You Are Involved: Vahni Capildeo and Martin Carter

Some disclosures: Capildeo is a friend and fellow Edinburgher. They provided digital copies of their collections Undraining Sea (2009) and Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012), which are no longer in print. Copy of Carter’s University of Hunger loaned from the Scottish Poetry Library. As ever, it’s worth noting that I am a white cis male writer based in Scotland, and there are significant gaps in my knowledge and understanding of Caribbean and diasporic literature and history, and of the gendered violence described in Capildeo’s work. Hugely grateful, as ever, to Muireann Crowley, for substantial structural edits. This is a long read (7.5k words), so if you’d prefer to read as a pdf, you can download one here.

 

‘Nicholas Laughlin: Do you think of yourself as a Caribbean writer?

Vahni Capildeo: I think that’s a political and not a literary question.

N.L.: It’s a political question that intersects with the literary. But answer it as a political question.

V.C.: I’ll try to answer in terms of the literary imagination.’

— Nicholas Laughlin, interview, “The Liberty of the Imagination”, MaComère 13 (2011-2).

 

Vahni Capildeo has published seven full collections and five pamphlets since 2003, with a notable spike in critical attention around their fifth book, Measures of Expatriation (2016), which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1973, they moved to Oxford in 1991, and are now resident in Edinburgh, self-defined Trinidadian-Scottish. In this interview with Nicholas Laughlin, editor of the Caribbean Review of Books, Capildeo identifies and rejects the terms by which Laughlin attempts to place their writing, arguing against a system in which ‘Caribbean writers’ are bound imaginatively either to the demands of the academy – ‘pressured unconsciously to write poems that can be “analysed” in class’ – or the publishing industry, in which ‘any environment in which a Caribbean writer tries to speak […] is a trapped environment’. The benefits of ‘belonging’ under such conditions, Capildeo argues, are worth less than the ‘liberty of the imagination’ that comes from being unbeholden to institutional structures. Freedom does not infer isolation, however; as Capildeo’s career has progressed, the extent to which their poetry is fired by the work of other artists has only intensified, with Skin Can Hold (2019) almost entirely comprised of collaborations with or direct addresses to other writers.

Martin Carter, Guyanese poet and socialist revolutionary, was born in 1927 and passed away in 1997. The reverence with which he is held by generations of poets from the Caribbean is as remarkable as his relative obscurity on this side of the ocean. (Or, more accurately, in these islands: as Niyi Osundare writes, Carter’s poetry ‘made a thunderous entry’ into progressive circles in post-independence Nigeria.) In an essay in All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, George Lamming argues:

‘[Carter] is unlike all the other Caribbean writers who have had their reputations made outside the region. […] Carter is one of the few, if not the only one, whose reputation was made inside the region and validated inside it, that did not require external validation.’

Carter refused to attend university in England like his older brothers, committing to work and organise politically in Guyana. A founding member of the socialist and anti-colonial People’s Progressive Party, he was arrested without charge and detained on an American air force base in 1953. From prison, Carter wrote and smuggled out the poem ‘University of Hunger’; its refrain, ‘O long is the march of men and long is the life / And wide is the span’, according to Capildeo, is iconic among his Caribbean readership. As Gemma Robinson explains in her introduction to Carter’s University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose (2006), his work is ‘a poetry of involvement, a poetry that helped shape the political and cultural parameters of Guyana’.

Capildeo’s overt engagement with Carter’s work is extensive. In 2004, they wrote an unpublished memoir under the title One Scattered Skeleton, a phrase drawn from Carter’s poem ‘Till I Collect’; perhaps an ironic gesture, given the poem’s warning not to ‘plunge too far’ into the waters of (personal) history. In an extract published in African Writing, Capildeo describes how Carter’s work provided an anchor for their family during a coup in Port of Spain in the summer of 1990, when broadcasting and supply lines were temporarily severed. In a review of University of Hunger in 2006, they describe those events in further detail:

‘heavily shod feet thudding up and down the street and gunfire from the hills, and the conversation during that breakfast time, the voice of a scientist reciting poetry enough to get us through the day — poetry he had by heart: Martin Carter’s.’

‘Till I Collect’ would provide an epigraph to Capildeo’s 2012 collection, Dark and Unaccustomed Words. Utter (2013) is dedicated to Carter in memoriam; the title may partly emerge from his posthumously published sequence, Suite of Five Poems (2000): ‘I will still be speaking with you, in / words that are not uttered, are never uttered’. Between 2014-16, Capildeo composed a dramatic performance as part of their Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship, a series of ‘Syntax Poems’ for multiple voices, under the title ‘Astronomer of Freedom’: the piece attempts to inhabit Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’ in Skin Can Hold (2019), a collection which also features an epigraph from Carter’s ‘This Is the Dark Time, My Love’.

In Capildeo’s review of University of Hunger, they quote from Guyanese poet Fred D’Aguiar’s elegy, ‘In Memory of Martin Carter’:

‘Traffic begins —
One giant bee. The morning, a rose,
Opens; Martin in everything.’

I did not set out to write an essay about Martin Carter; I set out to write an essay about Vahni Capildeo. In the course of my reading, however, it seemed I could not do one without the other. Of all the artists and writers and characters that populate Capildeo’s work, Carter appeared repeatedly, a benign presence, a touchstone. He seems to symbolise much of what Capildeo considers worth exploring via their art, of possible worlds and the poet’s duty to imagine them. To look over a few poems by Carter which seem to resonate most profoundly in Capildeo’s work – ‘You Are Involved’, ‘Till I Collect’, and ‘I Am No Soldier’ – is to illuminate how fundamental to each poet’s oeuvre are gestures of refusal, negations which enable new possibilities:

‘This I have learnt:
today a speck
tomorrow a hero
hero or monster
you are consumed!

Like a jig
shakes the loom.
Like a web
is spun the pattern
all are involved!
all are consumed!’  – ‘You Are Involved’ (1951)

‘His net of twine will strain the liquid billow
and take the silver fishes from the deep.
But my own hand I dare not plunge too far
lest only sand and shells I bring to air
lest only bones I resurrect to light.’ – ‘Till I Collect’ (1954)

‘I am no soldier with a cold gun on my shoulder
no hunter of men, no human dog of death.
I am my poem, I come to you in particular gladness
In this hopeful dawn of earth I rise with you dear friend.’ – ‘I Am No Soldier’ (1954)

In three deeply divergent moods, Carter makes space for his imaginative and political stances by refusing simpler, easier or more commonplace responses. As Capildeo notes in their review:

‘from every imaginable and unimaginable place, and from under the shining governments of the damned … In the most fiery or brilliant of Carter’s poems he nonetheless seems to see by a kind of dark and inward light.’

That ‘dark and inward light’ encapsulates much of what makes Carter’s work still feel so contemporary, almost seven decades later.

For the purposes of this essay, and going somewhat against Capildeo’s own conception of Carter’s poetry as a complex unity, I’ve arranged my readings into three (broad) sections: poems of the parabolic or spiritual world, in which the paranormal is normal; poems of the mind, in which consciousness self-reflects; and poems of the world, in which physical and political bodies interact. In reality, as Capildeo continuously proves, these categories are porous and arbitrary; the ecstatic pronouncements of Carter’s work are just as involved in his ‘dark and inward light’ as his pensive, precise introspections. One creates categories as starting points, and hopes the journey justifies their bluntness.

 

*             *             *

I. Spirit

In their essay on University of Hunger (2006), Capildeo describes how, when read as a totality, it becomes clear how fundamental to Martin Carter’s oeuvre is ‘cross-referencing ideas, images, rhythms, and phrases, until they became preoccupations, counterpoints, a universe of locutions’. Capildeo even cites a series of page references, which ‘the reader interested in literary-critical riddles may pursue’. I did pursue, and the recurrent image they provide is Carter’s protagonist connecting to, perhaps communing with, the past, either through invoking spiritual presences or by a metaphysical connection to the landscape:

‘That night when I left you on the bridge
I bent down
Kneeling on my knee
and pressed my ear to listen to the land.’              (‘Listening to the Land’, 1951)

‘In the burnt earth of these years
I dip my hand, I dip my hand:
I plunge it in the furies of this world.’                      (‘O Human Guide’, 1952)

‘And that strange dissolution of shape into spirit
was traced from a snail and was found in a word:
O flower of fire in a wide vase of air
Come back, come back to the house of the world.’            (‘Voices’, 1977)

Like Carter, Capildeo is uncommonly attuned to the absurdity which constitutes the mundane, the often shockingly banal violence of being alive. In both poets’ work, the grossly physical domain exists alongside an immanent spiritual one, accessible in moments of visionary and/or poetic revelation. A key poem in Undraining Sea (2009) is ‘Disappearing People’. It begins:

‘When he saw her walking
he knelt down to the pavement
and bending, with his nails and fists
tugged at a stone the shape of a fish
so she could step smoothly;
and she did, without looking.’

The kneeling figure with his hands in the earth feels distinctly Carterian, and prepares the way, however esoterically, for a figure we might read as an echo of the poet, who appears to be on a long journey without a clear destination. The first obstacle the walker meets, meanwhile, is a locked gate to a garden in a land where ‘people fall into action, / play a violent rumour’. When the lock proves intractable, she shouts:

I am missing a layer.
You know how it has gone.
Where is the skin that pasted my bones?

An unidentified ‘it’ responds, emerging perhaps from unfinished sculptures, ‘half-made in marble’:

You get too far into your work,
then turn around with a tragic look
to see who still loves you.
You should try being lonely.

The voice seems to turn the poem’s mythic tone into something more personal and specific; given that ‘your work’ may refer to the text we are currently reading, the poem might be deliberately deflating its own conceits to permit this moment of self-criticism. The passage closes with a depiction of lights in dark water – ‘night-lights of apartments […] draw black water / into amber reflection’ – seem to echo the opening to Carter’s ‘Till I Collect’:

‘Over the shining mud the moon is blood
falling on ocean at the fence of lights.’

‘Disappearing People’ shares Carter’s ruminations on ancestry and origin, but Capildeo is keenly aware of the difficulty in forging an uncomplicated continuity between their Caribbean past and English present (in which the poem’s central figure is robbed, harassed and aggressively othered). A complex metaphor appears at the poem’s narrative climax:

‘He is like a grotto
built from imported coral.
The blocks look porous. They are rough.
Animal-ocean stuff too close up
yields notions, not natures,
being dragged from lost totals.’

The ‘imported coral’ might read as a spiritually and ecologically fruitful space transported far from its roots, as, maybe, Carter’s poetry might feel in the streets and halls of Cambridge. The poem seems to warn against an over-prescriptive reading in its suggestion that presumptuous ‘notions’ might impose themselves over the ‘natures’ of what is truly there; ‘Disappearing People’ seems to suggest that falsified (or ‘imported’), clarity is a far greater failure than honest confusion. The poem’s conclusion is aptly conflicted, refusing, or unable, to look even tentatively into the future:

‘If she tries re-creating
some past and some present,
it is a form of gratitude,
shaken out from the aptitude
for joy: […]
A future – that’s not in their gift:
infinites more of work than faith,
time grown inconsequential,
a sense of consequences.’

The chiasmic last couplet, and the sinister connotations of ‘consequences’, shine light on the poem’s feeling of tension between an imagined past and how it informs a desired future. If the poem is haunted by the past, its ghosts are often reassuring; if it has reconciled itself to the utilitarianism of its present, it comes with a deeply unpleasant feeling of being instrumentalised:

‘She is like a knife blade
that has been too much sharpened: […]
so apt for use, so used to be keen –
it can no longer cut
without risk of breaking.’

‘Home’ in Capildeo’s work is a fraught concept, to say the least, as much a philosophical ideal as a physical reality. Capildeo has written of Carter’s rendering of Georgetown, Guyana, as conveying a ‘reverse poetic effect’, as elements of his work which might sound metaphorical, as in ‘Freedom is a white road with green grass like love’ (‘The Kind Eagle’, 1952), refer to real conditions in Carter’s home city. In Capildeo’s poetry, an inverse process seems closer to the truth: by converting reality into language, they create a metaphorical domain which the poet may, however briefly, call home.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that poems which handle such ideas are so often haunted, accompanied with disembodied voices, as in ‘Disappearing People’, or ‘About the Shape of Things’ in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012). The latter opens with a recurring character in Capildeo’s work: a domineering figure who demands that the world abide by categories recognisable to hegemonic power. The figure demands: ‘Help me cut the world up / into paper shapes! / Then I’ll know I see it.’ A ghostly, plural voice responds:

‘Nameless Bones Nameless Bones below oceans
Nameless Bones we name them. That’s all the names
we have for you. […] Not for:
Display. Arraignment. Arrangement. We’re done.’

The poem shares certain affinities with M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008), a book-length poem concerning the crew and enslaved people on board the eponymous ship, including the 150 people who were murdered for insurance money during its voyage in 1781. In an essay at the end of Zong!, Philip argues that the poem disrupted ‘the eye trying to order what cannot be ordered’, to ‘create semantic mayhem’ in a story which Philip believes cannot or should not be told. Both poets explicitly raise the moral quandary of giving voice to and making art from people whose humanity and agency have been erased multiple times over. Capildeo’s lines in ‘About the Shape of Things’ also echo Carter’s ‘Listening to the Land’ (1951), another poem haunted by the transatlantic slave trade:

‘and I bent down
listening to the land
but all I heard was tongueless whispering’

Capildeo’s speaker, meanwhile, discusses how:

‘this morality of nameless bones
begins to stir in me against my will
to help […]
against my will to help the namer. […]

“Does it need signalling,
the central secret of each thing?”’

At the close of a deeply emotionally charged poem, Capildeo interrupts the original speaker, the ‘namer’, with a familiar voice, a familiar poem:

‘Guyana’s poet,
Martin Carter, said it:
Till I collect my scattered skeleton…

Deploying Carter here, as a bulwark against unsettling the nameless dead, artfully combines the individual’s wish to acknowledge and respect their links to colonial history, and to defend those histories from careless attempts to ‘cut the world up / into paper shapes’, to render complex interrelationships into (literary) playthings. They remain a phenomenon that refuses to be ‘displayed’ or ‘arraigned’, but equally refuses to disappear; as Carter has it, if they speak, they do so on their own terms, in ‘tongueless whispering’.

Throughout Capildeo’s work, the world of the spirit goes cheek-by-jowl with the mundane. As early as their first collection, No Traveller Returns (2003), is the poem ‘White as Jasmine’, which plays this dynamic somewhat ironically: the poem wryly indulgences a superstition, that a distant death in the family is accompanied by a ‘sweet smell’, only for the speaker to experience the same phenomenon on the other side of the ocean. You might forget the spirits, but they will not forget you.

 

*             *             *

II. Mind

If one can conceive of the world not as neatly divided between the living and the dead but on a fluid continuum, Capildeo’s explorations of atypical consciousnesses (whether human, animal or, occasionally, monstrous) should be a breeze. They share with the poems’ spiritual presences an assertive idiosyncrasy that does not require, and often actively refuses, taxonomizing. No Traveller Returns (2003), for example, is organised around a long central sequence, ‘Monster Scrapbook’, a series of texts curated by the mysterious scholar, ‘H.’, with the intention of advising a mysterious ‘Society’ how best to understand, systematize and tame Monstrous beings. ‘H.’, however, cannot quite be dismissed as a misguided patrician:

‘It is a feature of the Monster mind that the most abrupt transitions and the unlikeliest effusions are believed by the Monster to connect […] Monsters want logic, therefore everything they speak is a kind of poem’

These statements form a passable critical reading of Capildeo’s poetry; very few critics leave questions of their ‘difficulty’ undiscussed. A reader inclined to interpret ‘Monster Scrapbook’ as the poet’s perambulation of their own psyche, this introduction suggests, is missing the point: we should be careful not to participate in this (often violent) disconnect between how the Monster understands themselves and how they are understood. ‘The Monstrous Task’, for example, is a precise unpicking of common social responses when confronted by Monsters:

‘Monsters are nervous because they are much fallen in love with. People who work fall in love with them, and explain to the Monsters that they must be fitted in. […] This is not because of low self-esteem or poor self-image. Monsters protest. They repudiate the language of damage and repair.’

This early passage establishes some of the sequence’s fundamental principles, ones that resonate throughout Capildeo’s oeuvre: the language used to name individuals and their ways of being does not always align with their experiences. Moreover, this language often facilitates forms of social alienation or control, in which uncommon modes of consciousness are falsely considered unnatural. The poem implies that ‘being fallen in love with’, for example, has less to do with ‘love’ than with another’s desire to ‘correct’ a not-quite-human they perceive as ‘damaged’. Later, in a poem titled ‘Monster Hunting’, the speaker explains:

‘Attracted by the seeming power and completeness of the Monster, the natural predator of the Monster will be driven by a resentful wish for mastery. […] the true hunter will use himself (herself) as the means of punishment’

The clinical clarity of expression here is truly painful. Among many such accounts, silence and solitude seem infused with a powerful and restorative energy. In ‘Lux Æterna Et Perpetua’, an empty house is ‘alive with that live quietness’ of ‘places which are largely inhabited by a form of active emptiness’, where ‘Poetry is spoken in the silence of the live house at night’, a place where the ‘Monster’ may dream in peace.

Both Capildeo and Carter render sleep and dream as productive spaces of retreat, the ‘active emptiness’ of a private space that cannot be breached. Also in both poets’ work, however, is a sense of the precarity in such spaces, and their echoes, particularly for Carter, of death and the erasure of selfhood. In Carter’s work in the 1950s, under constant surveillance and repeated incarceration, dream is repeatedly rendered as one side of a coin whose opposite is death:

‘the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.’ (‘I Am No Soldier’)

‘The slave staggers and falls
his face is on the earth
his dream is silent’ (‘Death of a Slave’)

‘Mine was a pattern woven by a slave
Dull as a dream encompassed in a tomb’ (‘Not Hands Like Mine’)

‘It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.’ (‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, all 1954)

There are many other examples. Dreaming is consistently an active, almost practical force, one specifically targeted by ‘the man of death’: to deny a person’s capacity to dream is death by another name. A poem late on in Capildeo’s Utter (2013), ‘In a Dream’, begins with lines in a small typeface, which would normally suggest an epigraph, but if the text originates elsewhere, I could not find it:

‘In what dream did I begin with you? […]
this spit of narrow land is thrown
open between law and access,
the savage deliveries of sea.’

‘Delivery’ may connote commerce or religious salvation, both meanings ghosted by colonial overtones, given how the land is manipulated for the benefit of ‘law and access’ and the heavily pejorative ‘savage’; Carter’s revolutionary Guyana may not be far beneath the surface. The poem proper, meanwhile, begins:

‘One day I’ll sleep            and that will be for a long time
and while I’m in a dream              all will have dream status’

The poem’s initial simplicity allows it to introduce some far-reaching terms of play. One gets the impression that ‘a long time’ is a great deal more than eight hours, and the implications of ‘dream status’ feel as destabilising as freeing. Another ‘you’ is incorporated into its narrative:

‘and while all’s scheduled for dream        it will not matter
on the day of the longest dream         that you are part
in the dreaming                picking up where earlier glimpses
slipped painful perfections into which feet of sleep
walked and as they walked         meadows began outspreading
slides of sleepscape        fourdimensional eyes of sleep’

Though the topography of dream consists of unsettling details like ‘fourdimensional eyes’, the poem’s insistent, lulling rhythms, the soft texture of ‘sleepscape’, feel like a lullaby, ‘the day of the longest dream’ like an element in a fairy-tale. The poem feels forgiving, comforting, perhaps healing, but fixed in the fictional. At the midway point, the poem turns:

‘Spirited away
I’ll recall this sleep: reality. Like no dream
the years’ complicated origami of hurt
in a dream          falling away        a puckered swan’s fell’

Consulting the OED, where Capildeo worked prior to the writing of Utter, shows ‘fell’ to mean, alongside its amendment of ‘falling away’, an archaic term for an animal’s hide, or an ill omen. The logical relationship of the poem’s elements is secondary to its associative possibilities: the poem does not permit recalling a dream as ‘reality’ and assigning it to the ‘falling away’ of pain without complicating its terms. Unusually in Capildeo’s work, ‘In a Dream’ permits what sounds a lot like a hopeful vision or prophecy:

‘One day of sleep the longest sleep and in a dream
so much will be suddenly unnecessary
shoes    when we’re entering an ocean   obvious
for what has been obvious           our long-unseen dream’

Alongside its more obvious meaning, ‘obvious’ derives etymologically from Latin, ob viam, ‘in/on the way’. The lines might assert that what feels familiar need not be inevitable. This closing passage also seems to associate immersing oneself in sleep and immersing oneself in the ocean, ritualised acts which enable cleansing, restoration of clarity, which allow the ‘obvious’, ‘long-unseen’ dream to manifest. Casting off one’s shoes and entering the ocean, of course, has disquieting notes of self-destruction: the poem seems to share Carter’s fear to ‘plunge too far […] lest only bones I resurrect to light’ in ‘Till I Collect’, with its metaphorical network of the sea, the subconscious, and the double-edge of ‘resurrection’.

Visionary narrative and trauma are both to the fore in Measures of Expatriation (2016), a collection keenly aware of how powerful individuals and institutions discredit what does not conform to conventional narratives. ‘Kassandra #memoryandtrauma #livingilionstyle’ is a painful, intimate account, in the voice of the prophet of the Iliad, of how the lived experience of abuse and the demands of the justice system are fundamentally incompatible. In an interview with the Scottish Poetry Library, Capildeo argues that this is both an unwillingness and a learned inability to hear what is being testified:

‘If [survivors of sexual assault] don’t present a sort of linear narrative, they often get punished, because the amount of violence and fragmentation they convey is something that doesn’t fit in people’s idea of a fluent witness’

‘Kassandra’ frames this experience in one of the book’s most frank extended metaphors:

‘As people encouraged by helpful foreigners to cross
a minefield may smile, stretchered, blinded or their legs blown off,
so each of my memories, a living and willing witness,
gets up to walk to you, to tell my story, but doesn’t
make it.’

The poem feels like a direct relative of ‘Monster Scrapbook’ (2003) in its identification of the obstacles between the speaker and their access to safety and understanding. Though it valorises prophetic and fragmentary narratives, ‘Kassandra’ itself is unlike many of the shorter poems in Measures of Expatriation in its formal linearity, its direct, comprehensible argument, and its compact palette of metaphor. The disjuncture between the formal content of the poem and the poetic forms it clearly holds in high regard feels like another source of pain. ‘Kassandra’ ends by stating plainly the cost she must pay to be heard:

‘If you want it
to add up, why give me the gift of prophecy? I split,
spill truth like marrow from bones, gleaming on stone-strewn ground.’

It is perhaps unsurprising to find at the poem’s emotional peak the Carterian image of bones imbued with the power of speech, the capacity for telling truth inextricable from the speaker’s death. A powerful relative to this meditation on language and belonging is ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, one of the most frequently quoted passages in the collection:

‘Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. […] 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.’

It’s hard to miss the tones of hopeful admiration in the vision of Jörmungandr rendering all borders meaningless, of ushering in a world defined by fluidity, a society more faithful to the truth of one’s own witnessing. As in Carter’s work, this moment of dream coming to fruition is marked by a vast broadening of perspective, with an image as apt for chaos and destruction as for renewal, as in the ‘jig [which] shakes the loom’ in ‘You Are Involved’, or the dark, memorial waters of ‘Till I Collect’. The relationship between language and the truth is one of the strongest throughlines in Measures of Expatriation, and it’s striking how the book makes space for both the monstrous optimism of ‘Five Measures’ and the bleakness of ‘Kassandra’. If there is hope in either poem, it is in the dissolution of structures, the idea that, as ‘Five Measures’ suggests: ‘thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound’. If language is home, however, then ‘home’ may be something the wakeful, logical, linear world cannot abide.

 

*             *             *

III. Body

Capildeo’s most stridently visionary poems remain keenly aware of the ‘man of death […] aiming at your dream’, as in Carter’s ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’, not only as a metaphor but as a material condition. In an insightful review of Utter (2013) for the Caribbean Review of Books, Vivek Narayanan considered the collection Capildeo’s most sustained political engagement to date, reading the poem ‘A World’ as a meeting-point of Capildeo’s social critique and Carter’s empowering presence as a forerunner. The poem revolves around an ‘iron-suited man’, who Narayanan interprets as the ‘kind of elected official […] who has so often meant bad news for the postcolonial world’. Narayanan cites Carter here, connecting ‘A World’ to his lines ‘Men murder men, as men must murder men, / to build their shining governments of the damned.’, from ‘After One Year’ (1964), a poem of disillusion at the Guyanese post-revolutionary movement. For such a short poem, ‘A World’ features an unusual number of hands:

‘In which the hands of people changed to things like flowers […]

by which that iron-suited man, foolish and careful,
negotiates crowds, his two wrists bearing red hibiscus […]

How approach the cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts?
How approach the man whose sand crab hands try running askew?

Ah whose iced hands disappear, condense, remade droplets…
instant, lasting blister-silk, should he once touch a heart:’

The poem closes on this last couplet, its ellipsis looking toward a line that will not, or has not yet, come to pass; an unusually lyrical gesture for social commentary, as Narayanan suggests. Where ‘people’s’ hands might turn to ‘things like flowers’, the man’s are sand crabs, cockroach-gripped and iced. If the poem establishes a nature-good/manufacture-bad dichotomy, the man’s hands are not entirely condemned, given that cockroaches and crabs are still living beings, however unpleasant they might appear. Capildeo clearly relishes the chance to turn their linguistic flair to political sketch-work – ‘cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts’ is a delight to vocalise – but keeps their analysis in active tension by refusing a definitive answer: the possibility of constant remaking keeps the poem’s hope alive.

Trading the Caribbean for the home counties, among the smaller lyric pieces of Measures of Expatriation (2016) is ‘Snake in the Grass’, an exploration of historical violence and contemporary revisionism in the City of Oxford. The poem critiques the ‘diversion and cover’ of the buried past by the official renaming of streets and literal paving over of past atrocities. Its speaking voice is surreal, chaotically energetic, and confronts the City directly with its own historical wrongdoing:

‘Under Christ Church tower,
under kings of new history,
the Jewish town lies in pre-Expulsion sleep;
under that again, nameless bones.

King Edward I signed the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, compelling all Jewish people in England to migrate, convert, or die. ‘Nameless bones’ have appeared in Capildeo’s work previously, in ‘The Shape of Things’ in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (2012); here, the phrase appears as a much gentler reminder that it is not only in the Caribbean that British imperial violence has left a deep, repressed scar. Carter’s ‘Till I Collect’ is also quietly present in the sequence that follows, in the repeated ‘till’ that begins successive lines:

‘Do not shun me. I am not sleeping.
Glass is the least security. My kind’s for re-use,
willing to coil cold in the earth
till each deadly resurrection through your changes of nation,
till your kind hand comes and the smith repairs us.’

Carter’s hand dipping into ‘the burnt earth of these years’ in ‘O Human Guide’ (1952) seems woven into the unsettling resurrections of ‘Till I Collect’. The nameless ‘smith’, and the provenance of ‘your kind hand’ feel uncannily familiar to the speaker and unknown to the reader, compounding the helpless feeling ‘Snake in the Grass’ engenders, of being swept away in a nightmare; it’s hard to read that ‘repair’ straight. It’s worth bearing in mind that the poem is dedicated to Alaric Hall, a medievalist whose first monograph concerned Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, when reading the poem’s conclusion:

‘Forget your wife, if you still have one.
The two of us decide who’s for taking.
Bring me to your son, blossoming in his cradle.
Introduce us. I have a name.
Man, join us together. There’s wisdom in my core.’

Hall’s book examines how elves were useful scapegoats for many social and personal ailments, a means of reinforcing group identity in pre-Christian Britain through their mutable other-ness, their capacity for inhabiting several subject positions simultaneously or interchangeably. Perhaps most significantly here, they are not explicitly inclined toward good or evil; the passage above is deftly poised between chaos and renewal, the bringing to light of a painful truth which may still result in the child’s continued ‘blossoming’. Through the ‘nameless bones’ beneath the city, the expelled Jewish people are connected to colonial violence in the Caribbean, as the poem recognises that population control by the English crown has an extremely long history. If the poem’s speaker is one of Hall’s elves, they are a transgressive figure who very literally brings the nation’s buried history home to roost. As Sandeep Parmar argues in her review in The Guardian, Measures of Expatriation challenges not only the violence inherent to borders, governments and social control, but demonstrates the fragility of their ontological foundations.

After a collection so preoccupied with the structures that organise and control human society, it’s perhaps not surprising to find ourselves, in Venus as a Bear (2018), with our ears to the ground. Venus as a Bear is nature writing that disrupts the generic convention of human subjectivity as the central organising force, and invests the animate and inanimate alike with agency. This produces what might be described as Capildeo’s homeliest book: though poems of historical anger and existential loneliness are still present, there is an unusual density of pieces that provide a place for comfort or rest. Given the poet’s sensitivity to the repetition and evolution of images, compare the imaginary sheep that populate ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’ in Measures of Expatriation:

‘friend sheep, if i stretched wide enough
i could give birth to a child like you:
a round-eyed barrier against normality’

‘everywhere I carry a sheep across my shoulders, wide peasant stride’

‘‘Sainte mouton’?
‘Sureté mouton’?
‘Secrèt mouton’?’

With the real, flesh and bone sheep in the opening poem of Venus as a Bear, ‘Welcome’:

‘Early lambs    born some hours ago […]
succeed in standing
funny fuzzy     valuable wedges
cave painting      hand-smoothed treasures […]
a hybrid flock    individual faces
strength in the legs     warmth in the shed’

Where the lines of ‘Insomnia Drawings’ are surreal, dream-logical and unpredictable, the caesurae of ‘Welcome’ create an inhale-exhale rhythm that feels lulling and reassuring, narrowing the poem’s field of vision. The terms on which the poem welcomes the lambs into the world, and the reader into the book, are remarkably uncomplicated: it’s good when newborns are strong and warm! Even with Capildeo’s more characteristic breaks into sound-sense (‘funny fuzzy’) and associative leaps (‘cave painting      hand-smoothed treasures’), the connections are lucid, as the speaker’s presence among new life connects them to cycles as old as animal husbandry and the first works of art.

In their review of Carter’s University of Hunger (2006), Capildeo takes time to investigate the editor Gemma Robinson’s extensive footnoting, particularly the explanation of Carter’s image of freedom, ‘a white road with green grass like love’ (‘The Kind Eagle’). An ostensible lyric flourish is elucidated by the editor’s note that the roads of Georgetown were literally white, paved with marl; Capildeo describes this as ‘a reverse poetic effect’, as metaphor becomes reality:

‘[Carter] travelled particular roads time and again and made poetry that could be felt by readers who had travelled other, very different roads […] we stand for a moment in the ghost of Carter’s footprints and feel that the roads of Guyana, whatever they are paved with now, have been — are — worthy of poetry, worthy of attention.’

In the short sequence, ‘Inishbofin’, the speaker also walks a white road ‘with stone and clover edges’, which the poem describes as:

‘A looked-for line between wet sky and water […]
How have I been so stupid and not known this?
Heaven most probably is underwater,
Sounding with ease, increasing pressure on us.’

The poem’s third section, meanwhile, begins:

‘The road goes two ways: right and left,
obvious, the bright white dust;
sure as last year and yesterday,
the harbour where friends disembark
without confusion for the climb
towards the hall on the small hill.
Nothing is interchangeable’

The relative lack of either grammatical artfulness or physical drama is rare in Capildeo’s work, and a poem like the first section, in which all lines begin with capital letters and a concept as huge as ‘Heaven’ is handled so lightly, might be unique. The poem holds its subjects with reverence, as much for the place that gathers people together as for the people who gather – three of the four sections are dedicated to writers at the 2015 Inish Festival: Rebecca Barr, Deirdre Ní Chonghaile and Bernard O’Donoghue – set specifically on a road with ‘bright white dust’ lined by green clover. The visual echo of Carter’s Georgetown, and the blending of time in ‘last year and yesterday’ (cf ‘one minute and one hour and one year’ from Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’), allows the west of Ireland and the capital of Guyana to share an imaginative space; the poem carries Carter’s understanding of home as un-interchangeable, and Capildeo’s more complex patterning of homes and homeliness. The fourth and final section is tiny, and binds together some very powerful symbols in Capildeo’s oeuvre. The section in its entirety:

‘sea for a bit
lovingly lifting it off
this felted skin
this roof needing resurfaced’

Not only time but human subjectivity shucks off its boundaries: the poet is the building is the human touch is the sea.

In an interview with Sarala Estruch, Capildeo argues that Venus as a Bear is more ‘being’ than ‘doing’, less interested in argument than their previous collection. Measures of Expatriation is an extraordinary achievement, in its ambition, its complication and its refusal to make itself smaller, more easily digested. Here, the poet seems to be recalibrating, finding new ways of challenging imaginative boundaries where Measures confronted the physical.

 

*             *             *

IV: Astronomer of Freedom

Capildeo’s most recent collection, Skin Can Hold (2019), is prefaced by Martin Carter’s poem ‘This Is the Dark Time My Love’:

‘Who comes walking in the dark night time?
Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?
It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader
watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.’

Remembering the singular white roads of Georgetown and Inishbofin, what might initially strike a reader as metaphorical was altogether more real for Carter; University of Hunger cites Phyllis Carter’s belief that it was one of the poems smuggled out of her husband’s prison cell in 1953. Earlier in the same poem are the lines:

‘It is the season of oppression, dark metal, and tears.
It is the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.’

If Skin Can Hold can be summarised in a single opposition, it’s the festival in the guns, the carnival in the misery; the phrase ‘strange invader’ recurs in ‘Midnight Robber Monologue’, a speech for the eponymous Carnival character, an agent of chaos, death, and poetry. Skin Can Hold is unusual in Capildeo’s work for the ways in which it explicitly reaches beyond the printed page, into dramatic monologues, public performances, political activism and, perhaps most pertinently for their oeuvre, collaboration with other artists. Carter has been an active presence in their work from the outset, as an exemplar of how the fantastic blends with the mundane, how a profound dreamlife may remain rooted in its political responsibilities. In Skin Can Hold, it feels like Carter is as much a model for the artist-in-community as for a private creative practice.

At the heart of the collection is ‘Astronomer of Freedom’, a lyric-dramatic exploration of Martin Carter’s iconic revolutionary poem, ‘I Am No Soldier’. What makes the Syntax Poems difficult to critique is that they are bookended by the poet’s own critical prose, offering the reader a way into and out of the text, including a reproduction of Carter’s original. Capildeo states their intentions clearly:

‘We [Capildeo and their collaborators] hoped to make the text inhabit areas of life and styles of being human and verbal that make sense in the world of ‘I Am No Soldier’, but which would be invisibilized in a lectern reading to the seated bodies of listeners.

[…]

Their intended effect arrives if words jump and jumble on the page in a way that informs the performance, and if the audience does not feel they have listened to ‘readers of poetry’, but rather participated in a sense of call and response, cry and chorus, intimate camaraderie.’

The text itself feels like an explosion in progress, as if the potentialities already seeded in Carter’s work, particularly its conflations of time and space, are being played out to their fullest, as the poem’s own grammatical references blur and overlap:

‘there are galaxies of happiness
(in darkness)
(in my hand’s revolving wheel)
(in my breast)
(in my breast and in my head)
(and in my head and in my dream)
(and in my dream and in my furious blood)

wherever            (wherever he may fall)’

What is implicit in Carter’s poem, in a line like ‘one minute and one hour and one year’, or in the grammatical fluidity of ‘Cold rain is mist! is air, is all my breath!’, is taken as permission for further play, to create a discrete world within the materials Carter offers. Here are the final lines of Carter’s ‘I Am No Soldier’:

‘The glittering seeds that germinate in darkness
And the planet in my hand’s revolving wheel
and the planet in my breast and in my head
and in my dream and in my furious blood.
Let me rise up wherever he may fall
I am no soldier hunting in a jungle
I am this poem like a sacrifice.’

And those of the syntax poems:

‘I had seen / the glittering
darkness / And the planet
wheel / and the planet
head / and in
blood. / Let
fall / I am
a jungle / I am
sacrifice. //’

The syntax poems are explicitly collaborative, and there are notes in this short passage which don’t harmonise with much of Capildeo’s work; it’s possible to feel how the process of close reading that informed the syntax poems makes space within the source text for new aesthetics. The essay after these lines is explicitly presented as a ‘how-to’ guide, examining the salient rhetorical constructions in ‘I Am No Soldier’ that provide a grounding for the syntax poems. In Capildeo’s own words:

‘These materials are primarily an encouragement to readers to prepare their own kinetic, immersive, or collaborative responses (should they so wish) to any text of their choice.’

It feels appropriate that Carter’s work should be the case study for such a generous, many-minded attitude towards the assumed boundaries of poetic composition. Capildeo describes Carter’s work as ‘still carrying out its own propulsive transformation’, a beautifully apt description of an oeuvre that has so bare a presence in publication in these islands, but so rich an afterlife in the bodyminds of his readers. Where so much of Skin Can Hold looks with frustration and fury at the past and present, ‘Astronomer of Freedom’ reaches toward Carter’s own ecstatic invocation of a better world, his ‘secular hymn to the glittering potentiality seeded in ourselves’, his visionary belief in, Capildeo’s words again, the ‘I that can be we’.

 

*             *             *

V

Perhaps focusing too strongly on Carter’s presence, influence, or example in Capildeo’s work is to risk misrepresenting a vastly multifarious and complex oeuvre; yet he does occupy a status enjoyed by no other artist, as ancestor or model literary citizen. For both poets, the act of refusal, the denial of simplistic boundaries, is a source of imaginative power, something which on many occasions in Carter’s writing flows directly into his moral and political belief in a fairer society, in which life in its complexity is celebrated, in which the voices of the dead are revered, and the voices of the oppressed are raised up. In an interview with The Wolf in 2016, Capildeo outlines Carter’s significance not only to their own oeuvre, but within innovative poetry at large:

‘Carter’s ‘I’ is interesting because it feels communal and collective without being representative or coercive. […] The struggle to create this kind of plural ‘I’ has perhaps been overlooked by some British avant-garde poets’ surface reading of, and turning away from, ‘postcolonial’ literature: the ‘I’ that cries or sings as if in one voice and yet is astir with the voices of many.’

In Capildeo’s work, the poem’s attempt to navigate or circumscribe the experiences of the singular, socially imposed self resolves into ‘singing… with the voices of many’. If Skin Can Hold is any indication, Capildeo’s oeuvre is still wholly open to radical change and formal evolution, and I count myself fortunate to witness how their work carries out its own ‘propulsive transformation’. Thanks for reading.

 

 

Further Reading:

Poetry:

Capildeo, Vahni – No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003); Undraining Sea (Eggbox, 2009, rights reverted to author); Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Eggbox, 2012, rights reverted to author); Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013); Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016); Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018); Skin Can Hold (Carcanet 2019).

Carter, Martin – University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Gemma Robinson (Bloodaxe, 2006).

Philip, M. NourbeSe – Zong! (Wesleyan, 2008).

 

Prose:

Capildeo, Vahni – One Scattered Skeleton, African Writing (4), 2006.

All Are Involved: The Art of Martin Carter, ed Stewart Brown, (1999, Peepal Tree).

Hall, Alaric, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, (2007, Boydell Press)

 

Criticism:

Capildeo, Vahni – “And did those feet…” Review of University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose, ed. Gemma Robinson, Caribbean Review of Books, 2006.

– “Everywhere and Nowhere”, The White Review, 2017.

– “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review (228), 2016.

– Review of Seasonal Disturbances by Karen McCarthy Woolf, Hello, Your promise has been extracted by Ahren Warner, and Kingdom of Gravity by Nick Makoha, Compass Poetry Magazine, 2019.

– Review of In nearby bushes by Kei Miller, Trinidad & Tobago Newsday, September 2019.

 

Baugh, Edward – Review of Undraining Sea, Caribbean Review of Books, 2011.

Chingonyi, Kayo – Review of Measures of Expatriation, Poetry London (85), 2016.

Hussain, Nasser – Review of Venus as a Bear, The Poetry School, 2019.

Laughlin, Nicholas – Review of No Traveller Returns, Caribbean Review of Books, 2004.

– Review of No Traveller Returns, Caribbean Beat, 2004.

Moore, Kim – Review of Venus as a Bear, Poetry London (91) 2018.

Narayanan, Vivek – Review of Utter, Caribbean Review of Books, 2015.

Parmar, Sandeep – Review of Measures of Expatriation, The Guardian, 2016.

Paul, Cris – Review of Measures of Expatriation, Poetry Wales (52:2), 2016.

Wheatley, David – Review of Venus as a Bear, The Guardian, 2018.

 

Interviews:

with Jack Belloli, Stride, August 2019.

with Sarala Estruch, estruch-notebook.co.uk, 2018.

with Nicholas Laughlin, MaComère (13) 2011-2.

with Sandeep Parmar, The Wolf Magazine, 2016.

with the Scottish Poetry Library Podcast, 2017 [transcription courtesy of Amy Key, via Twitter.]

Kevin Powers – Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Powers’ work before. I’m aware that his first novel, The Yellow Bird, got some hella good reviews though. Review copy kindly donated by Susannah Herbert of the Forward Prize.

Review: First off, I’m indebted to this review by David Clarke over at Dr Fulminare. It put a lot of the book’s most difficult elements into a comprehensible frame, and fully explores the feeling of critic-obsolescence in the face of real suffering, whether of the publicly-reported variety or otherwise. It also asks important questions about the remit of the war poet: conditions in the trenches, for example, became public partly from the writing of individual soldiers, the poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al valuable, widely circulated insights. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting has all the benefits of writing in a communications-based culture, and as such need not negotiate 1914’s relative ignorance or misinformation about the ‘enemy’; the book is explicitly focused, however, on the poet’s personal experiences (or what is presented as such, see this interview), with the war’s broader impact left largely incidental, with all the complications that infers. In the poem ‘The Locks of the James’, regarding ‘Christopher Newport’, the ‘accidental founder of this city’ and ‘a murderer of indigenous peoples’, the poet states: ‘If I’m honest, I don’t think I cared. / If I’m honest, mine is the only history that really interests me, which is unfortunate, / because I am not alone.’ It’s a complicated stance, one that seems aware of its own shortcomings but that openly elides responsibility for them; it seems like the reader is being quietly and unsettlingly invited to map these principles onto a wartime context. Other poems in the collection suggest this is a kind of emotional survival mechanism: how can an individual soldier take responsibility for state-sanctioned murder, in an arena in which a statement like ‘I appreciate the fact / that for at least one day I don’t have to decide / between dying and shooting a little boy’ is actively pressing? Yet how much more could be brought to the discussion by a clear-eyed examination of the principles that led the narrator here? Are we being presented with the wrong questions?

AW2

It leaves the reader in a difficult position: Letter Composed is, ostensibly, open about the narrator’s participation in wrongful killing, and equally open about his difficulty overcoming the trauma. However, the victims of ‘Death, Mother and Child’, ‘Field Manual’ and ‘Photographing the Suddenly Dead’ are left anonymous and with little significance outside the drama of the poem, where the poet has an entire book to provide background reading for himself and his fellow soldiers. It’s a question I don’t have a good answer to, and the book is at pains to emphasise its inability to adequately respond. ‘Nominally’, recounts the mass grave of a hundred people forced into slavery covered by a car park, disappeared names and children from underneath an interstate. The narrator replies ‘And I am unmoved by the cold / cardinality of this’, and ‘So what? Nothing / was counted.’ Bearing in mind poems like ‘Valentine with Flat Affect’ and ‘After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time’, it’s not unlikely that the poems dramatise this creeping inability to process external suffering, a phenomenon directly linked to the events contained in the Iraq poems and the narrator’s inability to process them. It’s a kind of vicious cycle, and while the raw, barely articulated anger in ‘Separation’ at ‘these Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts’, the desire to hold them also accountable for ‘how scared I am still, alone / in bars these three years later when / I notice it [the poet’s service rifle] is gone’ might aim at easy targets, perhaps that ‘Young Republican’ identifier is telling. It’s as close as the poet gets to directing blame outwards; it’s noticeable that Powers never assigns responsibility to his superiors, who often seem as bewildered as the narrator, one sergeant stuttering, ‘after, like, don’t / worry boys, it’s war, it happens’, or the war effort at large. Michael Longley’s ‘Wounds’ comes to mind, with its depiction of the innocent brutality of teenage soldiers in the Great War and the Troubles. One of the book’s key threads seems to be the sheer unpreparedness of these young men sent, like Longley’s volunteers, to commit unspeakable violence in the name of a greater power which, in both ‘Wounds’ and Letter Composed, remains nameless and (explicitly) blameless.

3 JP

This might be a good time to talk form. Powers is primarily (or most effectively) a novelist, and the majority of the poems here have the compelling forward momentum of good short stories, with ‘Fighting out of West Virginia’, one of the book’s most fully realised vignettes, presented entirely as prose. This is not to undermine the book’s strengths as a collection of poetry. The loose rhythms of Powers’ free verse are the perfect fit for the poems’ conversational directness, and, given the book’s content, permit a vital clarity to the narrative. The later passages in the collection focus on the poet’s hometown and state, and obliquely insist on the war’s broader significance for the communities which disproportionately supply its foot soldiers. These are former factory towns suffering from extreme poverty, and the armed forces are a relatively well-paid and respectable career. Again, Letter Composed does not explicitly attack this position, but unmistakeably disproves it.

As Clarke argues in his review, there is a nagging unease at the book’s end about the lack of broader context it provides or explores about the war in Iraq, which I understand is given greater breathing space in The Yellow Birds, Powers’ debut novel. Whether the collection’s unwillingness to explore other avenues of experience stems from a traumatic incapacity or an artistic decision is, ultimately, irrelevant; it is an unresolved problem for the reader to negotiate, and much of your appreciation of the book may depend on your ability to suspend this judgement. The book is greatly supported by its moments of real lyrical energy, particularly in the poems for Powers’ mother, ‘Blue Star Mother’ (‘looking back / on the photographic / evidence of my life / one could easily be convinced / I was raised by a woman / whose face was the palm of a hand’) and ‘Portugal’, probably the book’s most full-throated venture into dream- or metaphor-driven narrative, and effective for its change of perspective. Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is, if nothing else, a document of great value in an ongoing discussion of an ongoing war, and (hopefully) only the beginning of a vitally important conversation.

3 PF

Tl; dr: Letters Composed is a difficult collection, and by most conventional metrics not a pleasant one. It is, however, a valuable addition to the poetry community, and definitely worth reading.