Fine-grained Hybridity

Vahni Capildeo, Venus as a Bear

Carcanet, 112pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781784105549

reviewed by Jack Belloli

They’ve been busy. Venus as a Bear arrives scarcely two years after Vahni Capildeo’s last full collection, the Forward Prize-winning Measures of Expatriation, and even then it doesn’t contain everything we’ve seen from them since, an 'agender [writer] in a female body', Capildeo takes they/them pronouns. For their funniest turn in last year’s 'Persephone in Oulipo', they offer a parody of ‘mainstream English lyric’. A lyric ‘I’ narrates the experience of sitting down to write a reflection on and for a deceased aunt. The speaker acknowledges the time and money to write, acquired through the aunt’s bequest, is an ‘ill-gotten, bankable treasure’. In such a lyric, the violence which attends to structural privilege can be regretted, and it can be regretted that one feels only regret and not the violence. However, it’s also where this feeling of regret gets to do atoning work all by itself – and can thus be perversely enjoyed, along with all that treasure.

I sip Colombard,
a strangely peacefully named
wine from an eternal war zone.
O so much to regret,
the shady media of the heart.

Ouch. Capildeo’s most astute reviewers have always emphasised how funny their poetry is but I think we still underestimate how central humour is to the multiple ways in which its histories work. Measures of Expatriation was punctuated by piquant exaggeration of contemporary micro-aggressions: the shop assistant who suggests a customer try the ‘try-the-shop-three-miles-away colour’, ‘the Armed Forces man’ who ‘explain[s] to me how I might acquire density’. Then, as that man ‘abruptly’ turns into ‘a pegged grapefruit’ – or as another sequence closes with the poet sitting in ‘a not-imaginary slice of stadium’, watching boys play football in an oncoming Atlantic storm – we might get seized by a different kind of laughter: the more baffled, incredulous kind that a surrealist dream-object provokes. Uncanny things happen when you refuse to let lyric apostrophe work its magic, in favour of alternative, peripheral traditions within Anglophone and Francophone poetics. The feelings of equally peripheral subjects, whom the white speaking subject normally leaves in the shade, are allowed to linger, pinning the privileged reader awkwardly to the spot.

These dynamics are still vitally at play in Venus as a Bear: in the odd satirical jab about writers expected to ‘thicken up the description’ for the sake of ‘prize money’; in the fiercely endstopped ‘Trinidad Sugar’, in which the arrival of ‘a Murano swan […] from Venezuela’ somehow heralds catastrophe for local farming practices. But, overall, this collection is governed by different affects. We’re welcomed in by a ‘hybrid flock’ of ‘funny fuzzy’ newborn lambs, described not as ill-gotten but as ‘hand-smoothed treasures’. If the riddling landscapes of Measures of Expatriation sometimes seemed inconceivable outside the mind’s eye, we’re now invited to rub up against a flurry of recognisable material textures. It also announces that Capildeo will be as willing to be funny ha-ha as to make us feel funny peculiar: sometimes through near-exhausting feats of wordplay (‘lesteners, / let’s lessen to poems’), but particularly in their willingness to be goofily spontaneous in their shifts of attention and diction. It is sometimes like spending time with a precocious child who is just been taught how similes and arguments work, and realised that the most fun you can have with them is to over-apply the rules until they collapse:

I say, this is my square garden.
They say, it’s ours,
and underwater.
              (‘The Magnificent Pigs of Thetford’)

. . . the lichens as orange as lifebuoys, the lifebuoys bobbing like blood
oranges, the locks do not weep nor bleed rust, the rust looks as natural as
metal, if James Joyce’s snot was as green as this harbour he must have
been snorting powdered kelp and copper. . .
             (‘Tic Tac Toe’)

This stylistic shift is connected, I think, to the different role that this book gives to prose. Measures of Expatriation’s wide range of prose forms and genres seemed central to its strategies of resistance, as the reader was compelled repeatedly to work out how a text like this fitted into a book of poems. Now, prose is part of Venus as a Bear’s invitation to follow a path of less resistance, as Capildeo bounces from subject to subject, voice to voice; it replicates the whole volume’s status as a generous holding space, in which snatches of old tunes come and go on its many rhythms.

Less resistance at the level of poetic form doesn’t mean refusing to stay with the trouble. There is pleasure, as Wallace Stevens said, in merely circulating – perhaps like the queer cabin-boys besot by their captain in the volume’s title poem. But there is also pathos in the fact that a politics of ‘rootedness’ actively works to deny such pleasure to those who find themselves circulating between nations or sexual desires. Capildeo acknowledges that those cabin-boys are what we’d now call ‘at-risk youth, the trafficked, the fanatics’. In the face of these restraints, Capildeo never relents from continuing ‘the subtle body’s extension into material, affectively’, and from claiming this extension as a source of delirious joy, albeit one expressed as political struggle.

This attitude often leads them to see fine-grained hybridity and exchange where one might expect naked coercion. In a poem inspired by the ruins of Scotland’s Antonine Wall, on the Roman Empire’s northwestern frontier, the ‘invitation to a civilisation’ which Capildeo ventriloquises is offered by Romans who nevertheless know that the natives are ‘solitary, crafty, literate’, while they themselves are racially diverse and fractious. A hymn to Zeus, which climaxes with an all-too-familiar account of divine ravishment, at least airs the possibility that such submission can be genuinely enjoyed (‘It strikes me you are sometimes kind’) or that the worshippers’ contract with Zeus is such that they can simultaneously participate in his dominance (‘Through us, you move.’) These subtleties aren’t traced in the name of spurious apologetics or even-handedness on behalf of the violent, but of provoking richer utopian thinking. What lifeworld might be born if we could build it anew from these alternative perspectives? Might it feel as liberating to the already empowered as it does to the previously powerless?

And could poetry itself bring about this new uprooted order: isn’t the possibility of this what inspires childish excitement about similes in the first place? Capildeo comes closest to this in the poems in which they circulate, in the company of friends, among plants and animals. These poems avoid the kind of mushily Heideggerean ecopoetics that seeks to regain our rootedness within nature by recovering particular lost words for it. There is as much enchantment here in the technical or informative as there is in the conventionally poetic: cross-referencing when a curlew was ‘required in the books’ to migrate is just as much a part of looking for it as the actual sighting. The pleasure that comes with our failed naming of the beasts reaches its zenith in our pets, the animals we know we can’t name into loving us. Capildeo ecstatically coins ‘petcitement’ to describe the ‘excitement’ and ‘incitement’ of feelings that circulate between humans and their companion species, but also, implicitly, to highlight the authoritative speech-act of citing from which these feelings keep swerving away. This perpetual flight ultimately captures experiences that a pristine poetics of preservation could not. An account of a pet turtle closes with a reference to how ‘her warm-handed keepers’ would ‘love her wild’. What initially sounds like melancholy, or self-delusion, on the part of her owners – they would prefer the turtle if she was wild – could, thanks to the liberties of syntax, crack open in amorous possibility – they can love her (and themselves?) into wildness. Later in the book, Capildeo will confess that we are sentenced to ‘sentence things’, whereas an organism like moss just ‘respires, pulls back, is’. But leaving it like that is to deny that our syntaxes can, like the flowers of Shakespeare’s Perdita that round the book out, be the gift that gives nature back to itself.

At their finest, then, these poems offer a glimpse of radical innocence, earning that innocence because they don’t take their eye off the experience on which it depends. I don’t make the comparison with Blake lightly. Indeed, I hope Capildeo’s little lyric ‘Tending’ goes on to be anthologised, memorised and set to music as often and lovingly as Blake’s take on lambing. None of this is to say that Capildeo won’t, or shouldn’t, reject the trajectory I’ve implied here and return to earlier styles and concerns. But if (and it’s sometimes a big ‘if’) the advocates for ‘mainstream English lyric’ are in good faith, the qualities that they seem to value are all here in abundance: a speaker inviting us to respond anew to ‘the world we all live in’, transparent emotional depth, inventive metaphor, a recognisable vernacular reshaped by literary technique. British poetry’s mainstream has been getting wider and choppier for some time and, if this book gets the readership it deserves, the unlovely siren songs exposed in ‘Persephone in Oulipo’ should continue to disappear from its shipping forecast. With Capildeo as our pirate queen instead, long may we sail.
Jack Belloli is a PhD researcher with the English Department at Queens' College, Cambridge.