Dark and Unaccustomed Words by Vahni Capildeo, 2011, Egg Box Publishing, 120pp
OF POETRY, DH Lawrence once remarked, “The essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers’ a new world within the known world.” What of the poetry of Trinidadian poet Vahni Capildeo, whose latest book is published next month?
“This poetry is not for the faint-hearted,” is how Edward Baugh opens a review of Capildeo’s Undraining Sea. Of her first collection, No Traveller Returns, the critic Robert Bond, in a review which is not for the faint-hearted, says, “Capildeo’s book attempts a language without intention, to replicate the obscure expression of objectless inwardness, which is sensed to intend toward utopia.” Adding to the cauldron is David Miller who argues that Capildeo’s poetry “is utterly divorced from that unfortunately prevalent tendency to write poems where the words give way to an applauding audience at the next prestigious poetry awards.” Brian Catling characterizes Capildeo’s writing as “crafted silver turning on faultless glass.” Adam Piette has argued that Capildeo’s work involves a “many-voiced attention to the clamour of experience, of all that goes through the mind on difficult days.”
The voice of Capildeo’s poem ‘Oslo Readings’ – in Undraining Sea – adds what Baugh suggests is another prism by which to view things. The voice of that poem remarks that, “the words on the page no longer stand for meanings. It is an ink museum, a resistant sculpture park, a thicket of trees where the eye gets lost holding on to wrought iron fences. Each railing is barbed with a spear point. A vision of authority, the words stand out, separate, deadly, fine, archaic.”
Baugh, in his review at the Caribbean Review of Books, argues: “perhaps in our interaction with the poet’s words we should yield to the intransigence, and seek to cultivate a space beyond interpretation.” Baugh is correct to suggest this of Capildeo’s work, but the same could be equally true for all poetry, from Dante and Shakespeare right up to the so-called avant-garde.
But back to Lawrence. In an introduction to Harry Crosby’s Chariot of the Sun, he says, “poetry is a matter of words. And this is true, just as much as pictures are a matter of paint, and frescoes a matter of water and colour-wash.” Lawrence continues, “Poetry is a stringing together of words into a ripple and jingle and a run of colours. Poetry is an interplay of images. Poetry is the iridescent suggestion of an idea. Poetry is all these things, and still… another thing.”
That thing, Lawrence suggests, is the creation of an inner place through which we encounter the “strange and forever surging chaos” that is our world.
I would adopt these ideas of Lawrence and suggest that the poetry of Vahni Capildeo not only breaks down conventional notions of seeing the world, but re-affirms ideas of the value and worth of individual experiences. This work attacks and affirms order and underlines what matters above all: the fate of the free self. It is a subversive ocean of diamonds, rubies and bones, raging against limiting forces. Capildeo uses a diverse set of forms to challenge hegemonic ideas of country, colony, gender and even of poetry. She challenges the very idea of definition, which is why her work is such a quandary to discuss. (The cover of her latest book, Dark and Unaccustomed Words, even features a series of question marks.)
‘Framboyan’, the first poem of Dark and Unaccustomed Words is a good example of the work. Outwardly, it is a child’s vision: at once dream and nightmare. But it is also a contemporary vision of a world facing forces consuming it. It is also a vision of the individual facing change and the prospect of death.
That trees had evolved to eat other trees.
That this happened at the end of a garden.
That this was first noticed in a small tree’s wincing.
That the larger tree was bending in, whipped by no wind,
a flamboyant tree and not in flower, bunched to a beak.
Dwarf and royal poinciana trees: almost one kind:
at the end of a Trinidad childhood garden.
Trees, in a child’s playful vision, take over the garden, and then engage in war with other elements of nature. “Dwarf” and “royal” suggest stunted growth side by side with majesty: perfections found in the flawed. (“Royal poinciana” is also a reference to the tree of the same name, famous for its blood red blossoms, which gives the poem its title.) The royal trees and the mentioning of “a Trinidad childhood garden” raise questions of place: the relationship between the former colonies and the monarchy of the motherland. But also, the words import personal meanings for the poet, who is a Trinidadian living in Britain. For what is a “Trinidad childhood garden”? What is a “Trinidad childhood”? And a “childhood garden”?
In this context there are ideas of migration (“Pitiless, we witness small uprootings; turn, / with each untreelike recommencing”); and also an inevitable fate that may be adulthood, a new home, death or all of the above (“we are next, who shall be due to fall under green shade”).
The idea of property (“But lock the doors (the well-made doors: investments, property)”; “It is good our doors are good”) is critiqued: material things cannot stop this process. The premises of the opening lines suddenly become conclusive with a subtle shift of the opening sentence which re-appears within the poem (“The thing is busy outside (that tree evolved to eat other trees)”). In this way, the evolution of the poem reflects the change that is its subject. Short sentences grow like the trees. But by the end, doors are useless in stopping the mysterious biological process (“And indeed it entered wading. For our doors were wood”).
The poem is an ordered glimpse of a chaos that cannot be pinned down. It is an evolving tree written on the product of trees. Trees—and what they may symbolize (growth, family, the environment &c)—thereafter serve as leitmotif in the book.
The second poem (‘The Pale Beast / La Blanche Biche’) transmutes the childhood garden into tamed wood, “kept under lock and key” in a tense balance (“how shall I have recourse from this?”). What nature represents here is an even more powerful force on the individual, threatening danger and growth. The child, horrifically, becomes product of consumption; supernatural folklore ironically mirrors ordinary experience (“…That is my flesh within / the dish you banquet on”). There are at least three personas here: girl, beast and a projected other consummating the tension between the two.
The adult woman at the heart of ‘Driving Lesson: I’ seeks refuge in a park after power struggle dramatised by a driving lesson, which is itself metaphor for a deeper relationship: between lovers and self. The woman goes along with the driving instructor’s perspective passively, until a violent act changes things. The girl here has grown up and is able to assert herself against oppressive forces.
‘Tree With a Silver Lining’ is a lyrical examination of fleeting love which balances optimism with a kind of fatalism (“do not leave believing bereavement, who can stay?”) The poem is in awe of nature and places tender love in context of this larger force (“Come home, soon and quickly, love. The butterfly tree, / light on the fence, slender stems, make thoughts in me”).
‘Almond, Bearded’ (the title invites comparisons between growths of hair and other forms of organic growth) begins: “The tree could not believe how it became involved / with her… / Years it had taken growing to produce a crotch, / a midway knot of outward shadow.” The poem ends: “It too could love now, unrenewably…/ mortal and tree.”
The mangrove is the foundation of ‘Journal of Ordinary Days’, which is a kind of occasional poem describing a trip to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. Again the awe and terror of nature: “what is this mangrove, salt-nourished, where sea floods inlets? / Can we breathe here?” The figure of the child reappears and there is an opening assertion of the individual’s propensity for change: “We are not born with an instinctive understanding of the mangrove”.
‘About’ is a poem dedicated to the late Pat Bishop. It is a mixture of occasional poem and prose poem (prosimetrum is a key quality of Capildeo’s style) featuring snakes, birds, unseen spiders. The final lines are: “For we ourselves are luminous. Except we do not give off light.”
The book takes its title from a quotation of George Puttenham’s The Arte of Poesie (1589), hinting at an agenda to give voice to the marginalized within the debate of poetry. Publishers Egg Box describe the work as “the most lyrical and playful part of a three-part project exploring the boundaries of the human and the natural, and the oceanic or musical possibilities of poetic form.” This is a rewarding collection which grows, like the poet’s body of work.