Vahni Capildeo: shapeshifter, time traveller

When Vahni Capildeo won the prestigious Forward Prize for her poetry, the award merely affirmed what her readers already knew: the Trinidad-born writer is a brilliant complicator of language, stories, conventions, and boundaries. Andre Bagoo explains why Capildeo’s poems are so exhilarating

  • Photo by Hayley Madden for The Poetry Society
  • Vahni Capildeo at the 2016 Forward Prize ceremony. Photo by Adrian Pope, courtesy The Forward Arts Foundation
  • The three winners of the 2016 Forward Prizes: Sasha Dugdale (Best Single Poem), Tiphanie Yanique (Best First Collection), and Capildeo (Best Collection). Photo by Adrian Pope, courtesy The Forward Arts Foundation

“When my name was announced, it was as if time split and there was a parallel universe in which some other, ‘real’ poet was receiving the award,” says Vahni Capildeo. She is speaking about the moment last September when she was announced as the winner of the 2016 Forward Prize for Best Collection. “Aren’t many writers afflicted with a feeling of being not quite real?”

Time travel, parallel universes, epistemological conundrums — it’s fitting these fall freely off the tongue of a poet of boundless talent, skill, and imagination, whose lines mesmerise us, show us miracles.

Capildeo was born in Trinidad in 1973 and left for Britain in 1991. Her poetry argues that both details are at once significant and insignificant: people do not cross boundaries; they carry worlds within. From her first book to her most recent — starting with No Traveller Returns and right up to her Forward-winning Measures of Expatriation — Capildeo has invited readers to reject the idea of simple journeys. The result is a body of work that is now gaining greater international attention. Just weeks after winning the Forward, Capildeo’s book was also shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, another major honour, previously won by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott.

Praise has come also from critics and colleagues. “Capildeo prods us to re-imagine how words live, and what they do to our sense of whatever we call reality,” says Edward Baugh, the distinguished Jamaican poet and literary scholar. And Indian poet and editor Vivek Narayanan remarks on Capildeo’s breadth of interests and references. “What always impresses me about Caribbean culture and literature is its profound need and ability to reinvent the world,” Narayanan says. “Take nothing for granted, but taking all materials to hand. Vahni does that, but in her own completely unique way — Dante, the Nordic myths, Old English, Trinidadian folklore, Hindu iconology all come together and are transformed.”

“Vahni was making verses from the time she could hardly write,” says her mother Leila Capildeo, in an interview at the house in Federation Park, Port of Spain, where Capildeo spent her early years. (The very name of the residential district evokes memories of the Caribbean’s failed flirtation with a post-colonial political union.) Her father, Devendranath Capildeo, was a children’s poet. Her grandfather was Simbhoonath Capildeo, the elder brother of Rudranath Capildeo, a major figure in T&T’s Independence-era politics. Capildeo’s uncle, Crisen Bissoondath, married Sati Naipaul, a sister of V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel laureate. And her cousin Neil Bissoondath is a novelist.

Capildeo studied first at Dunross Prep School (where a school magazine published some of her early poems) then at St Joseph’s Convent in Port of Spain. “I was very eager to learn, and I wasn’t getting pushed,” she says. “That can be quite frustrating as a child. I was envious of my brother Kavi, who was at St Mary’s College. He was under a lot of pressure there, getting pushed.”

She would later read English language and literature at Oxford University, where she was involved in a serious car accident in March 1994. On her way to hand in a Shakespeare essay, she was knocked over and suffered head injuries. But she survived — and thrived. (She got a first.) Capildeo later pursued a DPhil in Old Norse on a Rhodes scholarship, seeing parallels between medieval Scandinavia and its colonies, and modern-day regions with asymmetrical power relations with a “mainland” territory. After graduating, Capildeo became a research assistant at the Oxford English Dictionary, delving deep into the roots of language.


Capildeo’s books remind us that words inhabit the present, manifest the past, and are deployed in poems that are, by definition, open to future readers. In these feats of time-travel, language is our home.

“She liked to sing, she did a lot of music, piano, classical guitar,” says her mother Leila, a former national scholar who also writes. “It came to the point where she could just take up an instrument and play it. Except the violin. I couldn’t find a teacher for that.”

Something of this virtuosity is apparent in Capildeo’s poetry, particularly her prose poems. They implicitly argue that the idea of writing a poem halfway across the page is relatively new. Oral histories, stories, and poetic works do not depend on such margins. And why can’t prose, they ask, be put in service of poetry?

Yet Capildeo’s books do not have the air of theoretical treatises. They come alive as perspectives, times, and places shift. The prose poems draw attention to themselves, as if to remind us every now and again that this chunk of text should not be limited. Consider the moment from “A Book of Hours: From Aidoneus to Zeus”, a poem in Undraining Sea, when a man encounters a presence:

Then, standing in the corridor that lacks any intruder, the man on

his day off screams

He screams

screams realising he will see it again.

The line breaks and use of punctuation (lack of full stop; capitalisation of the next line) draw attention to the fact that this is poetic language being disrupted, like the man’s perception is interrupted. The poet at once transcends and re-affirms the medium; just as a filmmaker might leave in subtle reminders of craft and magic.

And Capildeo’s poems sometimes work like films, even if she does not aim to let us see characters as a film might. The narration is part of a sequence. Elements are presented one after the other, and the relationship between them (or lack thereof) is what creates something, does something to readers cinematographically.

Like mid-twentieth-century American poets such as James Wright, Capildeo is concerned with deep image, though she pushes that concept to even more dynamic moorings. Here are deep songs, deep films, deep dances, deep Carnival mas bands. The poet revels in this mental imagery, sometimes for lyrical purposes, at other times to scorch. The result is far from difficult; it is successful. The innards of the stage are laid bare. We travel across terrains, experience the psychogeography of bedrooms and cities alike. And each poem is its own animal. A reader is free to make and repurpose what the poet has presented. In fact, nothing more is expected.


The political within everyday situations forms another key strand in all of Capildeo’s books, starting with the opening poem of her debut, No Traveller Returns. In “Amulet”, a conversation between voices shows up what might be called micro-aggressions. The very first line, “That’s an unusual pendant you are wearing,” is a statement loaded with judgments and therefore appropriations. We recognise this conversation: it might be banal banter at a reception or a party. Yet we are given room to fill in the gaps, to invest questions of gender, race, economic status, work hierarchy, educational background, and more. When the wearer of the amulet declares a desire to sleep for two full months, this is not just a shutting down of the conversation, but a changing of the playing field. We are invited to think of different realms, to dream of dreaming.

Another important poem in her first book is “In Cunaripo”, an example of how narrative in Capildeo’s poetry is often inflected. Animals — in this case, caimans — irrupt within the confines of what is being described, not to re-enforce the arbitrary distinction between animal and human, but to do the opposite. The caimans are in character.

And while Capildeo can be described as a poet of globalisation, this is just one strand in a diverse body of concerns.

“Pin them down at your peril,” remarked Forward Prize founder William Sieghart, on Capildeo’s book and the work of the other poets honoured last year. In a blog piece for the UK Guardian, Sieghart recalled hearing Capideo read from her work at the Royal Festival Hall in London on the night the prize was announced. “She spoke as if addressing an invisible hawk,” he wrote. “She told us the idea for her poem, ‘Handfast’, was inspired by a hunting glove belonging to Henry VIII, that most dominant of English kings. Hawks are Ted Hughes territory. A glove? No, Capildeo . . . was throwing down a gauntlet.”

Capildeo troubles the nation, place, education, fauna, and even how we process day and night as individuals. She embodies what D.H. Lawrence meant when he said, “the essential quality of poetry is that it makes a new effort of attention, and ‘discovers’ a new world within the known world.”

Her latest book is an amplification of many of the themes apparent in Capildeo’s previous works. “Measures of Expatriation was my attempt to go both wide in place and deep in time, the way we do in our lives,” Capildeo says. “We do not see our own width and depth the same way if we are following ‘a character’ in a film or book, or the ‘voice’ of a single, shorter poem. I tried to create a series of imaginative extensions and portals.”

The book, she explains, was written over six years, and arguably has the same kind of impact a novel might. “I have always been moved by poems that have the compendiousness of novels,” Capildeo says. “Most years, I set myself an exercise of reading a long poem or series of connected works aloud over a number of days, beginning every day religiously with a portion of the poem, before breakfast or human contact or anything else, in that vulnerable gap when the mind is engaged in both its night and daytime states. There are moments in this process of reading that feel unbearable.”

In her poems, layers of meaning create dazzling whirlpools: what Vivek Narayanan refers to as “the working and reworking of grammar, in its flow or its sudden arrest, through absence, or through, often, a kind of semic overloading.” In “A Book of Hours: From Aidoneus to Zeus”, “amber” begins as a name, but then becomes colour, texture, signal. In “Winter to Winter”, structures and systems of naming suggest the complexity of overlapping layers of personality. Cardinal points, literary devices, verbs, colours, situations, imperatives are used as markers simultaneously.

The effect of all of this is poetry that is impossible to box. “I shed forms like a shapeshifter shedding skins,” Capildeo says. Readers be warned, then fly in.


Vahni Capildeo’s books

No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003)

Person Animal Figure (Landfill, 2005)

Undraining Sea (Egg Box, 2009)

Dark and Unaccustomed Words (Egg Box, 2011)

Utter (Peepal Tree Press, 2013)

Simple Complex Shapes (Shearsman, 2015)

Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016)

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