Vahni Capildeo, Skin Can Hold (Carcanet)
Of all the contemporary poets writing in the UK today, Vahni Capildeo is the one who, with seven books and five pamphlets behind them, most gives the impression that they are only just getting started. Capildeo’s intelligence, learning, wit, anger, skill and insight appear to be, on the evidence so far, limitless; and it is a brave person who would hazard a guess as to what they will come up with next. Of course, it is not actually any of the above qualities that make Capildeo’s work stand out (they are adjectives that could be applied to any number of active poets), but it is the way those qualities are used – the purposes to which they are put.
When Geoffrey Hill died, Rowan Williams elegised him in the Guardian with these words: “He speaks from deep inside his language. The reader sees the ripple on the surface, puzzling, even apparently arbitrary; but not the fathoms-down movement on the seabed. To read with understanding, you have to join him down there, which is an arduous journey and often frustrating, but generates a sense of challenge and vital unsettlement.”
Capildeo’s poetry is not easy, and I would suggest that, as with Hill, their work provokes in the reader a “sense of challenge and vital unsettlement”, but Capildeo does not require us to dive to the dark seabed of language in search of understanding, as Williams had Hill doing, rather they bring it up into the joyful, harsh, sometimes blinding sunlight on the surface. Puzzling, maybe, but hardly arduous.
In some ways Skin Can Hold moves thematically away from the previous two Carcanet collections, Measures of Expatriation and Venus as a Bear, in as much as the constant questioning, testing, stretching and redefining of the ‘lyrical I’ largely shifts in focus from some of the strategies that have served the poet so well in the past (for example, using geographical dislocation as a metaphor for distancing inner from outer / mental from physical worlds, and some of the more Ovidian forms of metamorphosis to be found in, particularly, Venus as a Bear). Capildeo is clearly continuing their project of breaking down the I, but in this collection, we find more twisting together and opening-up of pre-existing texts (see the Muriel Spark sequence for the former and the Martin Carter section for the latter), as well as direct engagement with fellow contemporary poets (Mark Ford and Zaffar Kunial) and an ‘inviting-in’ of the reader (or audience) with several poems that include stage directions (e.g. ‘Four Ablutions’) or prose explanations as to the purpose of the poem (i.e. the syntax-ified Carter poem ‘I am No Soldier’).
The overall result is a feeling that this is a collection which Capildeo is holding out to the world, offering – as a teacher may offer to a student – a utensil that will help them participate and therefore understand: ‘Look’ they seem to say, ‘now it’s your turn!’ Perhaps it is increasing confidence that leads Capildeo to offer up their work this way, but I get the impression that this is the way things were always heading. The Carcanet volumes (the only Capildeo collections I am familiar with) all seem to be developing towards something which involves sharing a new way of looking through poetry (or looking, through poetry). We may not need to follow Capildeo to her ocean depths, but she would like us to take part in her language, to join her in the water so to speak – and perhaps the understanding is in the taking part. There is, however, no sense that this is the arriving at a destination, or the culmination of a previously incomplete sequence of work.
I think the continual development of forms and ideas, call it experimentation, is central to Capildeo’s work because it represents the poet’s vision of a fundamental ‘unfinishedness’ inherent in the human condition. (This is distinct from ‘incomplete’, as it is perfectly possible in Capildeo to be both complete and unfinished simultaneously). We see this directly in poems like ‘from The End of the Poem’, which is both complete in itself and an extract from another poem (and which contains the ultimate ‘unfinishable’ image, that “infinite tonguetwister” the self-devouring ouroboros), and we see it also in ‘Fragment of a Lost Epic from the Losing Side’ – which is in the most overtly political, final section of the book – in which both a city and an individual perch for eternity on the verge of destruction. Both these poems define themselves as just the visible element of a larger and more complex whole – complete in that they present as entire ‘units’ but unfinished in that what lies behind the visible remains impossibly always-to-be-arrived-at.
Language here is inseparable from the physical individual, and Capildeo makes chromosomal references several times, most overtly in the second section of ‘from The End of the Poem’: “The poem is Trinidadian, / is double x chromosomed, is one hundred and fifty cm, / is creatively crushing on a dead Scottish man / and imagines itself in medieval Italian / and is none of I, Lord have mercy, it is not what I am.” So, the reader would clearly be unwise to identify poem and poet as synonymous and yet the poet appears to run through the poem at an almost genetic level (I’ve written about linguistic DNA before, and find myself on an unfinished learning journey myself here too, as this link will show). But for Capildeo, individual identity, like gender and like race (which are of course inseparable from self) is fluid, creative, unfinished and ultimately not actually individual at all: Martin Carter’s I is described as “extensive, inclusive” and containing a sense of “the I that can be we” and this is also true of Capildeo’s own I (and all of ours) – this is both political (“I am this poem like a sacrifice” wrote Carter in ‘I am No Soldier’, whose poems Capildeo wishes to be “with and inside” through syntax poetry) and personal (“Do not SHE me” the poet puts it bluntly in ‘Shame’) In contrast with ‘she’ / ‘her’ the personal pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ are plural, inclusive and as such reflect the communality of a self-definition which seems to wrest the notion of ‘containing multitudes’ away from Whitman. Capildeo does not make any claims on ‘largeness’ but expands the I to celebrate all the unfinished, unfixed, and fluid plurality that the Skin Can Hold.
More than with any poet, I am aware of a ‘review’ format being inadequate to cover the myriad delights that Capildeo presents to the reader – and further aware that there will no doubt be many more delights I have missed because of my own lack of reading. My unfamiliarity with the work of Muriel Spark, for example, stunts my appreciation of one of the two central sections in the collection, ‘Sparks’, a knitting-together of various Spark stories with elements of Shakespeare, Webster, Marinetti and Two Knotty Boys (Google them if you need to. I did!) among others, but this does not prevent me from seeing the creativity of different ages being intertwined and thereby metamorphosed into something new and by extension, again, unfinished. And it also inspires me to seek out and read the work of Muriel Spark – which is not such a bad outcome – and then to return to these texts more fully-informed, perhaps to write a second review. So it may be that this review is itself unfinished.
I love Capildeo for their wit and rage, which often comes in one and the same expression (“Fuck that shit. Now that’s a poem”) but more than that for the complexities of life that they refuse to gloss over glibly, or ignore, as many do. This is poetry which is interested in looking for the truth with the only tool we have to do so, language. In other words, for me this is real – stop, slow down, read, think – poetry. And I make no apology for linking it as I did above to dead white male poet Geoffrey Hill in this regard.
I have had reason recently to quarrel somewhat bitterly on Facebook with a relative who is of the ‘science-tells-us-men-are-men-and-women-are-women-and-trans-women-are-men-who-pose-a-threat-to-actual-women’ school. I feel I argued the case-against successfully (although my relative would disagree) but how I wish I could find a way of having us sit with each other and for us to read Vahni Capildeo together, and to talk about the non-binary complexities of life and how art can help us see these complexities which science is only beginning to reveal in some cases, and to think about the multitudinous nature of selfhood and how language reflects that. I don’t think my relative would take the time required to do this though – they are filled at the moment with too much blind anger, panic and fear, those most contemporary of abstract nouns. But it seems to me that it is language as a defence against just those nouns which Capildeo holds out to us so generously in this collection.
Skin Can Hold is published by Carcanet, and is available here.