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Vahni Capildeo.


Measures of Expatriation.
By Vahni Capildeo
Carcanet 2016 | 124pp paperback | £9.99  $15.99

Simple Complex Shapes.
By Vahni Capildeo
Shearsman Books 2015 | 36pp paperback | £6.50  $9.95


‘In practice “identity politics” seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed…’

IN A DISCUSSION programme on the topic “Language and Reinvention”, broadcast on 1st February this year on BBC Radio 4, Vahni Capildeo said, “When I was growing up I had the idea that the poet could be a channel for all languages, for any sort of linguistic phenomenon that any literary work encountered, and then when I came to England [from Trinidad] I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

And yet Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation seems to have been greeted (not only in the market) with fanfares of identity and wound. For identity this was inevitable, since most of those involved these days reckon it is impossible to talk about, think about, or read poetry at all without reference to that word, though what exactly is meant by it is unstable. In practice “identity politics” seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there. But its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict. (You’d think it would be difficult to find anybody not involved in cultural conflict.) The group your experience enunciates is necessarily subjugated, hence the wounds. Other sources of wounds are not considered. The self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc. He/she acts speaks and breathes as that member. The only voice is the authentic voice of the author or reporter of factual detail. Capildeo has said that no voice in her texts is ever her voice.

A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly. But it is not moral as such, it is a choice among a narrowly defined set of moral possibilities. Questions such as how you locate or validate a moral position are not the point. Your morals are handed you on a plate; it is your job to tell us what we already know and thereby assure us that we do have some kind of virtue left among us, verified by our guilt. This reader-confirmation is a kind of luxury, an indulgence, an avoidance of the duties and rigours of analysis. It is also the common answer to poetry’s increasing remoteness and obscurity, to what is seen as its irrelevance, though the claim to participate in identity politics is as strong in the language-wringing avant-garde, or its packaging departments, as it is in poetry of anecdotal reportage. In both zones the priority of immediacy (be it your own direct witness of harm or harm lifted straight from the News) precludes anything larger, such as history or the global ranges of perception open through languages, or, indeed, the full range of personal experience. The felt hurt, the wound, yours or theirs, becomes the pivotal point, which dictates the substance of the work and all the trappings of the poem; all its theatre and all its knowledge must serve that wound and refer back to it. So, no other version of the individual, no history, no voice or body but that.1


Vahni Capildeo. (Guardian)

Capildeo does not deny the wound: “‘Where do you write from?’ ‘Who doesn’t write from an anguish? From a wound?’”2 But she does not parade the wound, nor the post-colonial identity problems which may or may not have occasioned it; she takes them seriously, often as starting positions from which the writing may extend out towards the varieties of experience, casting off in the process the monolithic selfhood. The wound and the programmed identity, it is insisted, do not amount to the same thing.

VAHNI CAPILDEO’S POEMS present a wide range of linguistic usages and scales of attention, sometimes all within the one poem, but generally begin with feet on the ground. That is, the opening engages the reader immediately and says where we are, what’s happening, or clearly introduces a subject-matter, or promises something so standard as a personal poem of love experience, or so it seems. One such is “Mercy and Estrangement”, which starts with a recognisable personal declaration held in a simple metaphor which immediately starts to sprout—

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it
it turns into a bird, turns:
a scavenger bird lightfoot

and in the next line leaps so far as to transgress entirely the terms of the initial conceit:

a scavenger bird lightfoot
alights on foam, contests white
as silver tilts white,

The first real transgression is between “foam” and “contests”. Hitherto there has been a swift, Protean, but graspable progression of figurations maintaining the bird metaphor, but now the bird does something birds cannot easily be thought of doing — i.e., “contests” — and furthermore what it contests is “white”, “as” (is that comparison or simultaneity?) in another wild leap “silver tilts white”. Here all connectors are severed and the little boat floats off by itself. The action progressively becomes, a word at a time, a different kind of action in a different context, three times in two lines, but all held in a present-tense structure which seems to continue the narrative in spite of all these radical transgressions. This is how she works in her most dense texts. It is not unlike being repeatedly shifted into a foreign language, while somehow continuing the same argument or narrative, and thus relates to Capildeo’s early dream of a total or global poetry, which she says is still her inclination: “Language is my home, I say; not one particular language.” In the prose sequence which most fully amplifies her concepts, itself called “Five Measures of Expatriation” this statement is elaborated:

Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular. A flicker and drag emanates from the very idea of it. Language seems capable of girding the oceanic earth, like the world-serpent of Norse legend. It is as if language places a shaping pressure upon our territories of habitation and voyage; thrashing, independent, threatening to rive our known world apart.

Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.

I think that last proviso is very important, to indicate how she holds back from the language-centred and language-led poetry of the avant-garde. However violent the transgressions from word to word they are held within the experiential framework of the particular poem or prose; the moves into as-if foreign sections are shifts of sense.

The poem continues, unfolding itself further and further away from the given terms, reaching a script of figures which cannot be referred back to the initial signal or in any way directly to the world, but which still maintain a sense of discourse or narrative as a poetical series—

as silver tilts white, silver
as refuse seams silver, gawks,
jinks, is radiated by charts
charted inly: magnetic,
unhoming because transformed.

THIS STORY IS not reducible. It remains (with the reminders at “refuse” and “unhoming”) the same story, a pursuit of or claim on the self is still in progress (to “jink” is “to change direction suddenly and nimbly, as when dodging a pursuer”) . These transitions should be metaphorical but don’t act as such because the referents remain unrecognised — “silver as refuse seams silver”. I find that in order to continue the reader has to make a decision and stake a claim on the discourse. Mine is that through these lines “silver” stands for the self, possibly in some sense of purity, though I can’t be sure and can’t prove it. But at least then there is a linked series of syntactical events held together by one substantive.

The reason I want to do this when it is not offered to me is that the whole tone and movement of the poem here begs it, and assures me that there is a figurative progression taking place through these verbal tangles. Further rationalisation is possible but remains open to accusations of assumption and interference. The scavenger bird claims the prize as silver from what is foam, a solid prize from insubstantial matter (like a person out of vain hopes). And silver, the inward value of she, is mapped and transformed by claim and refusal, attracts the pursuit but will not (now a bird) fly to the begged home (I don’t know about Trinidad but the messenger bird that is sent out and never returns is a common European folk-song trope). The claim is not returned. Well, something like this may serve, leaving several terms untreated (tilts, seams) and feeling altogether like something different from the poem. Some people will chuck the sponge in at this point. But could not this poetry be read as it is, particularly as it is held together by words echoing each other phonetically and forming shared sense clusters, of pursuit, refusal, attraction etc., and the persistence of the bird metaphor. And it is full of passion and it is entirely meant. Perhaps what the actual events of the story are (whether refusal is tempered or reinforced for instance) are not so important, compared with the construction of this poetical discourse charting (probably) the twists and turns, jolts and gawks, of being persistently claimed, on this occasion or any other, sexually or otherwise. I would not like to represent it as something like “the woman, threatened by the assumption of male (white) dominance or right to pursue, experiences confusing and conflicting emotions but remains steadfast”. In other words, I would not want to translate it. Where are we, then, in the rest of the poem?—

A rill and jitter brought me
– birdform, my heart – to the park
where state translators, laid off,
sat sad for their hospitals,
prisons and schools. Law whistled
infixes between trained ears.
And at our conference,
So many equivalents
For gracias and Verfremdung,
Easy change amongst false friends.

‘The final condition does invoke the public world as one of loss or diminished resource. It is as if the world has been made to shrink.’

I’m not going to explicate this. It’s quite hard work and the results are never entirely trustworthy. I’d rather simply insist that the discourse has been continuous throughout, that the sudden switches from one field or direction to another (the jinks) have been coherently moulded in, that the moves in the action are personal decisions and discoveries, at the same time as things quite beyond control (gawked at, no doubt), and it has brought us to somewhere else, which is not elsewhere. It has brought us to a public stage of state translators (no longer required), social institutions, law (of divorce?), conferences, and yet in which the lyric moment of the opening returns transferred to the I — “birdform, my heart” — as if there has been an exchange of hearts, or heart forms. I do not know what exactly has “happened”, and I don’t think that a personal conflict has been inflated poetically onto a socio-political stage, as if personal and political inclinations were simply the same thing in different scales, though there might be something of that. But the final condition does invoke the public world as one of loss or diminished resource. It is as if the world has been made to shrink. The terms now engaged are mainly linguistic. The foreign is devalued: “thank you” and “alienation” remain untranslated, the dialogue ends in casual dismissal and refusal of reconciliation. But “false friends” is also the term for words in two language which easily cause translator’s problems by sounding very similar but having quite different meanings (like library and French librairie, bookshop3). As such they are failures of communication which will remain as long as the translators are laid off, failures to make contact. One thinks of immigrants facing trials or tribunals without good translators to guide them, and “false friends” is all they get. There is a public arena before us, but the heart conflict was not an allegory of it; it is only what has led us into it (as a marital conflict might lead into a court room). In this new place language “infixes between trained ears”, becomes inflexible and unable to allow for subtleties of translation, as perhaps the pursuer did not trouble to comprehend fully the nature or validity of the refusal. But what I find particularly significant is the appearance of the sad translators lamenting “their hospitals, prisons and schools”. It doesn’t matter much to me how this fits into the subsumed narrative, it is enough that it is there, that we finally arrive in this neglected park, deprived of social institutions, which in fact we are increasingly asked to live in.

CAPILDEO HAS SPOKEN in many ways of the dispersed nature of the poetry, the break-up of linear sense, including the idea of a “pointillist self, one grounded in complexity…” and of “the way the poet seems to move about… they don’t actually add up… it creates a sense of vibration rather than status, a sense almost of the physics of being, a musical being, one might say”. Also that “time mixing within a stanza, or a line, seems to me like a natural poetic procedure” (which she relates to the “happy and tense cross-rhythms” experienced in growing up in a non-Western multilingual household). Also “I see no problem, I take delight, within the space of the page, in crossing from mundane to heightened, elaborated, even opaque codes, registers, allusions.” and “without meaning to, I developed a poetics of reverberation and minor noise.” Also of the work of poetry involving a communal experience: “the writing-self (not-yourself): an anonymous, androgynous figure, caught up in detailed work on one corner of a huge mosaic pavement… stretching further than it can see clearly.” Not forgetting “The mother tongue is an evil myth imposed by monoglot societies”.4

None of these statements actually suggests a completely free-range associational compositional process of the “anything goes” kind, opposed to any ethic of containment or consistency, and indeed she does not place herself in the so-called avant-garde. Her statement in PN Review 221 specifically relates her writing instincts to “mainstream Christian models of an inner life and a vertical leap out of linear time towards something invisible yet supreme. It elides the mess of other forms of being”, adding importantly,

I write this not as a believer, but as a practitioner of a mixity of the alinguistic, the musical, the structured. I write this for an unruly language which is not ‘fractured’ as with the avant-garde or ‘resistant’ as with the old-style post-colonial, but may indeed have a politics, as well as a poetics, belonging to a modernity rooted in ways of life still not considered safe, polite, or relevant to admit to the canon.”

There is plenty here to relate to the highly-wrought complexity of a poem such as “Mercy and Estrangement”, emphasising the multiplicity of the creating self. But I would add that the dots of a pointillist painting certainly do “add up” as I’m sure she is aware. And I would want to disagree if she is saying that the final aesthetic of her work dissolves the unity and substantiality of the self completely into a fluidity. However disparate the moves of “Mercy and Estrangement” become there remains a sense of a singular and whole human actor behind it without which none of the decisions or risks could be made (because there would be nobody to make them). There is in the progress of the poem a determination, a singular determination to explore and develop the terms of the initial evidence into a wider condition, a pushing onwards and outwards. There is also a determination not to restrict the poem’s wording to any “safe” or class-bound vocabulary, but to let quite erudite words rub shoulders with “gawk” and “jitter”. This masked substantiality is present in what I called the “feet on the ground”, the safety common in opening lines, and is particularly gratifying when a return is made to it later or at the ending.

THIS HAPPENS IN a sequence of five 14-line poems called “Inhuman Triumphs”. The poems’ titles all follow the formula “The Poet Transformed into [xxx]”. They are complaint poems, I think, of an emotional experience strong to the point of overwhelming. Here are their titles, beginnings and endings:

(I) “The Poet Transformed into a Box Hedge”
it was a small snail
on a rainy day
it was a small snail
a petal vertex…

This, the simplest of the group, obsessively repeats “it was a small snail”, places it in the heart of an apricot rose and ends, without explanation, saying that for this small snail

the sea was beating
about my heart; O
love, beating about
my green heart of hearts

That little sigh, “O / love”, returns as the transition between the twelfth and thirteenth line of each of the otherwise differently conceived poems.

(II) “Poet Transformed into a Double Vodka”
Accuse me, before I start
of seeking forms to shatter —
at the icy feast, to overspill —
you, meantime, pouring out me
on the rocks. MAN DRINKS MERMAID

The situation grows in strength as its masking in metaphor playfully redoubles itself (preceded by an anticipation of rejection only superficially literary) and ends with the image of “melting” into a drop of vodka, and a shot of mortality:

a cubic volume of undrunk spirit; O
love, wrapt in glass, wrapt in a set of bony fingers…
Air, how does it transpire that we are from each other?

(III) “Poet Transformed into a Heat Haze”
& it was not a hot country; but occasionally
hot, though not by decree nor description; even a day
like this, where it rained fiercely on sheets of sun…

An account of a landscape afflicted by intense heat, comparatively straightforward and not evidently connected to the situations in the preceding poems, but, as will already have been noticed, showing details and departures which are far from standard, which increase and intensify towards the mysterious ending—

the stream sucked it up, milled on wordless; the trees rebelled, O
love, voted with their roots, forgetting how to vote, vowing
their all to — as a leaf double, shape, shade, light — a stitch up —

This is the climax of the narrative now openly staged:

(IV) “Poet Transformed into a Piece of Painted Fabric”
That night laid hands on my back,
ironing out a castle,
finding no body, is true…

The figuration is now intense, venturing into far reaches of experience within an intensely questioning ekstasis, ending—

righteous buyers mutter, mined,
mine, I said to night. And O
love, night kept going round in circles,
tracking a moonless shower, lyrid threads.

Once again we seem to have entered, at high pitch, the realms of the untranslatable and moved into not so much a public as a cosmic perception. Lyrids are defined as meteors seeming to radiate from the constellation Lyra. With this cluster of senses involving lyre, lyric, music, sky and stars, the sequence reaches a climax which if it represents sexual ecstasy is not in any way bound to it. The refrain “O love” has calmed the poems’ urge to levitate all along its course, giving the sense of a constant return to song and its listeners, to the single sighing composite human being.

(V) “Poet Transformed into Space”
This is different, a sort of coda, an abandoning of language. It begins with Dante’s “L’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” scored through, six times. Then two lines of asterisks. Then, also crossed out—

sphere gas gravity heat radiation collapse
luminosity colour temperature location

Poetry’s stellar reach fled to the distant past or translated away by science? Lines 12 to 14 are:

*************************************** O,
love, _____________________*

which is rather as if the utter cancellation of the discourse now offered the opportunity to start again from the beginning, the little sigh that set it all in motion and returned it to the reader.

I think “Inhuman Triumphs” is one of Capildeo’s finest poetical creations (even if it does opt out of poetry at the end), not least because the extravagant virtuosity of her style is constantly bound to a lyrical condition. Lyric, or song, is the basis not only of the simple expressive refrain, but also of the license to transgress proprieties of word-choice and disregard the demand for immediate recognition. Folk songs in particular (especially dance-songs) are always likely to be full of unidentifiable allusions, quasi-surreal episodes, terms determined only by phonetic echoing and so forth. This is all done in a spirit of play, and Capildeo’s lyrical pieces show how serious, incisively modern and exact in detail a lyric-based mode can be.

The writing is done from word to word, following images, sounds, movement and sense-associations relentlessly, shifting focus every few words, heading for an unforeseen ending.

CAN COMMENTS ON two poems qualify as a book review, and of a book which is about 50 percent prose, and in which not all poems show such density? If I force them to suffice it is because most of Capildeo’s writing, once you start commenting, invites extended explication, sometimes almost every word a departure from the immediately negotiable, or a convergence of contraries which the reader will seek to mitigate. At one point a supervising voice intrudes into a prose piece like a creative writing tutor to say “Insert a logical connector here; c’est ce qui / manque dans ce texte.” The writing is done from word to word, following images, sounds, movement and sense-associations relentlessly, shifting focus every few words, heading for an unforeseen ending. Sometimes it seems defeating (“slalom heedless colourfast”?) but basically the quest from word to word is optimistic, it cancels the given word for a better, more benign word. The poem “Sycorax Whoops”, an address to “Mother”, seems to demonstrate this by retaining in the text cancelled words or phrases struck through, like first thoughts each followed by the better one. The cancelled words tend to be replaced by contrary terms which open wider prospects and turn to more benign forms of experience. “the glitter out of war where we’re struck stuck livin…” “Mother, our cities! cold / Called on Aphrodite…” “with brokenness we’re deaf- /en’d defend fed.” “Take apart our part.” But the cancelled alternatives are still there and still readable and obviously meant to be read, and still the poem proceeds through the convergence of contraries.

All conclusions hold potential differences; even the little lyrical “O / love” which I have characterised as a sigh of acquiescence, could be a shout of anger or frustration and several other things, and indeed does bear tonal differences in each of its six appearances, ending as a kind of neutral finality. No statement about the text can be final, or can define the goal of the poem in terms of belief or attitude; there are always further (or previous) possibilities. “The poetry itself is a freeing of the mind from obsession with a love-object, in that it can play to the uttermost in every intellectual system available to it.” To which I’d again add that there can also be a return, one which finds the love-object changed.

But what about expatriation? This word is strongly emphasised by the author in the title and the subtitles of all seven divisions of the book, and indeed everything she writes seem to exist under that flag. You’d think this would feed her straight into the ex-colonial identity department, as well as the gender inequality one, with their obligatory wounding, and some of what she writes seems to say that she has found it necessary, being here, to work under those strictures. Certainly experience of racial belittlement is retailed a number of times, but without the author putting herself in a box. But what the complaint is mainly about is the imposition of vocabularies of a permitted set of moral positions, denying the particular forms of experience both of the poet and of Trinidad and distorting the actualities of her position in British society and in poetry. In “Five Measures of Expatriation” she distinguishes the four definitions to which she could be subjected: refugee, migrant, exile and expatriate, rejecting the first three as driven conditions of various kinds, fillings of vacuums, retention of unfulfillable long-distance home-longings. She is specifically “expatriate” rather than “immigrant”, a distinction has been ignored by some of the publicity and comment which insists on the “migrant experience”. This means she is at home in this place (with its wounds and longings and slights and injustices) and enabled here to reach for complex realities. Through her redoubled condition, at once belonging — here and belonging — elsewhere, she can exploit in her writing a cultural impurity which reaches towards a sense of the totality. She never “fled” and was never “drawn” — she created an equilibrium between two belongings. I don’t think she ever suggests that her origins were anything but an advantage to her in her writings; growing up in a multi-lingual household among different dialects and registers, learning to operate in a mixed culture and environment. Piano lessons with J.S.Bach and carrying flames in her hands at Indian ceremonies: manual versatility. As it is recounted in the texts it is a Trinidad she has had to create as her real Trinidad disappears into the distance, but clearly constructed out of unforgotten realities. It is a multiplied version of what any poet does with any concept of an original “home” and sometimes this is quite plainly worked out, as in the poem “In 2190 Albion’s Civil Conflicts Finally Divided Along Norman-saxon Lines” in which naturally she speaks as Norman, an expatriate—

Let’s start a conversation. Ask me where I’m from.
Where is home, really home. Where my parents were born.
What to do if I sound more like you than you do.
Every word an exhalation, a driving-out.

and very pointedly in “Kassandra #memoryandtrauma #livingilionstyle” which begins with ten lines in which an effete, urban voice puts Kassandra down as an irrelevant alien presence, not to be taken seriously… Lines 9 to 12 run:

K.’s voice flare victim to her high-explosive hair; her thoughts
dismissable; cuntly, if you’re a man; peripheral.

Take sixty second to re-read each of the lines above.
That took ten minutes: half as long as my death by stoning.

A refusal to see the foreigner as anything but an affront to native purity is suddenly switched to the same insistence, become murderous, towards the alien woman in a different but equally purist context.

IT IS THE prose to which we mainly turn to understand these aspects of her work. The prose is, as would be expected, more explicit than the poetry and the meeting contraries which characterise so much of her writing are manifested in a lot of thick description of experience in Trinidad and various parts of U.K., always with a wry sense of humour through the most disturbing episodes. Expatriation is illuminated and greatly elaborated as a personal condition, particularly her sense of independence from the condition of the immigrants, an uneasy sense of freedom from what threatens them on a daily basis. There are, in Measures of Expatriation and elsewhere, satirical sections which show clearly the irrelevance to her (and by implication to a member of any other displaced, foreign, post-colonial class of persons, considered as an individual). One of these is in the form of an interview to which she is subjected about the novelist V.S. Naipaul (a distant relative of hers) in which not only is it assumed that any Trinidadian person represents all other Trinidadian persons past and present, but she is bombarded with the whole book of approved moral questions, pro- or anti-, including feminism, pro-abortion, animal rights, vegetarianism, “Soviet connections”, nationalism… all irrelevant to Naipaul as a novelist or unanswerable because framed in ignorance of the Trinidadian or Indian cultural condition. She ends in desperation: “They would not let it go. We were well into the woods.” This is in the section of prose pieces “The Book of Dreams / Livre de Couchemars” the nightmares of which are mostly about fears of being depersonalised into a post-colonial specimen and being pushed into the narrow slots available for a poet of the approved kind, including pressures which must be accepted in order to survive. In the first piece (set in a dream country which is not England) she ends by acceding to the demands and ends—

I would live in the barracks. I would update the verse. I would make it relevant. I would employ dialects. Then I would use the verses as a basis of teaching. There were lambsfuls of students to be taught.

The word “lambsfuls” is a typical act of verbal transgression, here suddenly insinuated into a normal discourse.

41cm3vvEz6L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_SIMPLE COMPLEX SHAPES is a separate poem sequence which gives the impression of being more recent than Measures of Expatriation, though it was published a year earlier. It seems to refine her poetical techniques into a stark union of contraries, exactly as indicated in the title. It begins with this extraordinary little erotic poem:

enter me
e so.only.see.
up against my walls

Except that, of course, no, it’s not that, it’s the traditional prefatory poem, the book speaking to welcome the reader. A mere dusting of metaphor makes this evident — why didn’t we see it immediately? Of course it is both, (with the first option taking a slight lead) but the details leave a sense of unease about fixing it in any way at all. Quite apart from the unusual orthography, which can be read as dramatic, the very simplicity of the poem, which is retained through the slightly transgressive “scars” and “walls”, and its lyric tensity, serve to leave the poem open beyond either reading. No other specific application occurs to me but the poem still remains open, not to re-dramatising but to an abstract or poetical existence, to stand there as a thing. The lyrical phonetics themselves (such as the way the vowel of “me” dominates and then gives place to the vowel of “wall”, with overlapping at “dark” and “feels”) serve to create a self-standing balanced entity. None of this mitigates the original condition; in fact it is an objective distance achieved by concentrating on the experience itself until every word and every stop replicates it. The more strongly you represent the truth of the experience the more the poem reaches out into the world. It is absolutely simple and infinitely complex.

It is a ‘single work, a set or sequence passing through vocabularies of personal events and relationships while constantly begging an elsewhere’.

Simple Complex Shapes is a single work, a set or sequence passing through vocabularies of personal events and relationships while constantly begging an elsewhere. Terms and scenes of closeness phase into terms and scenes of conflict and departure, to end with terms and scenes of solitude. The terms are simple; they are reiterated and chanted obsessively because they are what happens or what hurts, and they are punned and echoed as if in an attempt to escape from them which only returns to the loss: “don’t let me go / don’t go / do / don’t let go”. The scenes are various and poignant, often a house probably in Trinidad, not always the same house. And there are leopardcats. The poems are not all short and inwardly tensed like the one quoted: there are longer, storytelling poems in simpler vocabulary which are true to the story without telling it; they enact the force of the story. Some are dream scenes then aren’t or maybe still are. Some appear to be forms of discussion with quite alarming diversions. A few are strange little diagrammatic constructs with words running vertically, jumping across the page and sometimes broken into single letters. Here are some leopardcats:

Rain is falling gently on a sloping roof.
How am I to stay awake?

Leopardcats petition for their morning meats,
piteous, round-mouthed.

Look for them till you no longer
look at them. Bright sky.

They could not make a home with you
nor wait at home for you;

always they go home in you,
every happy solitude.


Leopard cat. (Wiki)

THE WHOLE POEM displays lyrical calm as a technique for composing poems of entangling contraries, the kind of complexity-in-simplicity, uncertainty-in-certainty, panic-in-calm, which Vahno Capildeo so confidently handles. The leopard cat is a species of Asian small wild cat, only domesticated when cross-bred with another species, and I don’t think we are dealing with family pets here. The cats start real and end up as figures. The cats may stand for something. They are involved in terms of estrangement and domesticity familiar from other poems in the book. You seek them by not looking, they enter you as you go home. The last line is perhaps what they resolve into through the poem’s acts, and speaks of an acceptance of solitude which is probably the main subject-matter of the book. It reappears in various guises, and also extremely straightforwardly. And sometimes it inhabits her singing tone but may then slide abruptly from lament-like iteration and minimal vocabulary to a modernity characterised by bitterness-in-delight, plainchant sliding into modern clutter:

cold when you go into it
colder when you are gone from it
coldest from your being in it
this linen moon this upside bed
while the delicate pipeworked
gas tank stalls on the garage wall.

This sequence forms a link with “Inhuman Triumphs” by likewise stepping out of expressive language at the end, onto a block of words struck through and cancelled, and furthermore the same words, “love” and “moves”, leaving the single word “this” intact, as what is finally left us, surrounded by the unerasable ghosts of love and power.

Vahni Capildeo’s contrariety is an exemplary way of coping with a cultural condition which seeks to package and label experience according to unsubtle and restrictive categories. She simply says “Yes No” to it, and in the process, with the help of her multicultural resources, produces poems and prose of expansive eloquence and sometimes challenging complexity, which insist on the multi-form, Protean status of the lived realities, as well as the bare paradox-songs and stories of Simple Complex Shapes.

duenorth_covFortnightly ReviewsPeter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.

Peter Riley’s latest book is Due North (UK/US) (Shearsman, 2015). A collection of his “Poetry Notes’ columns appears in The Fortnightly Reviews: Poetry Notes 2012-2014, published in 2015 by Odd Volumes, our imprint.


  1. See my review here of Kei Miller and D.S.Marriott as Caribbean (or ancestrally Caribbean) poets who respectively do not, and do, approximate to the expectations of identity politics in poetry. They are both fine poets but this divergence produces two very different kinds of writing, roughly identified as “optimist” and “pessimist”.
  2. From a satirical interview text with a character called “FESTIVAL!” in PN Review no.225, 2015. Capildeo has had a regular column in the “reports” section of PN Review since issue no.210, 2013. These are very helpful in defining her poetic beliefs and practices, and include several brightly satirical texts concerned with the demands of the poetical bureaucracy. All self-comment quoted in this review is from this source unless otherwise noted.
  3. I suppose gracias would become a false friend if it were confused with gracious, but I don’t know how this could happen to Verfremdung.
  4. From the broadcast referred to above, and issues 215 and 221 of PN Review.
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