The Operating System


Vahni Capildeo
[Editor’s note: in July of 2012, we received a submission for our print magazine from Andre Bagoo, who introduced himself as “a poet and journalist working in Trinidad and Tobago.” I loved his poems, and accepted one for the second PRINT issue of Exit Strata. Excited by his work, I invited him to be part the FIELD NOTES series (here’s his excellent entry, “Interrogating Truth“), as well as the Poetry Month series.
This year, he passed on the torch to two other poets from T&T, Shivanee Ramlochan and Vahni Capildeo — and it just so happened that Ramlochan, unknowing, chose Capildeo as her subject. I am so grateful for our connection, and this bright window of opportunity to widen our awareness of poetry elsewhere, to feel more human, more same, through this medium. Then, and now, I am astonished at this magic that has become so ordinary in our lives: the erasure of 2,383 miles between community members that can begin with a pause, a few words, and an instantaneous click. – Lynne DeSilva-Johnson]
Even in Sleep, Refraining

When I heard the sad adulterers    Tristan and Iseult
had placed a sword between them as they slept, so to avoid
sexual congress in the forest, my first and filthy thought:
how much you can do despite a sword, lean above maybe,
long soothes down flanks whose fighting muscles bunch and do not rest,
waterfalls of pitiful caresses run misplaced.
But those two know swords, the humiliations of wound care,
instantaneous gross damage. Cousins to that-which-broke.
One blade, lying coldly, puts a guard upon the mind,
trains body, motive, separate in the forest of their want.
Sharp metal cuts unmoved upon the first unconscious move,
prevents love reaching through their sleep, or sleeping hand in hand.
-from Dark and Unaccustomed Words, 2011.
It began, for me, with a girl feeling herself weird. When little, I frequented books to drink from the fount of the unexpected; I didn’t read, as so many young people do, for solace. Yes, I suppose, I was looking to find myself, to see some fleeting glimpse of me through the thorns of foreign pages, but I didn’t want to see myself comforted. I craved my situation in dark and unaccustomed places. I wanted to read what things I might do, without license, with more freedoms afforded a young child growing up bookish and queer in semi-rural Trinidad.
Then I fell for Vahni Capildeo’s poems the way I figure a drowning goes – shock flooding up my lungs, with certain immobility after the initial thrashing – the calm in which you take everything in, the concrete realization that something greater than you are has got you by the jugular. It’s easy to say that Capildeo’s poems are weird, and I’ve no strong desire to go there. I want to say that they are revelations, and mineshafts, and curious bedfellows. I want to say that they encouraged me, even the least friendly of them, to write away from building blocks, from manicured expectations of what my own words should, or might resemble, according to anyone’s poetic strictures but mine.
It isn’t that Capildeo’s work advocates abandoning familiar forms – far from it. Here, there be poems in prose, poems wearing the raiment of old ballads, poems as interrogations and uncomfortable chats, poems straddling the prose/verse tightrope while scanning the horizon for old and new ways to say new and old things.
It cannot be surprising that when I found Dark and Unaccustomed Words, I kept it close. I am keeping it close still, for whenever I turn to it, I feel myself welcomed into a territory, a series of non-fixed interstices to test myself by, to hear these words spoken by (since so many of Capildeo’s poems will demand vocal treatment from you, the better to taste their shifting meanings).
How thrilling it is to find that you don’t know precisely where you’re going, in these poems – how thrilling to notice, repeatedly, that these poems don’t force you to arrive at the same destination over, and over. You can punch in with Dark and Unaccustomed Words, beginning with mythical lovers cleaved in twain by an unforgiving blade, and end with finding yourself limping homeward, knuckles bruised, defeated by the day.
First I tried to hide it from itself.
Then I tried to hide it from myself.
I tried quite hard to hide it from you,
even when we knew that was no use.
After all this hiding, no surprise
it’s like a thing in translation:
eggshell-shy. A thumb’s worth of glory,
nesting near the coastlines of your palm.
-from Utter, 2013.
Capildeo’s poems, for me, are the friends I will never know fully. How glorious, I think, reaching for Utter on my bedside table – a collection inspired by Capildeo’s time spent working on the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s her newest full-length collection, and it navigates forms and states wondrously, weirdfully, while being itself the agent of destination, the rudder for investigative humming on the roof of the world. It’s a bit Everything, really, and I may never understand it in full. I certainly hope I never do.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Shivanee Ramlochan is a Trinidadian poet, fiction writer and critic. She reviews books and plays for the Trinidad Guardian’s Sunday Arts Section, and is the book review editor for Caribbean Beat Magazine. Shivanee blogs for the Bocas Lit Fest (Trinidad’s annual literary festival) and Paper Based Bookshop, Trinidad’s specialty Caribbean and postcolonial literature bookseller. She also administrates the book review blog, Novel Niche. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Draconian Switch, tongues of the ocean and The Caribbean Review of Books. [photo credit: Desiree Seebaran]
BONUS: here’s a terrific, artful little video made of/with Capildeo reading from Dark and Unaccustomed Words

Dark and Unaccustomed Words from Riposte Pictures on Vimeo.
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