The sea is like this: Odyssey Calling by Vahni Capildeo

odyssey calling

More than anything, Vahni Capildeo’s rich and diverse writing embraces plurality and togetherness; and their new pamphlet from SAD Press, Odyssey Calling, takes the ocean as its central metaphor for the expansive indivisibility of an unknowable, experiential world. I’m not sure if ‘together’ can be verbed (why not!), but togethering seems to be the best way to express Capildeo’s apparent project in this pamphlet, as it was previously and most conspicuously in their most recent full collection Skin Can Hold from Carcanet. There is no segmenting, bordering or othering in the great liquid oneness which covers two thirds of the globe – no single authority in the “flow of blue capillaries” (‘Spindrift Silences’) where there can only be “you” in the “dark room”, but an “only you” who cries “a thousand treasurable cries” and who sometimes finds, in “deeper water” and “emptier silences” that “outsider status drops expected but absent barriers”. “How can you be territorial about the sea?” the speaker asks in part three of the sequence ‘Odyssey Response’ (called, appropriately, ‘The Sea’) and set against this of course is the by-definition-territorial land, where there are both divisions and power relations (“people / who have power of health and employment over us”) but over which Capildeo invokes language as powerful transformative and levelling force (“as if lawyers were angels…as if death / were…an infinite set of paper doll kings / of terror, cancelled by a gentle fiery sword”). Words bring with them the same togethering that water brings, thus in part one of ‘Odyssey Response’ these lines, extending the Homeric metaphor of ‘winged words’ to unifying effect: “Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people / who share vulnerability on a trembling earth; / who drink, or hope to drink, sweetly, cool water.”

Elsewhere Capildeo sings an appreciation of birds at length in the glorious ‘In Praise of Birds’ and the reader recalls the previous alignment of words with birds and understands that this is also a hymn to language. ‘In Praise of Birds’ offers stanza after stanza celebrating their diversity, metaphorical ubiquity and general oddness (sometimes, in true Capildeo fashion, just revelling in simple birdy wordplay – “In praise of a good turn of cluck”).

As in Skin Can Hold, there is in Odyssey Calling a prose section explaining a group project approaching poetry in an innovative way. This time (perhaps evolving the ‘syntax poem’ reworking of Martin Carter – although I don’t know which came first) the new approach, “Azure Noise and Kinetic Syntax” makes use of a performance space carefully to reduce the pressure of interpretation (especially academic interpretation) on the audience and even discourage any active search for meaning at all – instead creating what Capildeo calls an “active silence”. Layered recordings of contemporary texts contribute, we’re told, to a soundscape that interacts with an audience moving in and out of various zones and multiple performances in a room including “swathes of fabric”, mattresses and sheets and stalls of marbles and other “simple lustrous things”. At the same time Capildeo reads “water poems” (an example of which presumably is what follows the prose section, quoted earlier, the beautiful ‘Spindrift Silences’), they read “softly, so the audience could choose their level of engagement”. All of this reflects the pamphlet’s overall sense of togethering: the individual here (poet, audience) does not exist in isolation either from the poetry or from the rest of the world, poetry is not me and mine, but us and ours.

As always in Capildeo, nothing is entirely straightforward, and the richly metaphorical ocean contains far more than a single simple reading, it also “covers over” and conceals, causes us to forget – history for example (“Memory is no good / to triumphant civilizations.”), and acts as a highway for Empire-builders and oppressors (“By Zeus, / Time Traveller, if you see Columbus, shoot on sight”) but it is also vulnerable (“The sea needs teeth. – How can there be freedom of the sea without protection?”).

The second of the pamphlet’s two central sequences (the first being ‘Odyssey Response’) is ‘Windrush Reflections’, which places modern and historical voices in two centos alongside the poet’s own voice to work towards a critique of empire, slavery, colonialism, immigration and their relationship to identity. Again, the ocean across which so many have journeyed in hope of a better life is the key metaphor of the piece (its traffic, economy, islands) with a disorientation, confusion, and the betrayal of British colonial subjects reflected in the woozily choppy waters of lines like:

“ …The finish
of those ships overlapping
as ships ineluctably do
with others, keening the curled
wake with a forward-looking wave.
The sea is like this.
What you expect nobody
can expect. What you accept
nobody can’t accept.”

Again, in this sequence it is a plurality of voices, overlapping like the wakes of boats – and perhaps presented in the poem like exhibits at the ‘Songs in a Strange Land’ exhibition in Leeds which prompted one of the poems in the sequence – that seems to concern Capildeo (“these shelves and these selves”). And by bringing them together the poet provides a sense that they are more than the sum of their parts. Maybe it is this discovery of something more in the togetherness of identities than exists in each individual identity that leads us so close, particularly at the end of the pamphlet, to prayer and praise. Birds, coffee (“which crosses the sea”) and the sea itself all come in for special thanks and admiration in this way – and the suggestion of something approaching apotheosis takes us back to both the Greek deities and heroes of ‘Odyssey Response’ and also the first poem in the pamphlet, almost Janet-and-John-like in its charming simplicity, ‘Holy Island’, which asks us, of the seals which have “gone to the other islands”: “What do they sound like? / They sound like ghosts”. There is no God or gods in this holy place – but if you join such ambiguous figures as these absent seals (simultaneously there and not there) in Capildeo’s mysterious and powerful ocean, who knows what you will find.

I say dive in.

You can buy Odyssey Calling from SAD Press, here.

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