Turtles all the way down

By Vivek Narayanan

Utter, by Vahni Capildeo
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845232139, 78 pp)

Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo. Photograph by Caroline Forbes

With Utter, her fourth full-length collection, Trinidadian Vahni Capildeo firmly establishes herself among the most important poets of her generation writing in English, anywhere. This shouldn’t come as a shock to those readers who have followed her and found in all her books a remarkable and thoroughly independent authority, an acuity of vision and prosody; however, Utter now speaks — to me — with a new — gathered — clarity and force. The collection both extends Capildeo’s range and vindicates her continuing strategies and obsessions.

We are dealing here with a poet of intricate attention, so it may be useful to begin with a couple of close readings. Capildeo declares her scope and ground in her (magnificent) opening poem, one of two in the book called, as in the title, “Utter”:

Night drinks salt water from a bucket, draws
a sleeve from the sea, spills hand across mouth.
Night hands back the bucket to the sailor.
Night, blue-shirted, wades arrhythmically.
Night hurries off uphill.

The sky fires up as if to say what
Tongue swells against teeth as if to say what
The coastline cuts up thick and fortified

Giving the time of day, stranger,
willing this dawn rain down and utter you.

This is, first, a poem of the night “hurrying off” and the coming of the sun at start of day. Note there is no specific good or bad metaphorical value attached to night or day, so the dawn being described is not historical, but definitely a recurrent dawn: we are in classical, not romantic, territory. The poem is also an arrival, or more likely a return; the drinking of salt water is a traditional cure for sea-sickness. It may be that night is being personified here, as I thought initially, but it may  equally be that there are actual figures — a someone being given a bucket by a sailor — for it is often the case in Capildeo that person or thing blurs into landscape or god or monster, rather than one standing in for the other. There is in fact a strong whiff of a deity here, something more than human, hovering. Is the blue of the shirt a random detail (unlikely in Capildeo) or does it signify?

Something is trying to be said: what, and who, is saying it. The light reveals the coastline, not a “natural” coastline, but a deeply compromised one, cut up, “thick and fortified,” ruled by forces that are crass and not benign. The coast is, of course, a constant presence in this book, but as with the best and most alert poems from islands, it is an ambiguous zone, a zone of violence, invasion, policing. (“The small islands of a small island have their uses,” Capildeo wrote in the poem “Catch of the Day”, in her 2003 debut book No Traveller Returns — “Tourism, leper colony, maximum-penalty prison.”) And there is something strange, new, and powerful going on here, as the poem shifts towards its final lines. Punctuation and capitalisation signify this by becoming mutable, uncertain. Why is “given” suddenly capitalised — or if it is to be taken as a new sentence, then where is the full stop after “fortified”? Many of her readers know Capildeo previously worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, but I suspect that even if she hadn’t, language — not in the abstract, but in the specific gravities and histories of vocabulary, particulate grammar, and convention — would still be deeply important in her work. By this, I don’t mean that language is completely instrumental for her, or that language by itself can effect change; rather, language is change, if change that must continually carry the burden of the past. Grammar, which we sometimes understand to be a set of governing rules, also contains the core of what one must use to assert freedom.

It is inevitable then, that we move to the puzzling — and dazzling — mutation of tense in the last line of “Utter”, which I believe will make this poem a classic. Why is that penultimate word not “uttering,” to match with “willing,” or “utters,” to make it clear as the speech of the coastline? Is the landscape uttering the stranger, or vice versa? The sudden arrest of the word “utter” prevents the question from being answered, holds it in balance, but also feels as if the reins of the poem — and the language it moves in — have been suddenly taken hold of.

I can’t shake the feeling that this first poem called “Utter” is close kin to Martin Carter’s “Till I Collect”. (A quote from Carter’s poem opens Capildeo’s previous collection, Dark and Unaccustomed Words, and the dedication to Utter reads “i.m. Martin Wylde Carter.”) “Till I Collect” also begins as a night arrival, and depends, hypnotically, on a repetition. More crucially, it shifts from a deep ambivalence, even fear — “. . . I dare not plunge too far . . .” — towards, at the end, a renewed capability and assertiveness. Like Carter, Capildeo also shows a willingness to make politics answerable to the lyric vision. Nakedly, a little harrowingly, this comes out further in Utter’s second poem, “A World”:

In which the hands of people changed to things like flowers
for which new, uneasy forms of consideration
by which that iron-suited man, foolish and careful,
negotiates crowds, his two wrists bearing red hibiscus
necessarily bruised, a little raised, a little forwards,
a rivelled fountain their corollas accompanying him.

How approach the cockroach-gripped revoker of contracts?
How approach him whose sand crab hands try running askew?
How approach him? or how near the one mobbed by seagulls,
helpless to pull a glove on leaking packets of corn?

Ah, whose iced hands disappear, condense, remade droplets . . .
instant, lasting blister-silk, should once touch a heart:

This is clearly a portrait of the kind of elected official (indeed, prime minister or president) who has so often meant bad news for the postcolonial world. (Again, perhaps, one could think of Carter: “Men murder men, as men must murder men, / to build their shining governments of the damned.”) He is part strongman (“iron-suited”), part sweet-voiced seducer. Like many politicians, he is both fastidiously careful in covering up his tracks and yet, at crucial moments, somehow, bafflingly, suicidally foolish. What is especially dangerous about this kind of person are the opportunists and hangers-on he brings, whom he feeds and who feed off of him. Yet, there is a strange (typical in Capildeo) double-pointed ambiguity in the adjectival “cockroach-gripped” — he is gripped by cockroaches who would have him do them favours, but, by this intense association (aurally, also, by linking the k’s and r’s of “cockroach” and “revoker”) and by the image of his hands that dominates and suffuses the poem, he is himself a kind of cockroach. “Revoker of contracts” also plays a funny double role here — “contract” presumably as both “project tender” and “social contract.” We are looking at this world through Capildeo’s acerbic poem and the unforgiving harshness of the words it relies on — and yet the poem ends on an unmistakably vulnerable, near-lyrical note — “once touch a heart:” — almost as if the speaker were a betrayed lover, that final colon as something longing to be said.

I say near-lyrical, since the meaning, at least, of the last two lines seems clear — the essence of that iron-suited man is that he is ready and willing to lie to the very end, and so may even be saved, at that time, by those lies. There is a kind of dark submission in this that we are forced to come to terms with.

Politics — that is, the set of things we delineate as political — haunts and pesters these poems, but it is widened into what we might call the “social” layer of Capildeo’s work, one that is concerned with rights and obligations, and the personal and collective contracts we make with each other. It marks itself, at the very least, by an insistent sharpness of tone that interrupts and otherwise mingles with her lyrical impulses, rising into unabashed satire (in some of Capildeo’s most entertaining pieces) or deepening into myth. In Utter, as with her other books, this is always a politics of multiplicity; for instance, at the first level, a multiplicity of geographical location. There’s no pity here for those who are unable to inhabit more than one place — especially those who live in the metropoles, pointedly figured here the most parochial. (In the light piece “Just How Hot”, for instance, Capildeo riffs on a British weather report that describes the day as “hotter than Africa,” repeating the phrase into fevered absurdity, and ending with a sudden awakening: “Africa! / which I hear / can be a pretty cool place.”)

Places speak to each other and are often superimposed. There’s no doubt that we are squarely — though not always fashionably — in the contemporary moment, where spring may be on its way out, though still governed by poor Ceres, where 9/11 and its aftermath — or more accurately, really, the arrival of a new episteme — has changed things for all of us, sometimes in the most subtle of ways. “Of the Same Metal”, a transversion (or “departure,” as Capildeo might prefer to call it) from the Anglo-Saxon “Wife’s Lament”, compares the narrator’s journey to England with that of her mother decades earlier, and concludes that the latter may have been freer in many ways — screaming when the plane tilts on a wing would not, in those supposedly more difficult days, get you shot at by the air marshal. The closing lines of “Calling Time” delineate most clearly the dream and the consequences of the new dispensation:

So in purpleblack conscience of the quite empty blue sky
I figured an airplane collision. The lakes not looked at,
picking up cobalt, left their rock, ripple morphed to missile . . .

……………………………………………………... . . direct, the hit
I’d feared, which would see me running out of myself . . .

Against this backdrop, a deeply compromised (but still fertile?) Caribbean is played against a United Kingdom on the verge of institutional collapse. This theme emerges most strongly in a lovely but disturbing triad of poems: “The Drip”, which presents the instrumentalisation of relationships as a kind of oozing; “For Z., At the End of Term”, which is set at a university (“Walking around, looking relaxed, are those without a conscience, / only those, among my colleagues”); and the comic “The Good Colleague”, which has a more corporate or semi-corporate setting, where the frantic and continuous exchange of mints covers deep dysfunction (“There was a friendly transaction involving a mint. // All is temporarily right with the world.”) In these poems there’s inevitably a fantasy of “quitting,” of disengagement that never quite comes to pass:

I’m thinking of leaving. But where should I go?
It’s strange that you should say that.
I almost went there
years ago.

Readers looking here for conventional postcolonial tokens of rights, outrages, demands, and advocacy — or, indeed, the world of the empowered reader or narrator — will be frustrated. As it might be said of Carter, Capildeo is intent on turning political questions into metaphysical realms. In an essay describing the genesis of the poem “Coastal Man Indoors”, Capildeo writes:

I wanted the poem to have that quality of nightmare and enclosure. That would be the social critique: it would work by suggestion, by being unsettling and by its refusal to settle, rather than by wrapping up some what-a-pity anecdote or making an argument about social interaction.

(From In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry, ed. Helen Ivory and George Szirtes, 2012)

The real politics of a poem, Capildeo seems to be saying, occurs first and foremost in that complicated “refusal to settle” between writer and reader, or indeed, between writer and critic. Capildeo has a particular way of staging this. In several poems, right from “At the Butterfly” in her first collection No Traveller Returns, you have problematic encounters with a male critic-like figure, usually but not always “Western,” and a female narrator, often marked as some shade of “other.” There are sometimes touches of romance here too, failed or forced romance, but a common thread is the critic-figure’s certainty that he has his interlocutor all figured out. In Utter’s “The Critic in his Natural Habitat”, this plays out broadly as prose farce, where the critic, just before telling his wife to iron his “brown corduroy trousers,” is insistently recommending a writer — known only through personal connections — whose name he ultimately cannot produce:

You don’t write for the Times Literary Supplement, do you? Dorina recently did a brilliant review of Tricia’s edition of Gussie’s translations of Brazilian slum poetry composed in Spanish by a French guy who taught on an art history course here, oh, donkeys years ago.

I don’t remember his name.

(“Taught on” as opposed to merely “taught” is typical of Capildeo’s attention to satirical detail.)

However, another poem, “Aux Bibliothèques aux Antilles”, handles this theme very differently. Here the narrator is a book from an endangered (or near-destroyed) library in Haiti, speaking to the man in “khaki and navy” who will decide its fate through a funding decision:

Myself dropped through the floor of myself,
you, broken out of leaf,
mistrustful, pithy, four-dimensioned.
I would be stuck with that . . .

The multifarious integrity of pomegranates.

Sharing a hell with you no king and I almost a queen.

This is a very different tone, and the reference to pomegranates initiates a path to the Persephone/Hades myth. In a third poem, “The Ultimately Unavailable He”, a failed flirtation ends with the declaration,

for it is as I said
he is good and dead
I brought him to book
who’d take me as read.

The politics of Utter comes ultimately, then, not in its readiness to champion and answer to old categories and interpellated postcolonial identities, but in fact in its fierce refusal of easy reading or reduction. As I’ve pointed out in my reading of the title poem “Utter”, this is enacted in the working and reworking of grammar, in its flow or its sudden arrest, through absence, or through, often, a kind of semic overloading. I myself can’t help thinking — though Capildeo may have arrived here by other means, through examples in the Anglo-Saxon or English tradition itself — of this last strategy as sleşa: a term and practice of Sanskrit poetics, meaning “simultaneous narration,” or a line/poetic unit that is explicitly written to be read in two or more ways. This is a simultaneity that works on many different levels. At the level of the word or line, one notices or suspects puns put to a serious purpose, the use of hinge words like “so” and line breaks put to a double effect, or even tricks of reading, as in the last line of “Fusion”, where one reads “says teal,” but the context of the poem seems to overlay “says steal.” More explicitly, in the second section of “Tusk”, we are presented with a catalogue of such multiple homophonic alternatives, but arranged visually, almost as if it were an interconnected map of neural possibilities:

I see in the middle distance
mind cease    mine   mind’s eye
mind seize    mine   mind’s sigh
mind’s ease  mine   mind’s aye

And whole poems can also produce this disorienting doubledness. “In the Absence of Love or a Postal Voting System”, as its title suggests, can be read in two separate ways, either as a love poem or as political critique. The first section of “Creative Writing Lessons” is set, productively, both in Trinidad, “the old days of powercuts and strikes,” and on the fantasy page of a creative writing class in Britain.

What I’m calling the sleşa or doubledness running throughout the collection hints at Capildeo’s relentless working of prosody, word, and grammar, silted as they are with the past, and it must also surely be connected to Capildeo’s investment in multiplicity. Yet it comes from somewhere else still, from the strata of what I might call “cosmology,” for there are, without a doubt, deeper domains of existence, thought, and belief that have consistently informed the poems — and their connections to each other — through each of her collections. At first, these domains are recognisable as a concern — not sympathy, but identification — for the non-human. Throughout, there are poems about and/or spoken by plants, trees, dogs, cows, and so on. This isn’t an easy or coy “ecological” romanticism; the non-humans in her work always exist to be transmogrified, sometimes into monsters and spirits and back. All of these creatures are at all times continuous with humans — that is, they exist on the same plane. Capildeo’s understanding of these relationships is classical, certainly informed by the classical, and yet deeply personal, linked — at least by the evidence of some of her essays — also to childhood memory. There is a clear set of repeating external sources here — Dante, the Nordic myths, Old English, Trinidadian folklore, Hindu iconology — but to find myth and learnedness in Capildeo is not to see the floating debris of sources, it is to see them utterly transformed into something alive, intense, and themselves beastlike, or perhaps to see them as the talismans that guide her beasts.

Readers of all four of her books will slowly find that allusions are not to be understood as references but as recurring obsessions that, in the process of metamorphosis, might become almost unrecognisable, or reduced to a glance, a colour, or an object placed quietly into a scene — perhaps the way a mere scent of leopard calls in Dionysius for a Pound or a Crane. In this way, gods and spirits, soucouyants, loupgarous, and so on, sometimes turned more into impersonal forces than characters, become part of the poem’s existence, among the conditions of its existence, and can sometimes be spotted only by the tracks they leave.

Above this, and only partly out of this, sits the second strata of the mythos: the personal menagerie that Capildeo constructs and tends intently and with equal obsession. Here we have language that seems almost borrowed from psychology, but is a world away from psychology as we would normally understand it. Here we have the presence of more unspecified monsters, persons, animals, and things (or perhaps, to borrow from the title of a long poem included in Undraining Sea, persons, animals, and figures).

By suggesting “layers” — never mind the dubiousness of the implied hierarchy — I mean only to say that even the most everyday of Capildeo’s characters seem, like Clifford Geertz’s turtles, to go “all the way down.” (“There is an Indian story — at least I heard it as an Indian story — about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? ‘Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.’” —from The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973. I’m invoking Geertz’s very particular reading of this old parable; but see also the Wikipedia entry on “Turtles all the way down”.)

The modern venal politician (alas, is there any other kind?) is simultaneously among the most ancient of monsters and a divinity, though obviously a deeply ambiguous one. It is, finally, the integral quality of this vision, this thoroughly and meticulously populated vision, that sets Capildeo’s emerging oeuvre sometimes far above that of her peers. What we have here is not a set of conceits, or even concerns, but a system and a mythos entire, one that is delivered to us with such continuous and consistent lyrical intensity, both classical and contemporary, that it can appear as fissures of lightning on the page:

the tune is charged with repetition
the body all spirit
air outrages fire
blue divorces green —
So too one iridescent birdflight

(“I Show You a Mystery”)


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2015

Vivek Narayanan was born in India and raised in Zambia. He has taught at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, and has worked at the Sarai Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Narayanan’s two books of poems are Life and Times of Mr S (2012) and Universal Beach (2006). He is co-editor of the literary journal Almost Island.