Review: Vahni Capildeo

This is the proof of my review of Vahni Capildeo’s Measure of Expatriation, published in the most recent issue of Stand Magazine 216, (Vol. 15.4, 2018)

Capildeo, Vahni. Measures of Expatriation. Manchester: Carcanet, 2016. ISBN: 978 1 784101 68 8  128pp

This stunning collection by Vahni Capildeo has been rightly celebrated for its complex exploration of migration, exile, colonialism and repatriation. The book deservedly won the Forward Prize and Poetry Book Society Choice in 2016, and was also shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize. Capildeo is a British Trinidadian poet whose work will be familiar to many readers of Stand: she has published various poems in Stand over the years, including the five featured poems in 2009 which reflect the range and fluidity of her work (Stand 9.2). 

Measures of Expatriation deftly weaves between slaughterhouses in Birmingham (2), the red bricks in Trinidad (104) and factory night-shifts in Croydon (107). The collection does not confine itself to Britain and the Caribbean, however, and spans a vast terrain, taking us from ‘Iceland to Arabia’ (11), from cattle in India to Chinese dragons, from ‘the child with bronze fluff for hair’ in Florence (25) to Egyptian godhood, and through the connections between Hinduism, Islam, Aarawak, Carib, Norse and Saxon. This is not a book to rush, and it requires re-reading again and again.

Capildeo luxuriates in language, and her range of form is impressive. Short intense poems, such as ‘Syllable of Dolour’ (119) and ‘Chloe on the Jubilee’ (39) sit alongside long prose poems like ‘Too Solid Flesh’ (20-31), ‘The Book of Dreams/ Livre de Cauchemars (60-66), ‘Five Measures of Expatriation’ (93-103) and ‘All Your Houses’ (104-116): all in several parts and densely packed. The longer poems are particularly beguiling: they invite us in with an irresistible warmth and intimacy, but this is often juxtaposed with the difficulty of navigating the experience or telling the story, which sometimes leaves us with blanks, confusion and contradiction. This is perhaps best characterised by ‘Fire & Darkness: And Also/ No Join/ Like’ (13-15), where the speaker walks the ‘hollow walk’ of a ‘northern street’ and sees the bent arm of Guy Fawkes, distorted and bent at an unnatural angle (13). This is followed by the ‘soft, brown ‘ground dove’ which plummets out of the sky in a ‘street in Trinidad’, which a child strews with ‘yellow and scarlet wild lantana flowers’ (14). The poem then takes us through the tangled histories of India and the Caribbean, into a description of the ‘liberation of Kuwait’ – a moment that marks the way that the ‘world’s play of representations of the living’ makes ‘brownskinned people’ look ‘more like the killed’ (15). Perhaps, the speaker wonders, this is ‘why people on the street in the south of England have told me that they have no money, or have offered me money, when I have said nothing or when I was about to ask for directions and certainly have not had a guy to burn’ (15). The poem, then, takes us in a tangled circle, but at the same time there is no way to make sense of this – ‘no join/ no join/ no join’ (15). One of the lines in this poem perhaps captures what is at stake in this collection. The speaker states:

‘Perhaps it has changed; but non-Indo Caribbeans used not to be aware that ‘Ali’ and ‘Mohammed’ are not Indian names. And in that unawareness they are linguistically wrong, but more profoundly right: for our ancestors brought over a shared Indian village culture, over a century before the creation of Pakistan in the Indus area made such a difference’ (14).

What is profoundly right then, in this collection, is the intertwined lived histories and everyday lives of human beings. To partition these histories is not only profoundly wrong, but also to commit the violence that this poems attest to, through insidious and all-pervasive racism, which distorts even in the smallest interchanges and interactions. The poem describes the lunatic reverberation ‘set up by the 1947 Partition’ where ‘some third-generation immigrant families briefly fought according to the lines of what had not previously been a division.’ (14) We must find our way through such ‘lunatic reverberations’ – presented in the poems through a series of shocks – broken syntax, scrambled images, ‘no join’. These are certainly not stable stories that can simply be told in the old way, and yet the old ways remain essential to the stories that must told so that the poems spill over with rich conversations, tales, habits and customs. We should not, of course, expect uniformity in such a project, and Capildeo combines the delicate with the visceral, the dreamlike with the direct address and prose with verse to bear witness to the experiences of exile, alienation, belonging, racism and migration.

The book itself is a tapestry of bright threads. There are distinct strands of blue, purple and yellow, for instance, which create a constellation of colour echoes. The ‘fjord blue’ of the opening poem (11), flows into the screen ‘bluer than you’d have thought’ (41), refracted back in ‘blue flowered dresses (61), ‘blue dusk’ (81) ‘blue lightening’ (113) and the ‘real citizens’ responding to sunlight and ‘coming out in droves, pale blue and bumpy and too pleased for words’ (109). Then there is purple: ‘dark lavender paper’ (94), ‘amethyst’ (63) and ‘plum foliage’ (114); yellow: ‘Corn-stalks’ (94) and ‘tan yellow skin’ (21); and green: ‘jade water’ (51), ‘forest’ (63), a ‘shiny green notebook’ (60) and ’olive green’ (101). Although the colours are never blurred, they remain inescapably tangled, like the everyday encounters that underpin the material of this collection. The opening poem, ‘Handfast’, for example, offers a bird of prey startling ‘spirals stitched where she might perch: fjord blue, holm green, scarlet, sand,/ like her bloodline, Iceland to Arabia:/ because her hooded world’s my hand.’ (11). In the word ‘refugee’, the colours are even more tangled: ‘there is brown and mid-blue, blister-purple, love-scarlet and a great deal of black in this word’ (101-2). Elsewhere there are bursts of ‘yellow-green (115) and a flame in front of a bronze tiger: ‘The wick has blackened and at the base of the flame is a note of steely blue. Reflections shine red-gold’ (31). There is no possibility of neatly separating one colour from another and so existence must be narrated through knots of brightness.

It is not only colours that reverberate, but also sounds: rhymes and half-rhymes string together disparate images, whilst repeated images draw together different forms and sounds. It is difficult to pick out individual poems in a collection as rich as this. The second poem is about cattle. It is a beautiful, tender poem, where the ‘tears curled from the cattle’s eyes, their horns curled back, their coats curled like frost-ferns on windshields or the hair on the heads of Sikander’s soldiers’ (12). This poem is characteristic of many in the collection – bringing together the cattle on the ‘very green’ hills which ‘eat good food, the same food as the household’ (12) with the systematic slaughter of thousands of cattle in Birmingham and Leicester and the bad quality of the meat in these animals when they are alive: ‘They inject them. Their flesh is ahhh.’ (12). The poem explores alienation, exile and ancestry, and also adds a hint of mirth, as do others in the collection. ‘Investigation of Past Shoes’ (36-37) for example is light and almost funny, but with dark undertones. This poem explores the beautiful ways that violence operates: the inner stitching of the silver ballet slippers which ‘hooked the softness of my skin’ and the paper tissues stuffed into her shoes which fail to protect her feet: ‘Paper tissue snow-flecks tear dropped with crimson blood created a trail behind me as I ascended the many tiers of the wedding-cake concert hall’ (37). This poem is exquisite and sad, and the almost excessive use of adjectives somehow remains fresh and evocative.

Measures of Expatriation shifts frequently between traditions, places and cultures, between people, animals and colours. Even the gaps between words become spaces for movement and association. Throughout there are echoes of hedges, streets, houses and twigs. There are also birds, words and friends. This is a book to last, and one that I will keep reading. It is a collection in which new threads appear in every reading: a tapestry that refuses to be frozen.


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