rob us
Why don’t they try stealing some of this poverty?
Ain’t no new thing

Ezra Pound’s call to modernist artists to “Make it New” is rebutted by Heron’s refrain throughout the song: “Ain’t No New Thing.” Where, after all, would the poetic tradition of avant-garde modernism be without the fetishizing of “primitivism” and the appropriation of black and African cultural forms? Is Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot really much different than Mick Jagger in this regard?

For Gilroy, this appropriation of black culture is a fundamental feature of Western civilization. He explains that the “fundamental dislocation of Black cultural forms is especially important in the recent history of Black musics which, produced out of the racial slavery which made modern Western civilization possible, now dominate its popular cultures.”  This insistence on the centrality of black cultural forms to modernity—in both stolen and acknowledged forms—sheds light on Book’s sampling practices. Gilroy, Heron, and Book are all concerned with this “fundamental dislocation of Black cultural forms” both in terms of the productive transformations that occur when cultures travel (literally and figuratively) as well as the disfiguration and misreadings that occur when black cultures are dislocated from their cultural and historical contexts.

“It will always be ours; it will never be yours.”

For Heron, the solution is to assert an innate blackness or Africanness from which to defend black culture from appropriation: black people can do it, white people can’t. It will always be ours; it will never be yours.

Book’s world is more complicated, and he recognizes that the tradition Heron wants to preserve is already disfigured and mis-read and is born out of bondage and violence. His inherited language of blackness is already complicated, and he knows that to “return” to the roots of pre-slavery African culture is either impossible or a lie. The speaker of “A Laborious Wakefulness” ponders,

About which writhing dream do I curl. Pretend
you’re on Zeus, on Coltrane—yes, they are aural
truths and no, I do not hesitate to hear the rusting killer

Why must Book’s speaker choose between either “writhing dream”? The “aural / truths”—ephemeral as they may be—of Coltrane and Zeus both ring true and the speaker’s consciousness depends upon both dreams. Yet Heron’s fear of appropriation remains valid, and as such, Book is forced to develop a form of poetic sampling that acknowledges both history and transformation. This is what Gilroy describes as the “changing same” which acknowledges the diasporic desire to reproduce “cultural traditions not in the unproblematic transmission of a fixed essence through time but in the breaks and interruptions.” This is a sampling practice that makes its methods of borrowing explicit, speaks from the gaps and fissures between cultures, and situates contemporary cultural transformations within the historical conditions that make those transformations possible. Book’s poem therefore transforms Heron’s texts, beginning:

It was only in his mind.

Ain’t no thing with the power

Of sun              heat     creation           screaming

River   voodoo                        juju

Beautiful         first                 day      of Ramadan

Sunset over                 Ramallah.

Book draws from Heron’s work in a tradition of spoken word and griot poets. He pays homage to “the power / Of sun heat creation screaming” and seemingly hopes to channel that power himself. Yet by sampling from a text that is explicitly about the politics of appropriation and cultural borrowing, Book reflects on his own forms of borrowing. Does his sampling attempt to channel the same kind of “essence of blackness” that Heron asserts, or does Book transform essence into performance in a manner that destabilizes notions of authenticity and originality?

Book’s solution to this problem of sampling and performance is found in his allusions to Heron’s “Evolution (And Flashback)” in which Heron comments on the lack of progress for black people in America:

In 1600 I was a darkie
Until 1865, a slave
In 1900 I was a nigger
Or at least, that was my name

In 1960 I was a negro
And then Malcolm came along
Yes, but some nigger shot Malcolm down
Though the bitter truth lives on

Heron’s piece employs a complicated temporality at once tracing the evolution of black identity in the West (or at least the labels affixed to black people) as well as showing the manner in which the “bitter truth” of the past “lives on” in the present. Book’s sampling of Heron’s piece re-imagines historical forms and content as the material by which to imagine the present anew but in a manner that makes the act of sampling visible.

By putting “Ain’t No New Thing” into a complicated dialogue with “Evolution (And Flashback)” Book takes on the role of the figures in his poetry as he fashions a language of imagination and possibility out of an inherited vocabulary of violence and racism. Book, like Heron, cannot escape the names of “darkie,” “slave,” “nigger,” and “negro”; however, his poetic sampling practice demonstrates that these are not essences of identity but rather constructed categories of denigration. Similarly, while Heron’s Afrocentrism is perhaps too absolute and simple for Book, he samples Heron in a manner that remakes historical forms of resistance relevant to contemporary struggles. As such, Book’s sampling practice neither traffics in identity as essence nor as performance but rather demonstrates that it is through the sampling and remaking of historical forms that contemporary and future identities and aesthetics can be re-imagined.

Book’s sampling practices inform two of his most successful poems in the collection: “Mack Daddy Manifesto” and “H.N.I.C. (Head Nigger In Charge) B-Side, Club Remix.”

“Mack Daddy Manifesto” juxtaposes The Communist Manifesto with the street language of a “Mack Daddy.” After a quote from Marx and Engels, the poem begins:

A spectre is haunting Europe
but I feel the sun cocooning
in a triple-breasted track suit

            when I think of you. Thus we
            obtain our concept of the unconscious
            from the theory of repression, a sweet finish

Bringing together the voices of Marx, Engels, Freud, and the Mack Daddy, Book posits an alternative vision of community and politics. Book switches between these texts at such a dizzying speed that it is difficult to separate one from another. These texts are too cacophonous to be properly labelled as dialogue, but maybe dialogue isn’t the point; instead, Book layers these texts atop one another such that the discourses of psychoanalysis, communism, and street language are inextricably smashed together. This discursive intercourse is mirrored in the poem’s attention to affect and desire and suggests that if the grand narratives of Communist and Socialist liberation have failed, then perhaps their energies are now best understood in libidinal and affective forms.

Book playfully jumps from translation to appropriation to annexation, leaving the reader wondering whose language is being appropriated. Do we interpret the bravado of the Mack Daddy through the framework of Marx, Engels, and Freud, or are these writers and their accompanying discourses annexed to the discourses of the former? The poem is ambiguous, but Book expertly weaves these discourses together, privileging the seductive voice over the authoritative text. Book quotes from Freud’s

clinical observation showing
            circumstances where hate changes to love,
            and love to hate …

The poem traces these moments of transformation across voices where love and lust (“lace that last line / to your little sister”) turns to hate (“he wasn’t nothing / but a biter, player-hating”) and back to love (“cause the ladies / love me despite”). This poem carefully moves across languages and discourses, smashing languages together as part of a productive transformation.

“ … if the grand narratives of Communist and Socialist liberation have failed, then perhaps their energies are now best understood in libidinal and affective forms.”

In what is perhaps the best poem in the collection, “H.N.I.C.,” Book once again engages in a practice of sampling voices and historical discourses to trace the simultaneously liberating and repressive discourses that shape the poetic subject’s language and politics.. The poem delivers the swagger and historical consciousness of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta,” drawing on many of the same sampling practices. Here, Book continues to trace the difficulties in finding a language that properly represents contemporary black life, framing these difficulties as a struggle between the language of the street corner and that of a slave past that continues to assert itself in the present. Once again in place of an anxiety of influence of past forms, Book insists that these voices all speak together to create a cacophonic present. If this poem contains hints of Du Bois’s double-consciousness, they are quickly exploded into poly-vocality and poly-consciousness (to borrow George Elliott Clarke’s phrase). Book’s poetic voice emerges from a blending of the language of the street, with that of the plantation, with that of the slave narrative, with that of Shakespeare, and with that of contemporary hip hop.

“ … Book continues to trace the difficulties in finding a language that properly represents contemporary black life, framing these difficulties as a struggle between the language of the street corner and that of a slave past … ”

Again, voices and sounds matter here at least as much as the words themselves. Book is part documentarian, part fanboy, and part poet as he evokes the style and posture contained in phrases like: “It was like wow / to the dark-skinned shortie in the shiny dress, / she got the floss and the flo and the itchy / shimmy

Book revels in the phraseology, acoustics, cadences, and cool of black American slang. Even the epigraph from Lil’ Bow Wow foregrounds speech, assonance, and sound over meaning. This poem recasts the concerns of “Sudan Knot,” “World Town” and “Chinese Blow Up Doll,” tracing an evolution of black American English as it has grappled to build a language out of the forced violence of slavery, Jim Crow, and modern-day racism. The callback here from Ludacris to plantation narratives and slave histories demonstrates not only historical continuity across language but also insists again how every evolution contains its own flashback. If “Mack Daddy Manifesto” is about placing voice and text into a troubled dialogue, “H.N.I.C.” abandons the idea of a coherent text altogether, instead offering  a barrage of competing, cacaphonic voices.

“H.N.I.C.” is concerned with investigating how this language is born out of the struggle to articulate a vision of black freedom given the persistence of the legacies of slavery and segregation. One voice explains:

I had to check
on my snakes. The one called slavery lay with his head pointed
south, and the one called freedom lay with his head pointed
north. I knows how to grow a snake …
And all night the children’s chorus lays
the chorus down: Both bit the nigger, and they was both bad!

This section is adapted from the testimonial of freed slave Patsy Mitchener, rendered into song and poem form. Freedom and slavery, despite pointing in opposite directions are both snakes—in perhaps a reference to Caduceus—and their respective stings resound in Mitchener’s words and Book’s poetics. His poems struggle to articulate the emergence of a language of desire, lust, hope, and possibility out of the violent and dehumanizing experiences of historical slavery and contemporary segregation. These are not histories Book can choose or disavow but rather persistent ghosts with which he must contend.

In both “HNICand Mack Daddy Manifesto,” Book tears apart the grand narratives of communism, socialism, and black liberation with his attention to voice and sound. As with the languages of the slaves, maroons, and ex-colonial subjects, Book’s continued attention to voice indicates his broader project to trace the ineffable aspects of daily life in Black America. In “Bronze Age” the speaker tracks small, seemingly insignificant moments and sounds:

The sounds we watched for:
night wind cracking canvas sails; wood stick
rhythmically striking wood stick; hastily made
motorcades’ ragged sirens. The revolution?
Through our high powered geigers: twin-stroke
underbuzz of revolution’s engine; the puttering

three wheeled revolution; the landless campesinos

These sounds create a kind of aural landscape by which the speaker depicts a revolution. Similarly, in “Mack Daddy Manifesto” the speaker offers another list of voices for which

there’s no museum space
to offer—exhibit A:
            the ever-mean talk show hosts,
            bitter preachers, dirty rappers,
            all up in my shit,
            running their mouths
            like they was me,

but winding up lipping blisters:

If grand historical narratives offer “no museum space” for the daily struggles, humiliations, and victories of Book’s subjects, Congotronic’s attention to sound constitutes a recording of quotidian existence. In this sense Book’s use of sound not only gestures towards his aesthetics of sampling but also suggests the truths that escape historical discourse can be represented in poetry.

The final section of the collection, “Flagelliforms” also attends to voice but with far less care and success, and indeed this section is the weakest of the collection. “Flagelliform 3,” for instance, canters in a rough quadrameter, but the rhythm doesn’t support the scattered themes of the poem in any meaningful way. Form gets in the way of content here and experimentation overshadows coherence or signification. Noise overwhelms this final section of the collection and even the order of the Flagelliforms appears completely random.

In the Flagelliforms where the Sundiata myth is recognizable, Sundiata appears to be transformed into a kind of maniac street warrior, a kind of khat-fuelled steampunk prophet. There are lucid moments in this rewriting of Sundiata and clever rearticulations of him as a unifying Che Guevara-esque revolutionary warrior (for instance “Flagelliform 61: Tilted Away” and Flagelliform 19: “Snake Foot That Does Not Walk”) but these are rare moments of clarity in an otherwise confusing and uneven section of the book.

Similarly, other poems in the collection sample western philosophy, namely Ryle and Descartes, to investigate the triad of mind, body, and voice. In his playful reinterpretation of Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind, Book riffs Ryle’s use of metaphor and figurative language in “The Collected Novellas of Gilbert Ryle” to wrest this discourse from its sober philosophical origins and transplant Ryle’s images into entirely new contexts. It isn’t entirely surprising that the bulk of the references come from the opening of Ryle’s text; at times this section feels more like the dabbling of a dilettante rather than the careful sampling that Book engages in in “HNIC” and “Mack Daddy Manifesto.” Indeed these poems, like the Flagelliforms, suffer from a similar sense of images unanchored from context that makes interpretation or even coherence very difficult.

Book is a talented and compelling poet given to insightful observations on our relationship to body, voice, mind, and space. History is a vital subtext in each of these poems, structuring unique interventions into transnational and diasporic life in the Black Atlantic. Throughout most of Congotronic, Book’s historical consciousness provides necessary contextualization to his sampling practices, his allusions, and his hip-hop aesthetic to bring together voices. Book works in the gaps and fissures between those voices, transforming, with “a sweet finish,” hate into love and paralysis into a kind of freedom. He switches voices, imaginaries, and styles like a DJ flipping between hip hop breaks. Like the DJ who finds a fantastic, unique break, one senses the pleasure in the poet’s discovery of the lustful and lush liquidity of “swishy fissure.”

The weakness of this collection, however, is that at times Book is too much like an old school hip hop DJ. These DJs would scrub the labels off of their records so no one would know the origins of a particularly compelling sound; Book is prone to the same kind of protective obscurity. More context and more historicizing might bring some of his poems into greater focus.

“ … not all poetry collections need to maintain a uniting theme … ”

Additionally, this collection doesn’t really hang together in any coherent way beyond the kind of general sampling and borrowing that Book practices. His rewriting of Sundiata and intervention into Ryle’s philosophy don’t enter into meaningful dialogue with the other, more compelling, sections of the collection. The “Flagelliforms” section appears particularly out of place in Congotronic. This is not necessarily a weakness—not all poetry collections need to maintain a uniting theme—but rather an observation on this particular grouping of poems.

Yet in the moments where Congotronic is successful, it is very successful. Book’s depiction of life in the postcolony and the black Atlantic recasts notions of citizenship and subjectivity in a global light, but without succumbing to postcolonial pessimism or neoliberal celebration. Instead, Book shows how the transformation of tradition, the changing same of the black Atlantic, offers a resource for thinking hopefully about politics and identities of the future. Book’s best writing gives voice to a black Atlantic optimism that sees black histories, voices, geographies, and styles in the cracks of history and modernity. Book draws on the voices and rebellions of the past to position himself as a maroon of modernity and his poems provides a soundtrack, argument and poetics by which to imagine the modern world otherwise.


Paul Barrett is the author of Blackening Canada: Diaspora, Race, Multiculturalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). He is a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University where he studies Canadian literature at the intersections of race and digital humanities.