Bookshelf (Nov/Dec 2018) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of Venus as a Bear; Voodoo Hypothesis; Come Let Us Sing Anyway; If I Had the Wings; and Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the United States

  • Venus as a Bear
  • Voodoo Hypothesis
  • Come Let Us Sing Anyway
  • If I Had the Wings
  • Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the United States

Venus as a Bear

by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet Press, 112 pp, ISBN 9781784105549)

Do we walk anywhere without language, even if we lack tongues, or speech? Venus as a Bear takes us through Trinidad, Oxfordshire, St Lucia, Puerto Rico, Iceland, and beyond, bearing us in its capacious, labyrinthine witness as we see heirloom roses, the erstwhile hole-homes of lizards, a woman who vanished in 1985 in Arima. Capildeo creates poems like spyglasses, like fully-equipped decks of observation, so that we might be present and entranced, hooked in the startling, surefooted immediacy of the worlds these poems invoke. 

Dip a toe into this dazzlingly epic collection — epic in its scope, in the subterranean depth of its wide-ranging points of reference — and you will emerge with treasure, whether it gleams or growls. Capildeo’s poems take their frames and habitations from trips to the Ashmolean Museum, from Björk and Captain Beefheart. In “Kiskadee”, the site of an open-air arts space in Woodbrook, Trinidad, is transformed into an aviary, “every gate, / grid, grille, lock, key, alterable / level, pock-marked wall, concrete / irregularity, soft / and hung over with gauze, full / of uncrushable feathers.” A quartet of poems for Inishbofin in Irseland reveals a contemplative study in positionality: the speaker sees and perceives that “Heaven is most probably underwater. / Sounding with ease, increasing pressure on us. / Too light for many stars. Too soon for most birds.” 

Venus as a Bear is a collection so multifarious it could plausibly be said to be about “everything,” without diminishing the pleasure and fascination with which you come to its openness. These poems are not the reflection of one world, but the navigation of several, where bulls roam the streets in unselfconscious pride, where children, left alone, befriend living moss. It is through work such as this that we find ourselves revivified to a thousand electric possibilities.

Voodoo Hypothesis

by Canisia Lubrin (Buckrider Books/Wolsak and Wynn Publishers, 96 pp, ISBN 9781928088424)

St Lucia–born, Canada-based Canisia Lubrin does the extraordinary with her first full-length book of poems: not only does Voodoo Hypothesis take no prisoners, it questions the very nature and validity of the prison system. Which punitive hierarchy is Lubrin tackling, you ask? Nothing less than a colonial posture on “blackness” itself. What happens, these poems ask, when you hold the doors of history, language, and science wide open, and reoutfit the black experience in the raiment it deserves and demands? You get verse awash with wonder and speculation, alive to both reclaiming and reframing a wounded narrative. The Commonwealth, Caliban, Crusoe: Lubrin targets them and enflames their old significances, restrings them into bold expressions of anti-conquest, anti-materiality. This makes Voodoo Hypothesis a confident, capable re-origination, unafraid to wreak needful havoc: “This is a hand that intends to do its maker harm.”

Come Let Us Sing Anyway

by Leone Ross (Peepal Tree Press, 190 pp, ISBN 9781845233341)

Between the borders of the macabre and the masterfully erotic: that’s where you’ll find the true north of Leone Ross’s prose. Come Let Us Sing Anyway is a collection of short fiction as audacious as it is explorative: herein, a British tourist finds she can buy a baby in a foreign land, but not steal it. A family lose their son, and when he returns against all hope or expectation, he is changed in ways that make his father violently ill at night. A woman takes and is taken by her paramour in a series of mountingly shocking assignations; all the while she feels her own gender pulse and shift with suggestion. Ross’s dominion of form is on fine display: she’s equally effective whether her stories serve up spare horror in flash fiction, or in extended post-apocalyptic swathes. The effects are ruinous, riotous, and rhapsodic.

If I Had the Wings

by Helen Klonaris (Peepal Tree Press, 168 pp, ISBN 9781845233464)

“You remember how yesterday the protestors sang a song you’d never heard before, and you’d felt the homesick feeling again . . .” The characters in If I Had the Wings are temporal changelings. They reckon with what it means to feel you belong, and to feel yourself outsidered by the very land you love. Peeling back the curtain on a microcosm of a small society, Klonaris shows that no prejudice — and no affection — is itself microscopic. These short stories teem with both tenderness and violence, confronting spectres of the past while facing the future with trepidation and awe. What happens, the most daring of these subversive tales asks, in a world where a young dreamer named Dionysos sprouts wings? The answer, like any good pendulum, swings between love and its chilling opposite. 

Making Waves: How the West Indies Shaped the United States

by Debbie Jacob (Ian Randle Publishers, 340 pp, ISBN 9789766379544)

It’s a well-worn idea: making history come alive. You’d better believe that the figures in Debbie Jacob’s Making Waves do exactly that: they fly from the pages, even those who’ve been dead for centuries. Jacob’s approach to history in this consummately readable guide is both purposeful and promising: she examines the Caribbean’s influence on the United States. We’re used to hearing about US influence on the West Indies: our less lively history texts are full of it. Employing illustrations alongside jaunty prose that moves along at an almost ebullient clip, Jacob gives us sanguine snapshots of the beauty queens, revolutionaries, politicians, musicians and powerful policy-makers (Hamilton, anyone?) who hailed from these very islands, and forever shifted the US landscape: for better, brighter, and forever.