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.]

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Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

Full Disclosure: None. First encounter with Capildeo.

‘the sense that this incident is one of many, that the personal is historical, that ‘you’ are a stone already worn down by the water-torture drips, is what Rankine seeks to convey about the predicament of the non-‘white’-skinned individual whose daily life cannot be individual, cannot be pure and spontaneous – cannot be lyric – in so far as it is subject to the encasements and flayings of racialised perception.’

– Capildeo, “On Reading Claudia Rankine”, PN Review 228.

Review: Right in the middle of Measures of Expatriation, in the fourth of the book’s seven sections, is ‘Louise Bourgeois: Insomnia Drawings’, a response to an exhibition of the artist’s work. The poem’s first section is titled ‘Felt Pen’ and offers explanations – of varying conviction – for the artist’s iconic choice of instrument:

‘‘Because a red felt pen is Freudian.’
‘Because felt is fuzzy, and she’s female.’
‘Because red is menstrual.’ ‘Labial.’ ‘Dangerous.’ ‘Primal.’’ […]
‘Because a red felt pen is
a substitute for the phallus,
and also an American flag stripe
signifying the absence of France.’

Capildeo offers a further possibility:

‘Because it was bloody well there,
and in a fix or in a fit, the artist
fiercely repurposes whatever is to hand.’

In a state of either pressing necessity or mental unrest, the artist transforms quotidian junk into acts of resistance. Measures of Expatriation aims to unravel some densely knotted and poisonous ideas and manages to do so with wit, patience, and an often bone-dry sense of humour. Underwriting everything, though, is this determination to hook every theoretical abstraction back into the living, breathing world of unstable but powerful signs. It’s noteworthy that in this passage above, Capildeo is not ruling out the possibility that each of the anonymous suggestions might, on its own, contain a nugget of truth; far more important than the pen’s symbolism, however, is the fact that it was used at all, that the threat of silence is far more pressing than the triumph of one theoretical network or another. The fact that those few lines carry so much freight is true of the collection at large, it’s a long read and a dense one, and every word has clearly been agonised over. Just thinking about the mental labour involved to produce this book makes my head hurt. Yet the challenge seems to be part and parcel of the book’s purpose, and it would be naïve to think that its substantial and sustained challenge to the imposition of restrictive identities (racial, national, gendered or otherwise) would be easy reading.

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And yet the sum of its dense, allusive and syntactically outlandish linguistic performances is an extremely human book. Even when obscured by layers of persona or dramatic irony, Capildeo is a thoughtful and curious guide through her poems’ ideas; the profusion of prose texts in this collection seems to me to be evidence of a will to empower the reader, to spell out her arguments in much plainer fashion than in the more recognisably ‘lyric’ pieces. Looking back at Capildeo’s 2013 collection Utter shows a far greater faith in the column of left-aligned text most commonly recognised as ‘a lyric poem’, and it may be that the greater reliance on non-traditional poetic forms in the new book is continuous with her strategy of ‘fiercely repurpos[ing] whatever is at hand’.  As in Capildeo’s reading of Rankine, the poet and her writing have been disallowed from comfortably inhabiting what a reader of canonical Anglophone poetry might recognise as lyric. As Capildeo explains, ‘If this is lyric, lyric must rise as a spring which acknowledges sedimentation, an inspiration which knows it breathes in shared, polluted air, which sings its body of ‘you’ because its ‘I’ is treated as an ‘is not’ or a ‘they’’. The knock-on effect, of course, is that talking about the content of the work, its revolutionary substance, is deferred as the form it takes must be scrutinised, must first defend its right to claim lyric space. In other words, instead of getting bogged down in questions of whether this is poetry, ask why poetry needs to take such radical form.

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It’s noticeable how often the book returns to questions of belonging, of feeling at home either in one’s own skin or in the place one lives. In ‘Too Solid Flesh’ (from Hamlet’s soliloquy: ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt / Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!’), the poet appears to be suffering from an acute bout of depression, one that connects homesickness (‘She four-thousand-miles-away-across-the-ocean hasn’t been herself lately’) with a feeling of physical disconnect:

‘I am feeling out of touch with my body: it feels like something I have been given to look after. When I bathe I feel that I am washing it, not that I am bathing’.’

The poem explores several scenarios in which it is not so much the poet’s inability to ‘acquire weight’ that is at fault, but the world itself fails to fill the gaps in the poet’s perception. A ghoulishly disfigured member of the displaced Arawak people appears in a dream, ‘her flesh no longer covered skull’: ‘‘I’m as solid as you are,’ she said loudly and tonguelessly. […] But I was alive, and she was not.’ As Sandeep Parmar explains, the scene complicates a simplistic power narrative, forcing both poet and reader to locate themselves in a much broader understanding of historical violence. On that note, it’s probably not coincidental that the next figure to beset the poet with social expectations is an ‘Armed Forces man’, someone sitting at the crossroads between social and gendered authority:

‘had the kindness to ignore the others at the dinner table, in order to explain to me how I might acquire density: essentially, I was the same as any woman, if we could put aside the intellect.’

Like many other figures in the scene, the Armed Forces man is partially disfigured in the poet’s (apparently) malfunctioning perception, ‘His head not only disappeared; it also came apart.’ This inability or refusal to acknowledge him as a full person has the effect of stripping him of his surety, his unquestionable authority: it’s certainly grotesque, but there’s also something funny about him taking on ‘the aspect of a pegged grapefruit of which one quarter had been eaten’. The poem also encounters a half-faced literary agent, advising the poet to sell the mangoes, coconuts, yams, rum and ‘a grain of salt’ that fall magically out of her books. Selling images of her assumed Caribbean identity are figured as the only business-friendly means of acquiring literary weight, in a world where women in academic posts:

‘trundle towards the apex of a career, wild for the literature that has been written, for no more need be written, for literature is the province of the dead, and how can I have something to add to it?’

Again, the poet’s capacity to enact significant change, to assert her right to shape her own identity and narrative are circumscribed by the norms of literary culture, which will only let her participate with colonial strings attached, and academic culture, which in its over-emphasis on traditional anglophone literature excludes counter-canonical thinking by design. If it all sounds heavy and worthy in summary, the experience of reading the poem is one of following a sharp and wise observer through a series of experiences so ludicrous that comedy almost feels like a coping strategy as much as a literary one. The sequence’s penultimate tableau is a near-fatal attempt to acquire Tamiflu from a wilfully obstructive health bureaucracy that leaves the ailing poet a ‘childless, no-news nowherian’. And yet it finds something hopeful in ‘An older woman’s voice whispers disapproval in my ear’:

If you see the pictures like Auntie Sati had […] we never covered ourselves up. Covering ourselves up, that is a new thing. Maybe it is a Mulsim thing, maybe it is a Western thing. […] I do not know whether what the older voice says is true.’

Given the emphasis in ‘Too Solid Flesh’ on distorted perceptions of reality, it’s possible that the poet’s final scepticism is redundant – how much of any of this is ‘true’? Yet the reminder that behavioural norms are arbitrary, relative, and subject to change permits a note of real hope, so that even the subtly comic wordplay in:

‘‘Black,’ my mother says darkly, ‘is a colour of joy.’ Kali is black. Black contains all the colours; it is the ultimate colour.’

also contains sincere optimism, a reassertion of a meaning that runs contrary to the (Western) norm. The poem’s last word, ‘This has been thought for you’, makes me want to punch the air.

3 JP

In the title poem, ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’, Capildeo examines how language itself conspires in racism, how the words ‘Expatriate. / Exile. / Migrant. / Refugee’ are applied to different bodies with different political goals in mind. As Sophie Collins notes in her review in Poetry Review, ‘colonial forces behind national languages are foregrounded throughout, the pervasive myth of an essential ‘mother tongue’ debunked’. In this poem, Capildeo contrasts the arbitrary, artificially fixed boundaries of political entities with the living realm of language:

‘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. […] Yet thought is not bounded by language. At least, my experience of thinking does not appear so bound.’

The collection is full of such moments of rhetorical power, in which Capildeo demonstrates an excellent ear for rhythm, for the impassioned and genuine, something like an intellectual call to arms. More often than not, however, such moments are immediately deflated by the mundane or ridiculous, as the impulse to keep a sense of proportion does its work. In ‘Five Measures…’, the next words are the children’s-book-like ‘One day I lost the words wall and floor’, though even these are shot through with the will to overwrite meaningless boundaries, ‘There seemed no reason to conceive of a division’ (noting that the Trinidadian response to the formation of Pakistan referenced in ‘And Also / No Join / Like’ also operated on ‘the lines of what had not been a division’; the linguistic and the political are continuous). Capildeo is extremely careful to never let the messiness of reality be erased for the sake of political cleanliness.

3 JP

As Amanda Merritt notes, that same messiness occasionally looks more like plain confusion, and there are certainly times in Measures of Expatriation where I found the poems’ rejection of conventional syntax or deep etymological punning a little too dense to follow. However, where these strategies hit their mark, the book rewards the necessary close readings, including the wonderful ‘Un Furl’, which might be the most heartfelt language-love-poem I’ve ever read, which begins:

‘Any love
meant as equal
is momentary
momentarily unequal
is equal
if love
reckons time
knows not equals’

Given the collection this poem appears in, the sincerity of the quest to formulate a working and positive definition of a healthy romantic partnership is an absolute sucker punch. If any sticklers for formal convention were to read the book’s dreamy and powerful short stories (which Collins beautifully names ‘itinerant prose pieces’) and ask where the poetry is, where, ultimately, is the lyrical work for which all this unlineated writing is trying to create space, one may point right here. It’s a green shoot in a desert, it’s the feathers on the book’s cover flying again. This may be a thoroughly polyanna reading of a collection that is under no illusions about exactly what kind of world it lives in, or about the structures that hold its worst offenses in place. There’s something deeply heartening, however, in the fact that a full half of the book’s poems are dedicated to friends and peers (if Shakespeare’s ‘Weyward Sisters’ count), asserting a community, a federation of individuals where a white-centric culture would see an undifferentiated ‘they’. Measures of Expatriation has an unshakeable grip on what anchors the poet to her humanity in spite of constant dehumanisation.

This is not an easy book by any reckoning; it is long and densely written, it often leaves the reader without footholds and deviates from recognisable tradition. Parmar argues that ‘Capildeo’s integrity and intelligence put her several steps ahead of publishers, academics and critics who might foolishly marginalise her work in Britain’, and I’m pretty darned excited by the idea that this book could open new possibilities in terms of how we read poetry, and what mainstream poetry is capable of discussing. That means pushing readers out of our comfort zone, asking important questions about how such comfort is constructed, who it benefits and who it excludes, questioning the morality of what we (by ‘we’ I mean particularly privileged readers like myself) take for granted every day. I can’t think of a better definition for the work of poetry.

Tl;dr: if you like to have your assumptions challenged, if you enjoy sharing the ideas of a deeply thoughtful, witty and principled writer, read this book.

Further Reading: Sandeep Parmar review, The Guardian.

Amanda Merritt review, London Magazine.

Sophie Collins review, Poetry Review (Summer 2016).