Measures of Expatriation: Vahni Capildeo, Carcanet

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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.

Steven Waling

 

Vahni Capildeo, Measures of Expatriation, Carcanet, £8.99

 

 

 

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Comments

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M.C. Newberry

Wed 12th Oct 2016 21:43

Seen and noted.
Thank you but I'm happy to stand by the open door of the final line of my last post and leave these exchanges at that.

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Steven Waling

Wed 12th Oct 2016 11:03

I'm tempted to say that I agree with unlimited immigration but only so long as they can all go and live on your street.

But I don't want to get it into a pointless discussion about immigration. I think this government is obsessed with it to the point of xenophobia and, frankly, out and out racism. That doesn't mean I'm in favour of unlimited immigration.

But why don't you read the book. You never know, you might even learn something. Unlikely, I know...

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M.C. Newberry

Tue 11th Oct 2016 18:28

I find it intriguing that the word "agenda" is used in this
accusative sense but moving on, it is eminently logical
that movement is to be linked with origins. The move by
the English towards what became the US Colonies was
impelled by their origins and the unsatisfactory/unhappy
circumstances surrounding the same. This can certainly
be linked with the movement of others around the globe
before and since.
As for the observation about "this government's
obsession with immigration", it would be more accurate to quantify this in relation to numbers not movement itself.
Every country has the right to determine who seeks to
make a home within its borders for a variety of reasons
which appear universal across the world throughout history. How safe and how secure can a house be when it throws open its doors to all and sundry. Common sense alone provides the answer. Let the movers write
of their experiences and let them be set alongside those
from separate more stationary sources for the enjoyment and information of us all.

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Steven Waling

Tue 11th Oct 2016 09:57

I'm not sure which review your reading, but it's not the one I wrote. Apart from the phrase 'different feelings' I don't talk about 'difference' at all. As the subject of the book generally is expatriation, I expect it comes into the book; but if it's celebrating anything, it's celebrating movement not 'origins'.

Methinks you're reading your own agenda into the review.

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 7th Oct 2016 17:44

Poetry is worth its name when it "covers the waterfront"...
all subjects that have a relevance to the human condition
if approached with knowledge, self-awareness and, hopefully, occasional welcome wit.
I do not see why acknowledging and celebrating
differences should not be matched by finding delight in similarity. To be proud and ready to highlight or promote
origins is not the sole province of those who choose to
move elsewhere for whatever reasons.

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