From my Poetry Bookshelf – Vahni Capildeo

I was introduced to Vahni Capildeo by Maria Jastrzebska, (a superb poet who I shall write about in the future), when I was organising one of several annual Poetry of Exile events for Tongues & Grooves, back in the autumn of 2009. I’d set up a poetry film project that was shown on the BBC big screens in Portsmouth and Dover, and made contact with Maria, as part of this.

The Tongues & Grooves event went well (it was one of those overbooked evenings when it could have ended in disaster if a couple of open-mike poets had overstayed their welcome, but we got away with it!) It was rammed and we had people queuing out the door – for a poetry event, in Portsmouth, in November. Maria, Vahni and Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh were the main featured poets.

Anyway, back to Vahni Capildeo. Capildeo was born in Trinidad in 1973 and has lived in the UK since 2011. She has published 13 collections of poetry and has a further two forthcoming. I have a couple of them, Measures of Expatriation, which won the Forward Prize for best poetry collection in 2016, and Undraining Sea, published in 2009.

As an introduction to her work, this quote by David Millar, commenting on Undraining Sea, is as good a place to start.

Vahni Capildeo, to her credit, clearly doesn’t give a fig about fashion or prestige. Her poetry is utterly divorced from that unfortunately prevalent tendency to write poems where the words give way to an (imagined) applauding audience at the next prestigious poetry awards. Her poetry is sassy, sometimes scary; dark, certainly, but there’s light there, too, even sweetness, and much humour; complex, even virtuosic, though she can be simple, in her own unique way. She’s one of the best around, and I applaud her.

Here’s her poem Mercy and Estrangement, from Measures of Expatriation, which can also be found alongside several other of her poems on the Versolopolis Poetry site;


(I hope it’s OK to share this here – I only share poems that are already online in open parts of the internet).

Mercy and Estrangement

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it
it turns into a bird, turns:
a scavenger bird lightfoot
alights on foam, contests white
as silver tilts white, silver
as refuse seams silver, gawks,
jinks, is radiated by charts
charted inly: magnetic,
unhoming because transformed.
A rill and jitter brought me
—birdform, my heart—to the park
where state translators, laid off,
sat sad for their hospitals
prisons and schools. Laws whistled
infixes between trained ears.
And at our conference,
so many equivalents
for gracias and Verfremdung,
easy change amongst false friends.

This is, I think, a good introduction to Capildeo’s writing. It may not, on the surface, be that straightforward to understand, but repays rereading. Just picking out a few elements of this poem, from the opening;

His heart hurtling towards me
I not caring to catch it

through to the image of the state translators sitting in a park;

Laws whistled infixed between trained ears.

and then the way everything is connected with the last two lines –

for gracias and Verfremdung,
easy change amongst false friends.

I think it’s great. What do you think?

As Jamie Osborn writes about one of her other collections – Simple Complex Shapes from 2015 – Reading the poems can be like feeling our way through a darkened room, with all our senses heightened, and catching occasional glimpses of light that leave us illuminated and disorientated.

These poems aren’t for everyone – I’ve seen some pretty negative reviews on Goodreads for example – but that’s to be expected really with poetry like this, that isn’t always easy to understand on first or second reading. But isn’t that part of the joy of poetry, that there are so many distinct voices, so many different ways of imagination and communication?

I’ve really enjoyed the surprising language, distinct imagery , and varied form used in both Undraining Sea and Measures of Expatriation. Both books have a mixture of poems and prose poems, that speak of migration of individuals and language. To me they speak of alienation, of the claiming and reclamation of words and ideas and of the seemingly random conjunctions that are made when different people and cultures connect.

If you are intrigued and want to find out more, then you can listen to Capildeo reading four of her poems here:

Measures of Expatriation is on my Poetry Bookshelf at Bookshop here: https://uk.bookshop.org/lists/my-poetry-bookshelf – If you buy a copy from that link I’ll make about £1.00 commission from your purchase. Not much, but it all helps to pay the site fees!

Undraining Sea is, I think, currently out of print. I’ve checked Amazon and Waterstones and it’s unavailable. I wonder how much my signed copy is worth?

I’ll finish with a quote from Bernard O’Donoghue, about Undraining Sea, the collection that Capildeo read from at the Tongues & Grooves event way back in 2009;

Vahni Capildeo’s profoundly intelligent poems are original in a very unusual way. They are modern, but composed without fear of traditional subjects or language. Every topic springs to life, in a way that is both dis- turbing and beautiful. These are life-enhancing poems that stay with you long after you have closed the book.

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