This week’s WE continues the exploration of the poet and prose writer Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo’s work. The prolific Trinidad-born poet (writer in Residence and Professor at the University of York, Visiting Scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Honorary Student of Christ Church, Oxford University) won the prestigious Forward Prize (2016) for their collection “Measures of Expatriation”.
The following are excerpts from the prize-winning collection. The first two are situated in Trinidad, showcasing the Capildeos trademark style, where the personal is poetic yet intensely political, bristling with the integrity of brutally honest excavated observations.
Fire & Darkness:
And Also/No Join/Like
“We brought few friends home who were not already part of at least a two-generation family circle. We brought few friends home. This time my brother had introduced a soft and brown and tallish young man in his early twenties, who weighed not much more than a hundred pounds. By historical pattern, not personal choice, in our secular Hindu household, this was the first Muslim friend our age. Perhaps it has changed; but non-Indo-Caribbeans used not to be aware that ‘Ali’ and ‘Mohammed’ are not ‘Indian’ names. And in that unawareness they are linguistically wrong, but more profoundly right: for our ancestors brought over a shared Indian village culture, over a century before the creation of Pakistan in the Indus area made such a difference. And in that Trinidad remote from Trinidad’s Trinidad, and nonetheless most mixed and Trinidadian, a lunatic reverberation was set up by the 1947 Partition–some third-generation immigrant families briefly fought according to the lines of what had not been a division. In lands far away, current events were indirectly regenerating or inventing this part of Trinidad’s past also. By 1990, we knew that there must be some difference.”
Too Solid Flesh
“So much of cloth. An older woman’s voice whispers disapproval in my ear. Why so much of cloth, when dresses would not be frowned on by the guardians of good behaviour? My grandmother’s generation was already permitted to wear colonial-export challis cotton or georgette print, fastened with covered buttons like those on living room furniture. The knees would not quite be exposed. The uncovered legs might be sturdy, twentieth-century varicose originals of the limbs adored in bronze or sandstone by pre-Christian-era sculptors. The uncovered legs might be spindly, kin to those that bend again and again among the leaves of some labour-intensive crop on its way towards the airtight hold of a fragrant destiny. The partly razored legs might be sleek with cocoa butter or coconut oil, rubbed in by the hands of grandchildren who learn the mysteries of pain and age from the question-command, ‘Come and rub your Ajee’s legs!’ If you see the pictures like Auntie Sati had–you remember the batik pictures?–we never covered ourselves up. Covering ourselves up, that is a new thing. Maybe it is a Muslim thing, maybe it is a Western thing. Those women in the pictures, some of them are not even wearing a choli. They tie their sari across their bare chest.”
I love You
‘I love you,’ he wouldn’t say: it was against his philosophy; I-love-you didn’t mean what it meant, plus the verray construction of the phrase caused bad-old-concrete-lawman-vandal-verbal-mildew-upon-the-grapeharvest-and-war-for-rare-minerals-required-to-manufacture-communications-devices damage; saying I-love-you damaged love, subject and object; plus he could prove this in two dense and delphic languages suitable for philosophy, opera, cursing, and racking the nerves of artificial intelligence machines that perhaps could love but would be hard-wired giammai to dare say so. So what moved him to not-say I-love-you? What wake-up-and-spoil-the-coffee ashtray-licking djinn? I have to start to agree. The verbness of it impropriety (eyes glob up the syringe when you’re giving blood: semisolid spiralling); perhaps too active … I-love-you, I sand you, I drill you, I honey and set you for wasps, crimson you like a stolen toga, add value applying dye, fight ownership, I cite you to justify skilled outrage, put your name as guarantor on an astronomical mortgage, I admit desertification comes as a relief, from I to O, O my oasis, O my mirage. Maybe the verb is a tending-towards? A tightrope? A tropism? A station? But that’s meeting him on his own ground; plus I can’t disprove entire languages; plus those three little words aren’t meant as saying.”
The preceding excerpts are from Anthony (Vahni) Capildeos’s Forward Prize Winning collection (2016), Measures of Expatriation.
Ira Mathur is a Guardian columnist and the winner of the non-fiction OCM Bocas Prize for Literature 2023.