Vahni Capildeo

Trinidad and Tobago, United Kingdom,

Vahni Capildeo’s multilingual, cross-genre writing is grounded in time experienced through place. Her DPhil in Old Norse literature and translation theory, her travels, and her Indian diaspora/Caribbean background deepen the voices in the landscapes which inspire her. Her poetry (six books and four pamphlets) includes Venus as Bear, which was the Poetry Book Society Summer Choice 2018, and Measures of Expatriation, awarded the Forward Best Collection Prize 2016. She has worked in academia; in culture for development, with Commonwealth Writers; as an Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer. Capildeo has held the Judith E. Wilson Poetry Fellowship and the Harper-Wood Studentship at Cambridge, and a Douglas Caster Cultural Fellowship at the University of Leeds.


Born in Trinidad and a long-time UK resident, Vahni Capildeo explores migration, expatriation and displacement with a self-styled pointilliste approach. In not so dissimilar a manner to this neo-impressionist technique of painting, albeit replacing crowded dots of pure colour with conscientious lyric, one that interrogates the notion of pure origin (“pure is a strange word”), Capildeo’s poetry crafts a complex portrait of the chaos and contradiction of identity.  The memoiristic polylogues and prose-poems of Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet), which won the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2016, tend to this task with the “luxury of inattention, invention, and final mismatch” (‘Five Measures of Expatriation’).  

My having had a patria, a fatherland, to leave, did not occur to me until I was forced to invent one. This was the result of questions. The questions were linked to my status elsewhere. Transferring between elsewhere, I had to lay claim to a somewhere, sometimes a made-up-on-the-spot somewhere. (‘Five Measures of Expatriation’).

 

Exposing the performative illusion behind the perfectly coherent ideal, the lyrical peregrinations of Measures of Expatriation examine a phenomenon of exile from the self as much as from any set geographical location. Pitted against the proof-seeking backdrop of bureaucratic farce, the rigorous need for forward planning and the rustle of evidential documents, the poems disclose a décalage existential of sorts between the speaker’s bones and its business.

she is disconnected from her corporeal self. 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. She
likes that I speak of it as being a thing I take care of, like a costume of a
small animal (‘Too Solid Flesh’)

A curious fascination with the acquisition of weight is present: “Reading could fix me. It could be a way to acquire weight”, which is expressive of her poetic outlook more widely. “Might a description get me closer to making it mine, or at least an understanding of why I am at odds / with it?”. Ultimately, it is within the architecture of language that Capildeo makes her home. “Language is my home. It is alive other than in speech. It is beyond a thing to be carried with me. It is ineluctable, variegated and muscular.”

 

On every page, lurking behind the skin of the language, there is a subtle poetics of escape at play. Capildeo, herself, invokes comparison between the linguistic sentence and prison sentence in Venus as a Bear (Carcanet), her latest collection. “Moss induces words / in us because, grave & new, we sentence things; whereas / moss carpets, respires, pulls back, is.” (‘Moss for Maya’). Taking pointers from the sprawling phenomenon of moss, her poems strive to liberate the signifier from the signified, thus signalling liberation. “Whoever drew you also caged you”, Capildeo remarks after analysing the frictive glosses of gouache on paper in ‘The Last Night, A Nightingale’, a lamentation which informs her conception of language as cage-like. “How to ‘lose’ or ‘abandon’ a word? Put it in jail, throw away / the key?”, she asks in ‘Bullshit’. Embarking on this quest, Capildeo, formerly an OED lexicographer with an Oxford DPhil in Old Norse, plumbs the depths of a rich and roaming lexicon with passion. ‘The Chomsky Bequest: Towards a grammar from eighteenth-century glass’ (‘Through & Through’), offers the best glimpse into her wanderlust approach to words.

 

Diamond-point square afterthoughts quaff piratically.
Milky skippy vignettes land militantly.
Flammable wheeling sisters grave triumphantly.
Colourless green ideals double readily.

 

Capildeo’s vivid use of language, intrepid and intense, leads the tongue into unexpected territory – stumbling over concurrent possibilities, readers emerge ‘triumphantly’ with the treasure of strange new associations, as in the onomatopoeic adventures of ‘Brant Geese’.

 

open a bubble of babble

swagger and swallow a vowel

turd it turn it shine it slime it

give it wings stretch it – a gaggle

 

The prolixity, oftentimes quite a mouthful, emphasises the materiality of language, lending it a muscular rhythm. As a result, a unique concept of living language comes bounding into focus, “our pack of languages, fluid as hounds / all ready: bathed: riteful: already intending chase” (‘Sycorax Whoops’ in Measures of Expatriation). At the core of this thrilling chase, there is a willingness to be moulded and twisted into various forms in a way that resists definitive readings, complementing the poet’s rejection of reductive assumptions surrounding race and identity.

 

 written by Jade Cuttle