Into the deep
By Edward Baugh
Undraining Sea, by Vahni Capildeo
(Egg Box Publishing, ISBN 978-0-9559399-0-7, 88 pp)
Vahni Capildeo, at a reading in Port of Spain in 2008. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell/Caribbean Free Photo, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license
This poetry is not for the faint-hearted. It disturbs conventional notions of how poems make meaning, both for the reader and for other poets for whom Vahni Capildeo — a Trinidadian writer living in Britain — may be the poet’s poet. The blurbs for Undraining Sea give due notice. They are at one and the same time tantalising enticement and warning. For David Miller, “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.” “So much of the world,” writes Rod Mengham, “has been rendered familiar by the industries of interpretation (including the literary) that it takes a genius to recover its real intransigence.” So perhaps in our interaction with the poet’s words we should yield to the intransigence, and seek to cultivate a space “beyond interpretation,” submitting ourselves to the dazzling opacity of this “undraining sea.” It may also do to invoke “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, that [as Coleridge said] constitutes poetic faith.”
The prose poem “Person Animal Figure” (and the absence of commas after the first two words enriches and complicates the signification of the title) begins:
The animal who knocks and patters lives in the next room. It is visible only behind the curtains and from the street. Then it appears as a stripe of dark blue. This animal moves quickly in a restricted space. It has a fondness for chimney pots. It inquires about fireplaces. When it mourns, it becomes the length of a Victorian flue.
The sequence of short, definite sentences carries us along, impelling on us the mysteriousness of what they convey. We may ask what’s happening here. It may be that the answer is simply what we have been told, that an “animal” (who is person, who is figure) “who knocks and patters lives in the next room,” and so on, take it as you will. The presence seems to manifest itself in the movement and sound of air through chimneys and fireplaces. It seems to express the tension between constriction and freedom of movement.
The challenging mode of the piece about “the animal who knocks and patters” recurs in this book, Capildeo’s second full collection. For instance, there is, near the end, “Sleeplessness: Six,” which begins:
Who’s been drinking quicksand?
Our insatiable clock has.
The breezeblocks barred nothing.
Stripes are getting past the pillars.
Want a drink of water
to take the edge off.
Tilting round thoughts,
one shadow head flattens.
Nighttime has cool guests:
Footsteps. Pause. Silence.
So, walk the corridors.
The house has gone zebra.
The challenge, or expectation, may at times seem too much, as in “Found Song”:
I Sing a Song,…Naromankayem.
He is in love with her, or makes much of her,…Ichoatoati tao.
Kiss me,…Chouba nioumolougou.
And so on, to the end. Clever, but is it worth the reader’s effort? Are those strange words or names responsive to googling? (The book’s end-notes indicate that the poem transcribes its strange language from the seventeenth-century History of the Caribby-Islands, by Charles César de Rochefort.)
In “Person Animal Figure” there is a humorously self-reflexive pass at conventional poetic subject-matter, stance, and accessibility:
Darling is it fair to write anything an intelligent twelve year old could not understand I’m sure I know many of those and twelve was the age when an ancient boy could go out in ships being a Viking . . .
there is this man whose lyrics I admire . . . about the fall of leaves and the train or the plane and the look of the Channel and who was buried somewhere oh this is deep this is true and in translation this is lucid exact without any grand vague philosophical baggage dammit . . .
In her stream-of-consciousness excursus, the voice of this section of the poem apostrophises the supermarket in double-edged play, poking fun at conventions of lyric:
Let me say that the supermarket is something to celebrate just look at it orange pink green brown purple who says you can’t have bright colours in England they say it’s because it doesn’t look good with our light well there’s no daylight in these aisles so how it glows shall I have strawberries for Christmas mangoes in Grantchester bananas in Haworth . . .
A joke, and yet it may make us also somewhat uneasy, to think we may be guilty of the conventional taking-for-granted of the supermarket, and now, strangely prodded, having our eyes opened to the surprise of beauty that it too offers. We may find in this passage too, as at one or two other points in the book, a subtle variation on the age-old motif of the West Indian’s poetic reaction to the experience of England, as in “taking the mickey” out of the English (“who says you can’t have bright colours in England”).
The pointed-serious playing with the conventional and systematic is also alive in the voice’s self-reflexive, almost-total disregard of punctuation in her stream-of-consciousness meandering, although, ironically, stream-of-consciousness style is itself a convention:
I am sure I shouldn’t hate myself for feeling guilty! What can I do! Let me say it was a struggle to give up punctuation but we all have to make sacrifices not everybody has such a lot of punctuation these days better not have any just to be quite fair but there are some things I can’t quite give up it’s wicked I know it’s the apostrophes that get me I could never resist a well-placed apostrophe . . .
Ironically, again, the apostrophe is one of the most significant victims of general, contemporary carelessness about punctuation.
The thinking “outside the box” which marks the collection is signalled even in the structure of the two pieces that constitute the first of Undraining Sea’s three parts. Both deal with “the turning of time.” The first, “A Book of Hours: from Aidoneus to Zeus”, moves according to hours of the day, its five sections being captioned by precise times, but not, as one may have conventionally expected to find, times all precisely on the hour or on the half-hour. The time-headings are: “22.30h.,” “06.25 h.,” “08.43h.,” “16.07h.,” and “23.00.” The non-schematised sequence seems to have no other point but to loosen our minds from the hold of schematic thinking. And note that the “h” is omitted from the last hour. Each section takes us into a different consciousness engaged in a wary reflection on how it relates to reality, the world outside itself, and the mysterious presences in that reality. The sequence begins and circles back to night, near-midnight. Similarly, the second piece, “Winter to Winter”, begins and ends in Winter (cf. night) and, although it moves systematically through all the months from January, it ends, having returned to January, at a second February. At the end of the first “February”, “Cherries Out of Season”, the reality of cold, literal and metaphorical, is sharply caught:
As we walked
all thoughts were taken from us, except
as we were walking;
and, over and above that,
Kisses are cherries out of season.
The weather wants to be alone.
In the second part of the collection, “For a Space”, there is a compellingly enigmatic little poem, a sort of elegy, energised by the idea of how the poet’s occupational fascination with words and utterance may curiously enact an impulse towards silence:
Fame came to him at an age
when already long begun
was his way of moving off.
He wanted less of the words . . .
The most was, “I saw something.”
Like ending a letter “Love,”
He wrote, as if to people.
He was a generous man.
The title, by its length, plays with the idea of minimalism in the poem itself: “From First to Last His Books, that Started Thin, Grew Less, and I’d Put Myself in Debt to Buy All Four or Five of Them”. The “as if to people” in the penultimate line would seem to catch the riddling crux of the poem: Poetry as communication? Poetry as wordless self-realisation?
The fascination with non-normal states of consciousness is well illustrated in “Heredity”, from the last section of the book, “Virtual Presents”. Reflecting on inherited madness, the poem sees it as in our nature, in our genes, to feel a compulsion towards modes of being supposedly not natural to us, forbidden: “Land animals demand a notion / of sea green. // Don’t go there.” This compulsion is, ironically, a compulsion to break free of the boundaries of our inherited modes of being, in this case as land creatures:
ankles caressed in rented sandals,
conceive a wish for alteration
floating clear and floating under,
mocked by gorgonia, fanned by dreadlocks . . .
“Gorgonia” and “dreadlocks” image the fascination and awe of the undersea world. The pun in the former projects both the rock coral called by that name and the serpent locks of the mythological gorgon.
In this context, we understand “a woman in her eighties,” “diagnosed / [with] fifty years’ schizophrenia” and thereby “released / . . . from the names / holy, senile, sane.”
[She] put out milk for snakes;
died in public,
coming back to life
in her favourite god’s arms;
sent her maid
to thrust a loaf over the gate
at the cast-off son
who (thinking himself a visitor)
came from the cruel asylum
The son has inherited her madness, which for her involves a derangement of her relationship with her Hindu gods. She is, then, in the sea imagery to which the poem returns at its end, “under water”:
the body’s code
parrot fish and rocks . . .
black water recrossed,
The “black water recrossed” images not only the mind’s dark depths, but also the pain of the sea-crossing which brought the indentured Indian to the Caribbean. The closing pun (genes/jeans) is an example of the subtle humour which pops up at opportune moments in these poems. It also underscores the thought-teasing drift of the poem. Our genes hold and shape us tightly. At the same time, it is also in our genes to want to break out of our tight selves, out of our “land animal” state, and float free, if dangerously, into the free-float of the undersea world.
This book teases thought. At the end of “Oslo Readings” there is a passage which takes us back, in an amused and amusing turn, to the idea of the intransigence of reality and meaning in the movement of words:
…………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.
This passage may be a useful lens, prismatic perhaps, through which to view the collection.
Edward Baugh is emeritus professor of English at the University of the West Indies, Mona. He has published two collections of poems. His most recent book, Frank Collymore: A Biography, was published in 2009.