Vahni Capildeo's latest
collection Simple Complex Shapes is uncharacteristically spare, the
shortest of the poems just four words long. There are none of the expansive
and involved pieces typical of her other collections: no prose poems and no
long lyrics. Instead we have a sequence of miniatures, fragments even, some
of the poems creating a visual shape on the page.
Examples of short poems exist in her earlier work, of course, both as
stand-alone lyrics and sections of longer poems, the 'Tiredness poems' in No
for example (Salt, 2003), and some of the shorter pieces in Dark and
(Egg Box, 2011). So this is not a complete change of tack, and Capildeo has
always experimented with form.
The pieces in the new collection are printed without individual titles,
implying that they are sections of a single work, though they read less like
a sequence than a montage of loosely associated images. They are, as the book title says, a
series of 'simple' yet 'complex' shapes.
Themes common to Capildeo's work surface repeatedly - her preoccupations with
identity, relationships, the experience of dividing time between Trinidad and
other places. The Caribbean landscape pervades these poems - sea, rain on
roofs, thirst. These images and others - eyes, fresh water, knots - thread
through the verse like musical motifs.
The pamphlet starts with images of violence, which might reflect colonial
experiences or could be metaphors for personal relationships. One
particularly striking piece starts: 'Discalendar this case/aztecally: heart
removals', evoking practices of human sacrifice. It ends with the line
'quetzalcoatl mon amour'. The Aztec deity has featured before in Capildeo's
work. In 'Don Juan de Quetzalcoatl', published in Undrained Sea (Egg Box,
2009) the Don sends a text to 'Dame Exe' to let her know he's in town, has
half an hour to spare, and suggests they have sex. Dame Exe declines. In this new poem the god appears as a
The poem which begins 'When/to be/was/to be going' (p. 16) is about the sense
of not belonging which Capildeo has written about elsewhere. So is a later
poem which starts 'Solid rain' and ends with the wonderful lines 'where
migrant writers find/their two-month home, strange fish/align with ice in
In the brief fragment on the page which follows this we have:
Other poems explore family heritage. The poem starting with 'in my house' (p.
19) and the poem beginning 'You have the same name as him' (p. 26) both refer
to the poet's father. The latter ends:
My tongue a blindfold
drawn by you finds you,
finding with each space
it is coming in your
The next poem (p. 27), also seems to celebrate her father.
this poem IS his poem
Capideo worked as a lexicographer on the Oxford English Dictionary for a while.
The prefixes ex-, re-, sub- all suggest death, though the poem is
affectionate rather than sad. Nocent, meaning harmful, is a late Middle
English word. ('Makeless', meaning matchless, appears in another poem.)
The final poem in the pamphlet has the words 'love' and 'moves' repeated over
and over and then crossed through. In the middle of the text block, 'this'
appears once and is not scored through. The crossing out conveys a powerful
sense of suppressed or conflicted emotion.
Some sections seem to have an affinity with poems in No Traveller Returns. The 'Silence
poems', for example, comprises four poems about Greek mythological figures,
each of which is paired with a sister poem. The Ariadne references in the
poem on p. 32 of Simple Complex Shapes seems of a piece, and 'Net',
paired with 'Orpheus', is not unlike some pieces in the chapbook.
The same can be said of a short poem 'Shape of a vase' in No Traveller
The themes of these earlier poems also echo some of the preoccupations in the
chapbook - lines such as 'It is possible to haunt you own house' and 'your
eyes are my eyes, they frighten me.' Could some of the material in the new
collection have its genesis in an earlier period of her work?
In No Traveller Returns there is a section which starts 'the
best poem would be a single word, repeated' (p. 100), and in Undrained Sea (Egg Box,
2009) a poem entitled, 'From first to last his books, that started thin grew
lessÉ', includes the line 'he wanted less of the words'. Perhaps Capildeo is
simply following through on these ideas.