art in all its forms

art in all its forms



In honor of World Poetry Day we thought we'd share some of the books near the top of the pile of all the books we are currently reading.

THE POLITICS by Benjamin Paloff, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2011.

"Deep within the folds of / my being I am carrying an urgent message. / I'd pay attention if I were you," the voice of 'Diptych of the Annunciation, Left Panel' implores. "People I do not know put words / in my mouth,  take my picture. And still I am not / untouched by beauty." The warning is a reflection of a way to read these poems, which pulse with a willingness to embrace ideas and philosophy in tight, clear lines that build arguments but also aim to create something as equally ephemeral: beauty. The juxtaposition of history and contemporary elements is effective. As the California Journal of Poetics remarks: "Paloff has a gift for combining the historical with the contemporary." The effect is like a lush Sofia Coppola film: filled with pop, pathos and a bold stillness. This work is about pushing ideas to their limit, and finding out, perhaps, our own limits and our own simplicities. 

WATCH Benjamin Paloff read poems from this book here.

LAGAHOO POEMS by James Christopher Aboud, Peepal Tree Press, 2011.

With a clear understanding of the way folklore creates tantalising possibilities for poetry, Aboud finds an energetic space between occasional poems and self-reflexitive lore. These startling poems send out red herring after red herring, the Lagahoo himself is both a symbol and a deception: a vessel bearing a passionate feeling for the world, while simultaneously understanding the dangers of drawing close to mortality. It is a macguffin in a sense, for the point is not who he is or what he makes, but what happens when readers try to find him. First published in 2004, the book was heralded by the Caribbean Review of Books which declared: "A remarkable poet has kept us waiting too long – has made us practise, you might say, the patience of the Lagahoo."

DARK AND UNACCUSTOMED WORDS by Vahni Capildeo, Egg Box Publishing, 2011.

"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." 

READ a full review HERE

LUMINIOUS EPINOIA by Peter O'Leary, The Cultural Society, 2010.

Luminious epinoia: a gnostic notion which is taken to represent the primal consciousness from which all creation came into being. These poems are meditations, perhaps, but also they carry strong voices and  unsettle, moving fluidly across the page.

NEW COLLECTED POEMS by WS Graham, Faber and Faber, 2004.

Harold Pinter once said of WS Graham: ''I first read a W. S. Graham poem in 1949. It sent a shiver down my spine. Forty-five years later nothing has changed. His song is unique and his work an inspiration.'' A comprehensive gathering of WG Graham's work. 

THE JOURNEY TO LE REPENTIR by Mark McWatt, Peepal Tree Press, 2009.

Is a poem in four narrative sequences. It is the product of fifteen years labour. "Around the year 2000, I realised that I was working towards at least two different goals," McWatt says in an introduction. "The first of these was that the book would be in four parts, with each part containing a central narrative poem or sequence and this would be balanced or counterpoised or embellished with other poems." These autobiographical poems are strong, there is really little embellishment. A vast work, which nets treasures for the devoted reader.

SELECTED POEMS by Jorge Lui Borges (edited by Alexander Coleman), Penguin, 2000.

Borges is more well-known for his short fiction. But he was first and foremost a poet.  This is a wide selection with a diverse cast of translators who create a rewarding and essential book. 

NO BACK DOOR by Mervyn Taylor, Shearsman, 2010.

"Taylor’s book, which was awarded the 2011 Paterson Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, is a continuation of many of the themes of the poet’s earlier work (which includes Gone Away and The Goat). It is a potent examination of contemporary Trinidad life, of migration and of the spaces in between and beyond. Death, loss, aging and illness confront characters of complexity who are given fine and gentle lines that hum like the low tide of the sea, always threatening to rise and eat away at an easily forgotten land."               

READ full review HERE.                   

THERE IS AN ANGER THAT MOVES by Kei Miller, Carcanet, 2007. 

A collection about migration and imperialism, with rage, anger and grace. The poems challenge ideas of home and adopted home-land and finds spaces in between. Followed up by the excellent Light Song of Light.

RUNNING THE DUSK by Christian Campbell, Peepal Tree Press, 2010.

A strong and impressive collection which shows up Campbell as a consummate poet, adept in different forms and willing to experiment and play with language. "Time to time I dare / myself to race the sun," the voice of the opening poem 'Bucking Up On Evening' remarks. The poems fly amid the blue hour of dusk.

SHE WHO SLEEPS WITH BONES by Tanya Shirley, Peepal Tree Press, 2009.

Tanya Shirley is an exciting poet whose poems, when she breathes them to life, startle, amuse and rally. Her voice can be heard on every page. The poems are  sharp, personal and sometimes harrowing, but always unforgettable. Compelling work which also conceals its craft.



Dream to change the world


The 30th West Indian Literature Conference, hosted by the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, from 13 to 15 October, 2011, borrows its theme from a poem by the late Guyanese writer Martin Carter: “I Dream to Change the World: Literature and Social Transformation”.

As part of the conference programme, on Friday 14 October, from7.00 to 9.00 pm, the Bocas Lit Fest and Alice Yard will host an informal evening of readings and performances. Scholar Gemma Robinson, Carter’s editor and biographer, will speak about his relevance for today’s Caribbean writers and artists, followed by readings by Nalo Hopkinson, Vahni Capildeo, and Barbara Jenkins. 



In search of the sea

No Back Door by Mervyn Taylor, 2010, Shearsman Books, pp. 90 

Hew Locke, 'For those in peril on the sea'. Photo by Sam Millen.

"SEA have no back door,” warns the father-figure in the titular poem of Trinidadian Mervyn Taylor’s latest book No Back Door. The closing lines of the poem, with their complex comparative analysis of two lives and generations, are a haunting invocation of loss, memory and even bittersweet joy:

     Sea have no back door, he said,
     putting on his pyjamas and going
     to bed. All night I could feel
     the waves coming in.

Taylor’s book, which was awarded the 2011 Paterson Prize for Sustained Literary Achievement, is a continuation of many of the themes of the poet’s earlier work (which includes Gone Away and The Goat). It is a potent examination of contemporary Trinidad life, of migration and of the spaces in between and beyond. Death, loss, aging and illness confront characters of complexity who are given fine and gentle lines that hum like the low tide of the sea, always threatening to rise and eat away at an easily forgotten land.

The title poem, which is the penultimate poem of the book, is a good example of Taylor’s understated style and of the devastating emotional impact of his work. The father figure is subservient to forces in an around him: “In all his years on the island / my father never went to the sea.” Perhaps this self-imposed exile is not only a sign of father’s mind-set but also an expression of deeper fears. There is an inter-generational aspect to all of this: “He waved as we left for Point / Cumana, cleaned out the goat pens / and became the man his father / was, a necktie holding up his pants.” The play of that last image is highly suggestive: the necktie as a colonial/capitalist symbol is both rejected and embraced. In one sense its function is abandoned in favor of simpler things. In another sense the tie is embraced but made to suit the purposes and circumstances of the wearer.  

Thus, in a few lines Taylor has set so many elements in play, but we never feel overwhelmed. We feel the tension between the son, another generation perhaps, and the father without a single line of explicit drama. When the father puts on his pyjamas and goes, the line breaks before we continue to read that he has merely gone to bed. Sleep, death, departure and migration are all suggested. The son’s feelings are in contrast to the depiction of the father. But one may as well be a reflection of the other at different stages in life, perhaps. 

Elsewhere, similarly strong poems abound in this collection. 
Most startling is ‘On the La Basse’ which is a poem every Trinidadian will instantly recognize. 

Ostensibly the poem is about a bonfire at the Beetham landfill. Public servants oversee the burning of old receipt books. The supervisor–in the sense of that official post and in the sense of surveyor–witnesses a seldom seen scene: “And as the bonfire rose higher and higher / among the piles of the city’s garbage, I saw.” The line breaks. What did he/she see? “Men, women and children clamber with bags, / saving whatever they could, eggs and half-rotten / onions to keep or sell....”

The poem is a reflection of social inequalities and it aims to present these without didactic flourishes or sentiment.

“In the growing dark I read, by the glow of the / embers,” the supervisor says, “...the ashes settling, the whine of the truck, reversing.” The idea of reversal, the surreal scenes. They are enough for the poet to achieve his aims. 

Taylor–who teaches and divides his time between Brooklyn, New York and Trinidad–aims, perhaps, to chart journeys that are linked to the dilemma of the immigrant but not limited to that. In a sense, each piece is about a journey to death, the sea.

There are poems spanning the political and social aspects of colonisation (‘Colonized’ is a poem about Haiti which begins: “What do we owe them, for / taking back what was ours?”). There are pieces about ideas of ancestry and shared heritage (the titular figure in ‘Yankee Gal’ may have closer links to the Caribbean than she realises, especially given the warning encapsulated by the poem’s closing reference to Sparrow’s calypsos). Several poems recall illness, death and aging (‘Losing Weight’, ‘Joan’s Chair’, ‘Home is’, ‘At the Home’).

‘Felicity’ presents an account of crime in that town and laments its lost potential to be “a gift to the world”, as suggested by Derek Walcott in his Nobel Lecture of 1993. Of Taylor’s work, Walcott has said: “the sense of search, of the avoidance of flash, mutes his meters to an admirable degree, and the tone, which he found remarkably early, keeps him separate and unique.” This is a moving book which succeeds in charting a universal journey with skill and sensitivity.

* * *

No Back Door is published by Shearsman. For information on ordering visit:


A new world

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”).

Vahni Capildeo

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.

* * *

Dark and Unaccustomed Words
 is published next month. For more information and to order online visit

READ poems from the latest book at Almost Island here.

LISTEN to Vahni reading her poetry here.  READ a sample from Undraining Sea hereCHECK some cool poetry links here (Inpress Books).

FILM REVIEW: Better Mus' Come, The Warrior

TT Film Festival 2011

There is a lot happening in Storm Saulter's Better Mus' Come. I found myself no longer grasping for plot, but rather searching for a space beyond the narrative and between the images. This is a bold kind of film with a lot of energy, stunning images and unforgettable moments.

The film is set in Kingston, Jamaica, in the late 1970s as gangs war. It would be easy to explain the gang warfare at the heart of events at the film by blaming politics, but there are other forces in operation as well: economic, social, cultural and even in terms of gender. The film makes no didactic points about governance but it places human relationships at its core. Some of it is heavy-handed and at times I yearned for a more simply edited story. But at the end, it was a moving treatment of a seldom depicted moment in Caribbean history. ***/4

I have never forgotten The Warrior since I first saw it in 2003. And in particular I will never forget the moment when we see the warrior at the centre of the movie suddenly uprooted from a desert landscape and placed in snowy mountain peaks. In this a premonition? The viewer is disoriented and startled by the beauty before her. But the film's director Asif Kapadia adds a sly touch: when the warrior--returned to his desert landscape--looks down he sees ice beneath his shoes. Is he cold inside? Has he been standing still through the seasons?

To describe the film's plot is to take away one of the pleasures of the movie. But this much can be said: there are elements of the classic Hollywood Western and of the action adventure. Watching the film for a second time, I was struck by how perfect it is: the actors have faces that were meant to be filmed. There are amazing moments of dialogue--particularly one involving a blind devotee--and perhaps one of the most unforgettable endings of any film in the last decade. Watching again, I had a re-enforced feeling that I was watching greatness of a special kind unfold. The film is not ostentatious and works within a simple confined framework. But how well it works. ****/4