Measures of Expatriation: Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet
I am usually pretty indifferent to awards culture in this country; poetry prizes for many years seemed to go to the same few names, mainstream and to me frankly rather bland poets who seemed to hog all the limelight.
Now that Vahni Capildeo has won the Forward prize for what is probably one of the more adventurous books of the year, things may be looking up, however. Measures of Expatriation has as its theme the different kinds of feelings and ideas around the concept of being from elsewhere, feeling at home either nowhere or everywhere at the same time, of travel, and of who you might be in the midst of that.
Capildeo was born in Trinidad, is a distant cousin of the writer VS Naipaul, has an Indian heritage and lives now in England, where she came to study and has made her home. This collection uses both prose and verse in a very contemporary manner that mixes registers and forms as well as ranging from poems about return to her native island (the prose poems of ‘All Your Houses’, for instance), a trip to Italy where they question her visa, and her chosen home of England.
Travel and flight inform a poem like ‘Transamerica Sky Jet’ less directly than as a kind of shimmering background to a series of letters to people from mid-flight:
GIVE ME YOUR REASONS
that I may have tokens
by which to remember you
no please no more keeping in touch
you have already taken so much
of myself from myself, reinvested
in paragraphs to your prosaic advancement –
keynote speaker hired to dust off archival blues –
give me your reasons
This sounds like a letter asking a correspondent for reasons for departure, asking why are you leaving me? Which is always part of the psychology of expatriation: why do people go so far from where they began?
There is also a strong element of surrealist writing here, especially in the sequence about Louise Bourgeois’s Insomnia Drawings:
“Tell me why she …”
She. Shush, shush, shush. She.
A heap of she, as if asleep, but not asleep
she stirs, her bed of pins untucked;
transforms and tiptoes out,
a high-heeled bird
whose own actions plucked away
the concentrated bits,
the beak that makes the bird.
I haven’t quoted any of the prose passages, which veer from straightforward travelogue to contemplative and poetic, often in the same paragraph. This way of writing I find fascinating, but difficult to describe; and even more difficult to get right. It never becomes boring, however, and even though some of the passages are quite long, it never outstays its welcome.
This is not an easy book, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or give neat little stories about either the horrors of migration or exile or the “success stories” of exile. There are plenty of uncomfortable feelings; not knowing what exactly is meant by having a “native land” is one of the themes. She is aware of her own privilege as an academic and writer; but there are still hints at the darker undercurrents of racism and prejudice. And there are hints of earlier writing about exile: ‘All Your Houses’ has the subtitle Notebook Including a Return which recalls the Francophone surrealist writer Aime Cesaire’s Cahiers de Retour.
With the present government’s obsession with immigration, this seems an increasingly relevant book for the present moment. We seem to be entering a very nationalist phase in British politics that I for one find very dangerous. This is an important corrective to that, and deserves to be widely read. It’s a sign of good things for poetry that this challenging, various collection has won a major award. About time, say I.