Following through

Simple Complex Shapes
, Vahni Capildeo (36pp, £6.50, Shearsman)

Vahni Capildeo's latest collection Simple Complex Shapes is uncharacteristically spare, the shortest of the poems just four words long. There are none of the expansive and involved pieces typical of her other collections: no prose poems and no long lyrics. Instead we have a sequence of miniatures, fragments even, some of the poems creating a visual shape on the page.

Examples of short poems exist in her earlier work, of course, both as stand-alone lyrics and sections of longer poems, the 'Tiredness poems' in No Traveller Returns,
for example (Salt, 2003), and some of the shorter pieces in Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Egg Box, 2011). So this is not a complete change of tack, and Capildeo has always experimented with form.

The pieces in the new collection are printed without individual titles, implying that they are sections of a single work, though they read less like a sequence than a montage of loosely associated images.  They are, as the book title says, a series of 'simple' yet 'complex' shapes. 

Themes common to Capildeo's work surface repeatedly - her preoccupations with identity, relationships, the experience of dividing time between Trinidad and other places. The Caribbean landscape pervades these poems - sea, rain on roofs, thirst. These images and others - eyes, fresh water, knots - thread through the verse like musical motifs.

The pamphlet starts with images of violence, which might reflect colonial experiences or could be metaphors for personal relationships. One particularly striking piece starts: 'Discalendar this case/aztecally: heart removals', evoking practices of human sacrifice. It ends with the line 'quetzalcoatl mon amour'. The Aztec deity has featured before in Capildeo's work. In 'Don Juan de Quetzalcoatl', published in Undrained Sea
(Egg Box, 2009) the Don sends a text to 'Dame Exe' to let her know he's in town, has half an hour to spare, and suggests they have sex.  Dame Exe declines. In this new poem the god appears as a darker figure.

The poem which begins 'When/to be/was/to be going' (p. 16) is about the sense of not belonging which Capildeo has written about elsewhere. So is a later poem which starts 'Solid rain' and ends with the wonderful lines 'where migrant writers find/their two-month home, strange fish/align with ice in markets.' 

In the brief fragment on the page which follows this we have:

   knowing this
   swallows his
   own ropes

Other poems explore family heritage. The poem starting with 'in my house' (p. 19) and the poem beginning 'You have the same name as him' (p. 26) both refer to the poet's father. The latter ends:

   My tongue a blindfold
   drawn by you finds you,
   finding with each space that comes
   it is coming in your shape.

The next poem (p. 27), also seems to celebrate her father.

   this poem      IS      his poem
   nocent                         innocent
   knowing        FUN    spontaneous

Capideo worked as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary
for a while. The prefixes ex-, re-, sub- all suggest death, though the poem is affectionate rather than sad. Nocent, meaning harmful, is a late Middle English word. ('Makeless', meaning matchless, appears in another poem.)

The final poem in the pamphlet has the words 'love' and 'moves' repeated over and over and then crossed through. In the middle of the text block, 'this' appears once and is not scored through. The crossing out conveys a powerful sense of suppressed or conflicted emotion.

Some sections seem to have an affinity with poems in No Traveller Returns
. The 'Silence poems', for example, comprises four poems about Greek mythological figures, each of which is paired with a sister poem. The Ariadne references in the poem on p. 32 of Simple Complex Shapes seems of a piece, and 'Net', paired with 'Orpheus', is not unlike some pieces in the chapbook.

The same can be said of a short poem 'Shape of a vase' in No Traveller Returns
. The themes of these earlier poems also echo some of the preoccupations in the chapbook - lines such as 'It is possible to haunt you own house' and 'your eyes are my eyes, they frighten me.' Could some of the material in the new collection have its genesis in an earlier period of her work?

In No Traveller Returns
there is a section which starts 'the best poem would be a single word, repeated' (p. 100), and in Undrained Sea (Egg Box, 2009) a poem entitled, 'From first to last his books, that started thin grew lessÉ', includes the line 'he wanted less of the words'. Perhaps Capildeo is simply following through on these ideas.

     © Simon Collings 2015