Into and Out of Dislocation, by C. S. Giscombe.
New York: North Point Press, 2000.

In 49th Parallel Psalm, his 1999 poetic history of black arrivants in British Columbia, Wayde Compton refers to Canada as “Xanada,” a version of the dreamy, Edenic Xanadu that some nineteenth century blacks, escaping slavery and segregation in America, were led to believe they might find “on the Brit side of the border.” C. S. Giscombe’s Into and Out of Dislocation mines similar ground, but from a decidedly different perspective: Compton has lived his entire life on the Xanadian side of the border, well aware of the flimsiness of the myth of a Canada free of racial inequalities, while Giscombe is the ardent traveler, captivated by Canada’s otherness, by how blacks are “a different kind of presence” there, by how, in fact, “Race is different everywhere.” Into and Out of Dislocation is the prose companion to Giscombe’s 1998 book of poetry, Giscome Road (Dalkey Archive Press). Both books explore the same northern British Columbian geography, and both pursue the faint traces of the historical figure John Robert Giscome, a nineteenth-century black explorer and miner who made his fortune in B.C. and who may just be a distant ancestor of C. S. Giscombe (despite the missing ‘b’ in his name). Into and Out of Dislocation is a memoir of Giscombe’s numerous travels in Canada (a country to which he “was always going”) and his six months residence in Prince George, a few short miles from the Arctic Circle, researching the nineteenth-century Giscome. It is also a meditation on place, race, the racialized body, family and history which explores the “sexiness” of border crossings and the traces of miscegenation in a country so apparently white. The title refers to Giscombe’s physical injuries – his left arm is amputated at the elbow and that shoulder, as a doctor tells him, moves “with surprising ease into and out of dislocation.” This quickly becomes the metaphor for Giscombe’s travels, for his ever present desire to “disappear into landscape,” to move, as he writes in Giscome Road, “out to the edge, right out / to the mutest edge there.” Two experiences in particular seem to fascinate the author: finding black people and their history “in a very unlikely location,” and, conversely, stretching out beyond the borders of black context, “over the edge,” to be the anomalous and only black man, one armed and “a possible threat,” wheeling into small town Canada on his bicycle.

Early in the narrative, Giscombe cites what he calls an old African-American saying: “that no matter where you go, no matter how far, no matter to what unlikely extreme, no matter what country, continent, ice floe, or island you land on, you will find someone else black already there.” It is the surprise of this discovery that holds much of his attention, the black woman he glimpses in the supermarket, the man from Chicago he meets in Prince George, and asks him “how things were for us here” (“‘It’s OK,’ he said, ‘but you’re always the only one’”), the dawning realization of just how far “we’ve spread,” how far the ragged edges of the diaspora extend. Part of this discovery involves his research on John Robert Giscome. The traces are few and faint: an article in a small colonial newspaper, a mountain pass and a nearly abandoned town named Giscome, just north of Prince George – although no one is certain who the places are named after (more often than not it is Giscombe who tells the locals, revealing the “heart of darkness” in the “great white north”). The reasons for the near erasure of black history are the same as elsewhere: “the focus of history in northern B.C. is white penetration and settlement.” Some accounts do not even mention that John Giscome is black, although every Giscome and Giscombe that C. S. has ever met is and came, at some point, through Jamaica, as John Robert is know to have. Canada’s history is the same as and different from any other former colony – it is and it isn’t Xanada/Xanadu. Giscombe discovers annals of black history he knew nothing of – six hundred black emigres who sailed from San Francisco to Victoria in 1858, a thousand who moved from Maine to Nova Scotia in 1783 with the Loyalists, all for the sake of a better, less racialized life “on the Brit side of the border” – but he also discovers that black Canadians are often just as economically marginalized as their American counterparts: on trains he meets porters, cooks, and waiters “all of whom were black, yes even in Canada.”

Giscombe likens his explorations “into dislocation,” into solitariness, to being “a black Marlow seeking black Mistah Kurtz,” striking alone into the “great colorless blankness of the map,” the “big otherness” of Canada. It’s a nicely ironic reversal of the story of white penetration into the “dark” continent,” with Giscombe much enjoying being the solitary black explorer amidst all the whiteness – metaphoric and actual – of Fort George and Grande Prairie, Alberta. However, the “Mistah Kurtz” Giscombe searches for is not only John Robert, but the racial “heart of darkness” wherever it may impossibly lie, from the buried black history of the far north to the traces of miscegenation he uncovers in a young girl’s face in North Bay, Ontario. “[B]lack is such a big category,” he writes, “because such a wide range of people’s bodies count as black, we’re used to looking at people in a fairly discerning way. Whiteness is different, is defined by the absence of non-whiteness among the forebear; it’s a celebration, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell, of not mixing.” Giscombe-Marlow, deep into the “big otherness” of Canada, is both alone in his anomalous blackness and simultaneously connected to “some great fleshy body” lying under the surface: “O my brothers and cousins in Canada, I’m what is hidden in the blood.”

The relation of self with space is crucial to Giscombe’s experience of Canada. Sounding much like the Charles Olson of Call Me Ishmael (indeed, Giscombe refers to John Robert as his Creeley-esque “figure of outward”), he writes “living with all that space, this was what it meant to be Canadian.” His own experience of that “space,” as I have suggested, is racial – but it is transgressively racial. John Robert’s Canadian adventure is intriguing in part because “he got all outside the lines that geography, race, and the languages of white people had made for him and, that way, both entered and failed to enter history. He went on over into Canada.” Giscombe the late twentieth century poet can share Giscome the late nineteenth century explorer’s experience of “singularity” and “anomalousness” in that vast whiteness, and it is this singularity that absorbs and that appears to throw racial categories into strange new shades. “My sense is that black singularity’s especially out of context,” Giscombe writes – out of the context, that is, of black community – and thus “The problem’s how to celebrate the brothers without constituency,” how to deal with the desired and loathed experience of being alone in othering whiteness. One answer may be seen in that, as a story of the extended diaspora, Into and Out of Dislocation comes to an unusual understanding of space: there are the crucial boundary and border crossings, yes, but another typical diasporadic experience of space – its absence in the crowded holds of the middle passage – is here offered its opposite experience: black singularity in nearly unpeopled space, the ability to stand just “a little outside of history” and the usual black geography, a little outside the damages time and space have written on the black body.

There were moments, reading Into and Out of Dislocation, when I wanted to be more challenged as a reader, when Giscombe’s Canada was too conveniently the geography of sexy otherness, when the narrative of campsites and bicycling, academic life, train travel, became an almost too mundane backdrop to the more stirring meditations on race and place. But this is also what allows those meditations their time and space to unfold, and the non-linear structure of Giscombe’s various memories of a lifetime of travel in Canada, always circling back to his “Winter in Fort George,” on the trail of John Robert, liberates the text from a potentially dull narrative of what-I-saw/what-I-thought travel notes. Giscombe’s is poetic, meditative prose of the most accessible and pleasurable sort, and he reveals the eye and ear of a poet at every step as he pries into the landscape and language of desire.

— Stephen Collis

Issue Five

Editorial: Sulfir R.I.P.

Sulfur & After

Geraldine McKenzie

Michael Anania

C.S. Giscombe

John Latta

Susan Sink

D.C. Berry

Reviews of: C. S. Giscombe

Reviews of: John Matthias

And: The Word From Russia



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