Reading Vahni Capildeo’s Utter (Peepal Tree Press, 2013) is an absolute joy, displaying the range and registers that the best of contemporary poetry should exhibit more fully. Capildeo is both Trinidadian and universal. The reader is taken on an inventive and linguistically fresh journey. The prose poem, ‘The Drip’, which extends her interest in the borderline between the human, animal, and natural, is a favourite with my sixth form students:
Cheese is in his blood. He is pale and sweats like a cheese. Some
invertebrates breathe via spiracles, a rattle of tiny holes along
their sides, a scale of inaudibility. The cheese: as it sweats, does it
breathe? Disproportion appears between the porosity of the
surface and the pearling reek that seeps stinking out the street,
marking the atmosphere: the passing of the cheese. Awful to
admit to him! Like the hours before five a.m. Sooner say that “I
was up at ten past five” than admit to five to the hour. He is half
four at best. A wet lowing lies somewhere at his origins. A
reluctant cow was milked in the rain. Unpasteurized, clumsy, he
free-ranges this city. He fetches up at your side and starts oozing.
Cheese looks for kindness but gets the knife. Tie him up in a piece
of gauze and be done.
My students are excited by the poetic possibilities such a poem reveals, the language use, word play and humour. Who wants more mundane regurgitation of poems that have gone before? Capildeo is never far from fable and approaches her themes from extraordinary angles using a multiplicity of voices. Her writing is lush, fresh, often celebratory of simple things and deceptively beguiling moving towards the edge of horror. She has a wicked sense of humour. Her lexicography work for the Oxford English Dictionary has doubtless helped broaden her already extensive language use into more exacting and applied nuances, as well as inspiring ‘Quhen’, being an obsolete Scottish word for when.
[When] that I spelled and uttered your word’s harsh start –
too young to understand – I told nobody that
you fetched up in my heart like a stalactite:
formed, formal, ruckled, fell;
struck through, I breathed you out,
nobody noticing you’d made me your kingdom,
in all the frozen variety of your freedom.
Here I love the use of ‘spelled’, which makes me consider the naming and writing of letters, be a sign or characteristic of, under the effect of a spell and the reciting of letters. Also ‘ruckled’, meaning to make wrinkles on a smooth surface and to make a hoarse, rattling sound. ‘Spelled’ though takes me on to the title poem, ‘Utter’, which partly defines itself as ‘a thing in translation: / eggshell-shy. A thumb’s worth of glory, / nesting near the coastlines of your palm.’
This exuberant collection deserves more than a thumb’s worth of glory.
David Caddy December 21st 2013