This review was commissioned for the T.S. Eliot Prize newsletter and is reprinted with kind permission.
Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize winning Measures of Expatriation opens with an Old English dedication, ‘Eadig bið se þe eaþmod leofaþ’ (Blessed is he who lives humbly), taken from the cold, salty exploration of isolation, ‘The Seafarer’, a poem which helps us to measure language and ideas against a thousand years of invasion, immigration and imperialism.
In some ways, Capildeo concludes that humanity is pretty much constant in nature. In ‘Inside the Gateway: 1970s Red Clogs With Side Buckle’, she describes the clog as ‘The forever shoe, which points homewards’. One might expect it to symbolise travel but this one is static, aligned like a compass needle. In the tenth section of ‘All Your Houses: Notebook Including a Return’, Capildeo offers another archetype of sea-bound exile as she quotes a line of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: ‘‘As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean’. A pleasure to be pressed between flat sea and flat sky into the two-dimensional glisten. A pleasure in the horizon as a lost line of pure waiting’. Her speaker, musing on Coleridge and pressed flowers, transforms his image into something bigger than a becalmed ship – into a pressed preservation for posterity.
Yet, despite a formaldehyde timelessness, ‘Measures of Expatriation’ also measures change. Another shoe poem, ‘Bad Marriage Shoes: Silver Ballet Slippers’, presents ‘The penitential mermaid shoes […] distressed silver ballet slippers with netted and criss-cross side details which would make the material seem to swish with the changes of light’. Here, marriage is an atonement, meted out in confessional and, à la Hans Christian Andersen, it is a painful, hobbling experience. The decorative aspects of the shoes adopt a sinister aspect as they tighten like an asphyxiating net. This motif recurs In ‘The Poet Transformed into a Double Vodka’ from the nightmarish sequence ‘Inhuman Triumphs’ with ‘you, meantime, pouring out me / on the rocks. MAN DRINKS MERMAID / MISTAKING HER FOR LIQUOR!’ Yes, there’s a wicked dark humour in those icy rocks – but they’re also plain old stone, casting the poem’s subject as Andromeda – as fragile, objectified, flesh.
Capildeo’s intertextuality extends beyond literary allusion. ‘Kassandra #memoryandtrauma #livingilionstyle’ references the Trojan prophetess, doomed never to be listened to in her own country but also points the reader to Twitter where a search on the hashtag, #livingilionstyle returns a single tweet by @PerdutaGente (Capildeo): ‘hold tight & think of delphi’ – a wry reworking of ‘Close your eyes and think of England’ – with all of the unpleasant baggage that this implies. [Well, it did at the time of writing but appears not to now.] Kassandra ends up very far from home as Agamemnon’s property. Twitter is no stranger to the trolling and degradation of women, as Mary Beard, among others, has experienced and Capildeo measures the fatal trajectory of such abuse:
Why listen? She’s privilege. Complication. Must be spoilt.
K.’s voice flares victim to her high-explosive hair; her thoughts
dismissable; cuntly, if you’re a man; peripheral.
Take sixty seconds to re-read each of the lines above.
That took ten minutes: half as long as my death
Measures of Expatriation is a playful exploration of a wide gamut of ideas – home, ethnicity, identity, sexuality, history and literature jostle together and, where they rub, sparks fly.