Venus As A Bear, poems by Vahni Capildeo.

Posted: June 10, 2020 in John Stammers Page

Venus As A Bear, by Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet Press, 2018.
ISBN 978184105549.
Pbk £9.99

This book was a happy buy. A book to keep returning to, and the pleasure undiminished.

Part of the pleasure in reading poetry is perplexity, it has to challenge intellectually, viscerally, perhaps even culturally.
This last point is important because a large part of the pleasure, and the hook that brings me back time and again to this book, is the wide cultural landscape it covers.

Vahni Capildeo is from Trinidad, of old Indian heritage. Her references are evident in a cultural questionnaire she responded to: asked about influences in painting, music, the arts, writing, she gave these responses, in no particular order –Peter Minshull; Bhanu Kapil; Sharon Millar (her Whale House book); Sharmistha Moharty; Martin Carter.

She gave, in effect, creators and curators of the vibrant Trinidadian scene. There is a measure of self-consciousness here, choosing for the Western press people not of their heritage. There is also an exuberant celebration of alternative tradition in this response.

One reviewer began with her first poem in the book, Welcome, on the birth of new lambs (acknowledgements to their keepers, Selina Guinness and Colin Henderson).
The reviewer’s title informs us there is nothing trivial in this book – and so the phrase ‘funny fuzzy’ relays more than seems. It has an essential pictorial dimension – letter/font shapes replicate the seen/experienced: the lower case nn of young lambs on long spindly legs, that become sleeping shapes by their dam, in the zz.

What initially drew me to the book was the opening of the poem LEAVES/FEUILLES/FALLS homage Pierre de Ronsard, Ode a Cassandre

(i)   Qui                                          m’a
vo

ma
fleur
verte

c’est                la vie

WordPress! I just cannot replicate the layout of these lines – I’ve tried all ways. WordPress!

Ok, I had been brushing up my school French before I came upon this passage, and so it chimed very nicely with my own concerns and interests.
It was the use of space, though, like a breath of fresh air after the blocks of print and narrow concerns of so many British poets. And also the sound values appealed to me, and still do.

So, from these two examples we begin to get some idea of the breadth of appeal of these poems – visual and auditory, but also concerns with translation, with relationships of the perceived to the known, felt, the plasticity of awareness.

Let’s look to Vahni Capildeo again: she came over from Trinidad to the UK to study at university. She gained her PhD in Norse/skaldic, and Translation Theory.
She has worked in academia, culture for development, with Commonwealth Writers, and even as an Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer.

So, do we need a background in, say, Cultural Theory – the Stuart Hall- Raymond Williams spat for example – to understand her work? No; it’d help, but….
Do we need experience of diaspora issues, then? No; it’d help.
Do we need to be academics? No, but it’d help.

It’d help because it’s always useful/essential to broaden and deepen one’s current knowledge.

What appeals about her work is that very breadth of cultural heritage, and it all was encapsulated for me in that, spatially aware, culturally and chronologically diverse, opening section of LEAVES/FEUILLES/FALLS.
Incidentally, did you spot the ee cummings reference? The falling leaf in the positioning of words and lines?

What appeals about her work is this multi-cognitive awareness that informs the crafting of her work. Each word is weighed, rang for sound, you might almost say chromatically tested for possible linkages to alternative structures and meanings.

Why Venus as a… bear? An obvious Bjork reference, ok, but also referencing other genders than the blurry two. Gender politics has enforced its own peculiar and special psychological dimensions; repression skews responses. To be aware, to write from the contemporary moment, is to take on the clamouring injustices of marginalised lives and experiences.
I wonder at times whether what we readily accept and describe as ‘marginalised’ is in itself a lazy simplifying of an institutionalised rigid ordering.

The book is arranged into seven sections: Creatures; Shameless Acts of Ekphrasis; Langues/Tongues; Sea Here; Some Things; Like… Like…; Music/Avant Toute Chose

You’ve got to love the exuberant humour and playfulness. They round out the poems.

Normally, I have a growl at this use of needlessly academic terms, like Ekphrasis. Here she uses it wryly, as if she was also aware of its overspending. It’s that ‘Shameless Acts’ that offsets pretension.
Yup, I admit myself charmed.
Charmed? No, enthused.

Comments
  1. Daedalus Lex says:

    Interesting that you couldn’t produce that layout of the opening poem. I speak very little French myself, but the layout you ended up with makes for an intriguing collage of sound and space I can connect to!

  2. Which is probably why I like your posts so much!
    Thanks for this; responses mean so much. Much appreciated.

  3. Lovely review Michael – I had booked Vahni to read at my work but the event was cancelled due to Covid. Such a shame.

  4. Thank you so much. I have not heard her read (only on Youtube, and the sound was not good – could hardly hear a thing) myself.
    Another time, perhaps? When some form of normality assets itself.
    Best wishes. Keep safe.

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