:: Article

Vahni Capildeo’s Skin Can Hold: Assuming the Monster Posture

By Liam Bishop.

Vahni Capildeo, Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019)

In Vahni Capildeo’s first collection of poetry, No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003), there is a section titled ‘The Monster Scrapbook.’ Eleven collections later, we’re familiar with Capildeo’s experiments with form, but it’s this ‘Monster Scrapbook’ section of their debut that really seems to mark Capildeo’s diversion from metrical structures. Perhaps we should expect this, because when we think of monsters we think of grotesque ‘forms’ outgrowing their shape. When the Monster Scrapbook begins with a letter in which ‘H’ is writing to ‘J’, one is not only inclined to think of Jekyll and Hyde because of the monstrous connection and the archaic, gentlemanly tone of the letter, but also because of the sense of different forms battling to take precedence in one body. This is from ‘Monster Postures’:

 – Identify Monster Posture most appropriate to occasion

– Assume said Monster Posture

– Begin the Monstrous Task

‘Monster Postures’ could appear as an act reducible to the ‘monstrous task’ of creating poetry, but, like Jekyll and Hyde sharing the same form, it appears as a way of identifying with a self that is made alien, perhaps monstrous or ‘unformed’ by the ‘task’ itself. The question is where do these forms reconcile, and is poetry a task that allows monstrous forms to be tamed or let off the leash?

In ‘Dog or Wolf’, from Capildeo’s tenth collection, Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018), the dog and the wolf are used to show how animals—or forms—that might have different histories but a shared ancestry may ultimately never be reconciled in one. At the end of the poem we have an image of conflation, rather than reconciliation, of the dog’s domestication with the wolf’s wildness:

I hear with ears that point upwards
Eagerness valleys my backbone.
Satisfaction curls over my tail.
Good lupo: optimum dog.

We’re left to wonder if the feral wolf or disobedient dog is being tamed in the same way we ask if Jekyll is controlling Hyde, or Hyde is controlling Jekyll. However, to say the dog/wolf could be ‘obedient’ is to suggest that there are rules and commands that need to be imposed. In Capildeo’s work, both within the structures, and content of the poem, there’s a sense that they’re playing with a nature that can outgrow, out-form, either the speaker of the poem or the poem itself. This is a monstrous property of Capildeo’s poetry.

Jekyll talks of ‘plod[ding] in the public eye with a load of genial respectability’, but is then able, ‘like a schoolboy…[to]strip of these leadings’ and to ‘spring headlong into the sea of liberty’ as Hyde. There is, however, a sense of shame when he returns to Jekyll. In ‘Shame’, from Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019), Capildeo blurs the boundaries between the internal and external voices of a person to show how acts of the self that we hardly recognise in ourselves can be reconciled in the psyche. Starting mise-en-scéne, a ‘performer’, wearing a ‘coat of mirrors’ and a ‘Venetian mask’, walks amongst an audience asking people to take something from a bag that contains items such as ‘an empire biscuit…an apple dedicated to Morgan le Fay…a sanitary towel with the names of goddesses inked into it’ (author’s italics). When the poem launches into a set of declarative statements (eg. ‘I have no shame but fury / I have no shame but weariness’) and a series of monologues recounting ‘shameful’ moments, what’s consistent is that there is a sense of experiences being ‘branded’ within or on the person, like the names of these goddesses. This is notably poignant, not least painful, considering that one of the monologues is a scene of sexual abuse and the tone of defiance Capildeo gives the speaker is mirrored by the structure of the monologue, like a wall of text, guarding and heavy. But the subject matter is ‘difficult’ and it’s natural to feel, in your own body, the ‘heaviness’ of a different form perhaps outweighing your own as you hold it in your mind.

This is why the monster is such an appropriate image because it’s a life-form that can entail numerous bestial, as well as human, prosperities. As a result, corporeality is important to Capildeo. ‘Shame’ closes with a ‘creative writing exercise’ where we see how the monster postures might be home to voices that are at once subjecting and subjective. Let’s see what this creative exercise looks like:

Creative writing exercise.

What does shame look like? Sound like? Feel like? Smell like? Taste like?

What colour is shame?

Shamelessness. I can do shamelessness.

There is a dark undertone to this idea of ‘doing’ or ‘owning’ shame going back to the notion of ‘exercise’. The poem has now shifted time and space beyond the monologues, and the setting could be a classroom allowing the exercise to be completed. ‘Exercise’ resonates with an earlier monologue, though:

[…]I felt responsible
and sorry, as if I had power. From feeling as if I had power, I have
not lost power. I did not have shame. Now I exercise power.

Reading this we see the confusing and unsettling world Capildeo has created, because, if power is related to ‘exercise’ we have to wonder who is administering the exercise. Yet, what is exercise but a process of combining movement and energy allowing us to strengthen our body and, if it’s part of a programme or routine, the benefits can be systematic. But an exercise can also go beyond nourishment to become a means of control, and exercises can be subjected to a person, a body, as a way of diminishing them.  We writhe and blush when ashamed: the suggestion that shamelessness ‘can be done’ appears as a mechanism of seeing the body, the speaker, being exercised and controlled by a force that they cannot appropriate and exercise, or process, themselves.

‘Creative exercise’ becomes an oxymoron, and if the exercise is asking the person to make meaningful experiences out of that which is potentially traumatic, the creative exercise instead becomes something akin to a repetitive and subjugating regime set by a figure of authority Arriving at a section titled ‘Sparks’, the classroom becomes an important setting again for Capildeo. In Muriel Spark’s novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1960), Miss Brodie exercised influence over a group of precarious, but intelligent, school girls, and Capildeo’s poem  ‘Futurist Cleopatra’ reminds us of the discomfort over exercise that we saw in ‘Shame’:

.          I met a young poet by a fountain. Free this land from the
sinister promiscuity of painters and sculptors gradually turning
against ferocious slaughtering. Sex-bestirred object, in violent spasms
of action and creation, come on!
          It was true. Set fire in verification, pitilessly eliminating the
doubts. Younger and stronger men don’t believe. Trembling, believe.
Our images had magnetic properties when rubbed.

Again, the question is who, or what, exercises power? ‘Exercise’ is not mentioned, but the poem does feature a young poet—like we assume the creative writing class at the end of ‘Shame’ does yet it’s difficult to discern the ownership of the voices as the liberal values of the poet appear to be in conflict with the speaker calling for the ‘ferocious slaughtering’. We’re shown here that whilst not amendable, conflicting voices are not incompatible in the same form even when they are more extreme (Ezra Pound might prove this, as does Miss Brodie) and it appears that there’s a desire for these conflicting properties to ignite and create a spark to fuel exercise or a competition.

‘Sparks’ concludes with a ‘Hamlet Oulipo’ where, by the removal of a different letter each time, Capildeo claims to convert a word to its opposite meaning: ‘Jest’ becomes ‘dust’; ‘Mole’ becomes ‘Goat’; ‘Sword’ becomes ‘Peace’; and ‘Swear’ becomes ‘Bless’. Andrew Gallix wrote that Oulipians are ‘into literary bondage’ and there is a sense within the constraint of something like the Oulipo or, in form itself, there is pleasure as well as pain. Indeed, Capildeo seems to try and ‘abolish constraint’ but ‘acknowledge their presence, and embrace them proactively’ as Gallix said of the Oulipians..  ‘Astronomer of Freedom’, is a poem that allows us to think more pointedly about a constraint and a body in space. Here, Capildeo undertakes a ‘transreading’ of the Guyanese, revolutionary poet, Martin Carter.  Reinterpreting his poem ‘I am no soldier’ for performance, (along with theatremaker, Jeremy Hardingham and students, Hope Doherty and Paige Smeaton) they aim to create a space that is ‘free to enter’ with ‘syntax poems’. This is an excerpt from the third syntax poem:

in blood
in the insurgent geography
(in the latitudes of anguish)
                                    through the poles (agonies)
                                     (through regions (grief))

One is reminded of the classroom again, as in ‘Shame’—and perhaps a classroom like Miss Brodie’s— where a sense of ‘freedom’ is implied and encouraged but, ‘(Somewhere)’ suggests whilst we are free or unfixed, the parenthesis could be a visual manifestation of boundaries; grammar and structure—constraint—become excess to the language. There is also a body here with restrictions being applied and what that ‘form’ can access appears off limits (‘agonies,’ ‘grief’). ‘Insurgent geography’, ‘poles’, and ‘regions’ reinforce the image of a being in space as in the final lines of Carter’s poem—‘I am this poem  / like a sacrifice’—haunt what seems like an impossible task, that of being unconstrained by context.

With greater wishfulness comes greater resistance to its fulfilment, and the reason why freedom seems such a torturous and tantalising concept in Capildeo’s poetry is that in this quest to reconcile opposing forms the ‘posture’ assumed means that there is an identification with the opposing force. In  ‘from the End of the Poem’  the opening stanza begins with an iterative exploration of what, presumably, the end of the poem constitutes to the poet (‘The end of the poem / the end of the poem happened before / the end of the poem happened before it […]’). As Capildeo constructs the poem though, and, as we’re probably now expecting of them, we get a visual and linguistic exploration of the end itself from the final stanza:

Every poem an ouroboros.
The beginning of the poem,
its tightest overlap, expansile rainbow,
scaly pacifier, nubbed
into its jaw,
teeth sheathe the teat
that is tail in mouth
and amoral slippage,
infinite tonguetwister,
untranslatable in transit
between high-spec
contingent integument,
the noun it is born to,
and the time it’s unthought for.’

Via the ouroborus—a dragon or a snake consuming its own tail in either a circular or figure-eight formation—we have an explicit allusion to a monster posture; a monster posture of a beginning consuming its own ends. The enjambment, combined with the intermittent end-stopping, embellishes that image of the scaly animal reverting in on itself and chasing its own tail.

Figuratively and poetically we see how the  ‘monstrous task’ that the poem sets in motion by its creation also sets in motion a process of identification that goes some way in alienating the self from its own process and creation. This posture of the ouroborus also suggests something formative about the poet’s work itself. Revisiting No Traveller Returns (as we are now perhaps turning back on ourselves before we reach the end), a poem early in ‘The Monster Scrapbook’, ‘Desdemona Resuscitated’, with its intimation of Shakespeare’s play, reminds us of Shakespeare’s monster metaphors, as well as the images of ‘tail chasing’ that supply Othello. To be bawdy for a moment, as the play itself is, men chase men’s tails as much as they do women’s, and I was reminded of the ouroborus as Iago concocts his plot with Roderigo:

I follow him to serve my turn upon him.
We cannot all be masters, nor all masters
Cannot be truly followed. You shall mark
Many a duteous and knee-crocking knave
That, doting on his own obsequious bondage
Wears out his tune, much like his master’s ass[…]

From saluting his face to following his ass/arse:  Iago seems to be intent on seeing others consumed by their own emotions, the monsters emerging out of their psyches, and he must ensure that others follow their own tails— or, tales—before they are able to latch onto his own (and Shakespeare probably intends this to be as bawdy as it sounds). Arguably, Iago’s capacity for both taming and untaming those monsters is what ultimately leads to Othello’s downfall (and his own). Indeed, the idea of chasing one’s own tail then comes into opposition with what it truly means to be free, so when Iago says, insultingly, that Othello is of ‘free and open nature’ that’s because there’s a wariness of free and open natures in the play.

But by referring to the strange, brief moment in the play when Desdemona undergoes a very short, scientifically-disputed resuscitation, Capildeo toys with that tension of freedom and restraint that appears to be latent in Shakespeare’s treatment of her. The men, Iago, Brabantio, get their pleasure, or satisfaction at least, from trying to determine her fate and the boundaries of her restraint. Here, ‘restlessness’ and the resistance to being tamed materialises with a haunting and spiritual quality, and in a dialogue between two  lovers, presumably, of the kind Othello and Desdemona were, one of the lovers is unable to ‘let go’ of this other voice that claims ‘Without energy for elegy  / I am everything and nothing’  (author’s italics). The non-italicized speaker then says:

She leaves me nothing. Hence her endlessness.
Trapped in a rhomb of ice a chainmail carp’s
A gleam beneath my sinking English moon,
Off-centre in the fountain. Legend sharps
These non-encounters. Time resumes me then.
I speak of her too often – look, before
I cannot recognise her any more.

We see a sense of entrapment—‘[t]rapped in a rhomb of ice’—combined with an evasiveness in the idea of the figure leaving ‘nothing’ but having being ‘sharpened’ by those ‘non-encounters.’ Is there an endless sentence because of their imprisonment, or is their sentence endless because they are an eternal, uncontainable figure? Is the free and open nature to explore the world limited by a sense of what our understanding of the world has been since we were young?

Whilst there’s nothing exceptional about a poet referring to their own beginnings and origins, and pursuing a theme consciously and unconsciously throughout their work (perhaps we’re all chasing our own tails in some way), the unique quality that Capildeo injects by tying it in with their own questions of artistic freedom and entrapment, is a dialogue with their own endless sentence. Capildeo seems to say that to have a continual dialogue with the self is an exercise that needs to be meted out in a nourishing way for it not to become a constraint and, yes, it can still be the ultimate escape for an artist. But, observe the ouroborus: one should not chase or consume but be watchful. Or maybe we are always spectating from the rear-end, and we should watch where the head rears.


Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds, UK. He has written for Review 31, Full Stop amongst others. Visit his website, www.curbcomplex, for more of his work, or follow him on twitter @liamhbishop.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 6th, 2020.