Here be monsters

By Nicholas Laughlin

Lagahoo Poems, by James Christopher Aboud
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-84-8, 64 pp)

No Traveller Returns, by Vahni Capildeo
(Salt Publishing, ISBN 1-876857-88-9, 168 pp)

What kind of creature is a monster? Perhaps something misformed; perhaps merely imaginary; perhaps unnaturally huge; perhaps cruel or ferocious; for the word “monster” over the centuries has acquired all these meanings. And let us remember that its Latin root is the verb monere, to warn; a monster is also a portent, a rough beast whose slouching heralds beginnings and endings, transformations and inversions. We ignore monsters at our peril.

The shape-shifter is a particularly pervasive kind of monster. The world’s myths and folklore are full of men and women who can transform themselves into every conceivable kind of beast, from lamias to selkies to swan maidens, wereleopards, weretigers, and werehyenas, and, of course, the werewolf, robustly inhabiting the popular imagination even today, thanks to numerous Hollywood horror movies. These creatures, straddling the boundary between man and animal, collectively embody our fear of the bestial hungers that throb within the human heart, but also our fascination with the wisdom we apprehend in the non-human world around us. Our scientists labour to achieve knowledge of natural forces that wild animals and domestic pets alike seem to possess instinctively: the approach of hurricanes and earthquakes, migratory routes across the earth’s difficult surface, colours and sounds that human eyes and ears cannot perceive.

No wonder we spin tales about witches and magicians who assume animal forms to access this ancient knowledge; no wonder we both envy and fear their freedom from the limits of the human body and the conventions of human society.

The Trinidadian version of the universal shape-shifter is the lagahoo — the word comes from the French loup-garou, meaning werewolf. As an epigraph to his new book of poems, James Aboud quotes Gerard Besson’s Folklore of Trinidad:

Lagahoo could change his shape into any beast or form and roam the streets or forests. In order to see him properly, you had to put the yampee or mucus from a dog’s eye in your own eye and look through your keyhole at midnight. Sometimes, people saw him with a coffin on his head and chains dragging behind. He lusted after girls and women without restraint. In everyday life, he could be an Obeah man, or even a man of some learning, living a quiet, solitary life. He was a genius at maiming or killing. People said that sometimes he became so tall that his head disappeared above the trees.

The creature who is “the subject and consciousness” of Aboud’s Lagahoo Poems derives in part from the lagahoo of Trinidadian folklore, but has been metamorphosed in the poet’s imagination. He is a watcher and a wanderer, forever outside the circle of human company and human comfort, but privy to all the secrets of humankind, and to secrets still unknown to humans. He seems to remember the beginning of things, “the source / of the terrible past”:

Sun begat moon …… Moon begat ocean
Ocean twisted its configuration
Into paper which begat
Countless stories splashed on sand

He remembers the primeval reign of Papa Bois; the arrival of Columbus, “Silver like the moon”; the days of the Spanish Cabildo and of English governors “with dreams of Orders-in-Council”; in the present day he rides in a maxi-taxi, whispering to the other passengers, “Your feet are bound and laced in leather, / Your women’s breasts are held with wires.” But nothing binds or holds Lagahoo, save the force of his own hunger, his “deep dark mud-lust.” He defies the pull of gravity, the pull of time; he “takes his shape from the wind . . . from the fire”:

The shape of water is not caused by water,
But by the palms of Lagahoo’s hands and his beaches.
Water tumbles through the ages
Much as it tumbles through the rocks,
Without hindrance.
Without Lagahoo, water has no shape,
But Lagahoo takes his shape from the water.

The shape of the man is the shape of darkness
But the man’s senses are full of light,
And Lagahoo takes his shape also from the men
And their senses.

He takes his shape from all the contradictory facts of his island home: from history’s pain and pleasure, from night’s unseen terrors and day’s plain threats, from memory and from desire. Lagahoo is the enemy lurking in the bushes, but somehow he is also a guardian. Part man, part beast, perhaps part meteorological phenomenon, he is a mix-up, like all true Trinis, trying to contain if not resolve the forces battling within him: love, fear, rage. When he speaks, he is a poet. “After a while, I did not care to distinguish my voice from his,” Aboud has said.

Like the Crow poems of Ted Hughes, which they inevitably recall, Aboud’s Lagahoo Poems are dark, sharp-edged fragments of what seems like a lost creation myth; precise yet dizzyingly mysterious hints about Nature’s true nature, the inseparableness of life and death, the inexorability of the biological motive, the inscrutability of the unconscious. Aboud, in the best of these poems, simplifies language to vivid elements. Nouns are rough in the fingers like stones, warm in the nostrils like the smell of mud; verbs sting like insects or slice like razor-grass. He plays rhythms against dissonances and creates a fierce, beautiful music.

Lagahoo Poems also contains a couple of love poems (one of which opens with these lines, which should make the woman they are addressed to blush with joy: “Her eyes were like bent twigs or lanterns in the forest, / ‘This way home, Mister,” they said, and I still follow”); an ars poetica, “The Sky at Blanchisseuse”; and the moving concluding poem, “Here Is Beyond Then and Now”, imagines the poet’s final moments, discovering that the massive eternity of death is still outweighed by the sheer passion of living and the ardour of creation — “howls of joy / that ricochet and cannot end.” This book is, simply, thrilling. It’s a little shocking to realise it’s been eighteen years since the publication of Aboud’s promising first collection of poems, The Stone Rose. A remarkable poet has kept us waiting too long — has made us practise, you might say, the patience of the Lagahoo.

Vahni Capildeo’s debut book, No Traveller Returns, offers a different kind of thrill, and demands its own kind of patience from its readers. Intricate, elusive, alternately confiding and concealing, it requires and repays rereading. Capildeo — a Trinidadian who has lived in Britain since 1991 (and, as her surname will suggest to Trinidadians, a cousin once removed of V.S. Naipaul) — describes the book as an autobiography, “moving outwards . . . from the mind that feels free to report on the world, into the mind that knows it must question itself,” and insists that “the sequence matters, as does the whole.” The journey hinted at in its title is spiritual as well as physical, intellectual as well as geographical. Like any true voyage of discovery, it involves many stops and starts, detours and back-trackings, delays and unexpected encounters, all charted by Capildeo in a language as careful as playful, aware both of its limits and of its powers.

It starts close to home, in two sections called “The Mask in the Bone” and “A Sense of Vanishing”, whose poems seem to be assembled from childhood memories and dreams and stories once overheard — about a scent of jasmine that portends death, about a “giant Pandit” and his caymans, about the Mystery Tombstone in Tobago. How do these scraps of one’s past, the poems seem to ask, fit into one’s present self?

Is it a country has died
within me? Is it
I have died to it, to the past or future
that is my own strange land?

As the narrative moves from the shores of a small island like a “flattened boot” further out into the world, these questions about the self’s “strange land” are rephrased over and over. “Is the opposite of remembrance forgetfulness?” “Can reality outdo its own encounter?” “I cannot answer when / temperature’s evidence alters. / I saw no where but in.”

Then at the heart of the book: another monster, this one even harder to define than Aboud’s Lagahoo. “The Monster Scrapbook” is the central section of No Traveller Returns, accounting for more than half its length. It opens with an elaborate epistolary preface, signed “H”:

Do you not share my instinct, that some among us are most closely akin to those hybrid and marvellous beasts which haunt legend, manuscript, and folk memory alike? . . . A bundle of writings has lately come my way, from (I regret to admit) a family member . . . You must have known Monsters. You must have known people whose eyes hit you with large and sudden appeals — people whose capacity for feeling and action seems sometimes more, sometimes less, than the human — people who are ill-treated outrageously by those whom they love, and elevated to positions of esteem and responsibility by those to whom they are indifferent. They induce SPECIES FEAR, a kind of wincing of the soul . . .

There follows a series of notes on the psychology and physiology of monsters, “Monster Postures” and “Monster Deception”, memoir-like fragments, names of imaginary songs (“Six Per Cent Love — Zero and the Long Division”), verses about Theseus, Narcissus, and Orpheus, definitions of seduction (“agreeing to be tempted”) and temptation (“agreeing to be excused”). It is a bewildering and sometimes dazzling performance in many voices, from the lyrical to the parodic. It is the diary of a merciless attempt to comprehend the self (whose “self”?) in the guise of the eponymous Monster.

Things get to the Monster, things lodge in the Monster, things stop the Monster . . . The Monster was born full of cutting implements that move around within its own flesh, the wrong inside, keen and heavy. Monster flesh enfolds these sharp objects, doing its best to soften them, making terms with them under cover of living . . .


The natural predator of the Monster will seek, first of all, its capacity for happiness, which is, need it be specified, Monstrous. Once the Monster’s passion for companionship is discovered, you have discovered a strength which can be made into a weakness . . .


Remember that, in the Monster’s system of reckoning, Monster is the opposite of Animal, human being no more than a subset shared by both
. . . The innocence of Monsters is that they are born old . . .

Perhaps most tellingly: “Monsters get lost in their own poems.” As will the reader in these poems, but every experienced traveller knows that getting lost is sometimes the only way to find what is truly important.

What eventually points the way through this labyrinthine world is Capildeo’s linguistic virtuosity, concerned more with precision than with beauty, yet nonetheless frequently achieving beauty. It is (need it be specified) monstrously difficult to find words for the self’s deepest, most crucial facts; finally said somehow, these become clues for the next stage of the journey. And “clue” was once spelled “clew”, a word which also means “ball of string”, such as one might use to mark one’s way through a maze; and do the old stories not teach us that at the centre of a maze often lurks some kind of monster?

Capildeo knows a great deal about old stories; she is a scholar of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon whose research includes subjects like the theme of metamorphosis, the perils of translation and interpretation. She is hyper-alert to the effects on the reader of changes in tone and perspective, contradictions and repetitions, shifts in texture from verse to prose and back, and the memories that echo within words. This is, frankly, difficult poetry, designed to be puzzling, for engaging with the evolving human consciousness — the ultimate subject of No Traveller Returns — is undeniably difficult, unavoidably puzzling. But it is a necessary and urgent engagement, which Capildeo enters with curiosity and wit (which can be a form of courage).

No Traveller Returns is a more ambitious book than I’ve come across by any young Caribbean poet in recent years. Above all, it provokes ambitious questions. Who am I? What do I know? What can be known? How can it be expressed? “What is it that the mind’s eye sees when you think in sentences?” And, of course: what is the Monster? Its nature, its purpose? The Monster, perhaps (like the Laghoo), is in some way a poet; the Monster is pitied by the poet, loved by the poet. The Monster warns us how little we know. “Monsters . . . keep pushing the limits.” “Monsters . . . are great readers.” We ignore the Monster at our peril.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2004

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.