Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Skin Can Hold

Vahni Capildeo Carcanet (2019)

A Review by Lydia Harris

‘Skin Can Hold’ is an encyclopedia; a portable manual for all of us bound into language. It invites us to new ways of reading, new possibilities for writing. For this reader, it has been a voyage to unfamiliar and exciting territories.

We aim to deliver a fully anachronistic incorporation experience on the brown bag service

declares the playful opening ‘The Brown Bag Service’.

    ‘Four Ablutions’, which immediately follows the ‘Prologue’, is a text for performance. The reader is transformed to performer as she reads. Already we are reaching beyond the page, taking on new risks and trusting ourselves to the language.

Is this a ritual of freeing or a ritual of realisation? Four Ablutions

    The poems teach us to embody words, to move into Carnival, to re-enunciate ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, re-live Spark. Capildeo gives us words with which to explore colonisation, gender, race. The world of the poems is a world of dance, travel, conversion. Her text is full of movement and we are moved by the experience of reading.

Green in judgement, she heard no screams. Cold in blood, she gave no scream; burnt on the water.

Futuriest Cleopatra: after ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’.

    The poems expose individual words, present us with an array of languages. ‘Skin Can Hold’ is a book of tongues, a book of songs with actions, an invitation to write ourselves into a new world.

Ishq:love ish:halfway misunderstanding

assent accented into ascent

Response for Compass: Response to Zaffiar Kunial  “Us”

    The collection is dedicated to Martin Carter and in memory of The Shadow, Winston McGarland Bailey. It is a carnival on the page, a calypso for the reader’s voice.

    ‘The Syntax Poems’, which stem from Capildeo’s admiration for Carter’s ‘I am No Soldier’ are a physical, bodily transreading. They immerse us in an imagined live performance of Carter’s poem. We participate in the call and response of the language.

there are galaxies of happiness

                              (in darkness)

                              (in my hand’s revolving wheel)

‘Syntax Poems’

    The experience feels like an enactment of the process of reading a poem. Carter’s lines are sent back by a different route, re-expressed, entering and transforming our world. Here in the book, the texts are ours to read in any order or voice. We too experience the poems bodily. Through repetition and pause, through broken lines, we are transreaders too.

    Explaining her ideas about transreading, Capildeo, in the introduction to ‘The Syntax Poems’ writes, “we concentrated on features of the language where activity happens”.

    ‘Shame’ also explores performance and script. The notes about the performer’s costume show us that it is Carnival or script for a concert with the Shadow. It consists of calls and response and powerful declamations. It is personal, subversive and engaging. The poem is visceral and also has the beautiful detachment of liturgy.

‘When was I ashamed?…

‘I was not ashamed when the powerful editor-poet-translator…’

    The section from ‘The End of the Poem’ voices the process of making a poem.

It tails

off. And on. And on.

    It is Biblical in tone, apocalyptic in content.

I said take the seventh word down…

    It shifts into a colloquial register and back again to the ouroboros, the beginning of the poem in the end of the poem.

    ‘The End of the Poem’ faces us with poetry’s place in the public gaze. Does poetry withstand capitalism, colonisation? Do they withstand the gaze of poetry? Her poems show they do not.

    ‘Midnight Robber Monologue’ ends ‘The Blackbox Clearout’ section. It evokes the surreal world of carnival where Midnight Robber with condor wings becomes an aeroplane and is revealed as fear itself, embodies the forces of destruction and oppression with which the poems have been concerned. The tables are turned on us when we learn that this ageless robber douen cannot be bought, cannot forgive. Anger with the cracked, flawed world, the self destructive environmental , political and economic fissures, is the energy of the monologue and of the book.

When Columbus men landed holding their bright weapons up,

I was waiting for them in the form of dew and rust.

‘Midnight Robber Monologue’

    Capildeo brings together the things we have barely noticed. She makes us aware of what we hardly believe language can do, which the book shows is far more than we thought it could.