Guest Review: Bailey on Capildeo

Andrew Bailey reviews
Undraining Sea

When Undraining Sea fell out of the envelope I was already delighted; Capildeo's Person Animal Figure was one of my highlights of 2005 when it appeared as a Landfill pamphlet, and it was a further joy to find that it makes up a big chunk of this second full collection.

That poem is a remarkable sequence in which post-office queues share space with oneiric creatures, laughter with darkness, beauty with anger, through the interaction of three strands: the animals that make up a dreamlike bestiary, the stream-of-consciousness voice of the person, and a whisper of dark in the form of the shadowy figure.  Running over 13 pages in its new hard covers, it's impossible to do justice to its effects with fair use length quotations, but not to try would be unforgiveable, so:

The animal who kisses persistently is much to be avoided.  The more it is avoided, the more it comes back.  It will seek out its prey in the middle of dreams of castles in nowhere, and make its catch before the staircase in the upper servants' hall. [...]

Being the person who buys stamps I am the person who stands up among the special offers why is the queue so long does that girl at the cash desk not know how to pack things or is it that she can't well you know [...]

This dark figure moves from peripheral vision when the nest of the body has sprung apart.

Opening a review like this sounds like I'm leading up to disappointment;  but no.  The book's first section (of three) consists of two sequences that both confirm my initial glee.  The first, 'A Book of Hours: from Adonais to Zeus' stretches its imagery of darkness in light, light in darkness, over a long day in prose rhythms; the second, 'Winter to Winter', uses a long year (from January through to a second February, making summer the aberration it felt like in this year’s chilly winter) to explore love and language and their place in a frequently cold world.  "The cold / draws ropes through the fingers; the cold / calls for thermal pulses, makes / the hand aware of how it is made," writes Capildeo in 'Cherries Out of Season', the fifth part of 'February: Winter' in the latter (constituent parts of her sequences may also be sequences), but in the "frost / frost frost / frost" notes that "kisses are cherries out of season". 

Later sections introduce breathing space with shorter poems, although a fondness for the longer forms persists.  Over at Black Box Manifold, Adam Piette also focuses on these, praising ‘Disappearing People’ from the second section for its handling of the intermingling dreams of the genders, in a review that describes this book as an “urgent, shapely, generous and serious collection”, which I won’t be disagreeing with.

If the work is shapely, incidentally, so is the hardback form Eggbox have provided for it.  And before the endpapers, we are given notes; among these is a guide to reading the collage of found text, 'Hazardous Shelves, Deep Waters', that explains - spoiler! - "the poem is means to show how one 'sea' of voices rolls from an actual set of shelves or in memory, including the quality of echo and muttering of translation or imperfect transmission."  It's unusual to flag authorial intent so openly, but I found it entirely fitting, particularly in memory of the query "is it fair to write anything an intelligent twelve year old could not understand ... yes twelve is the yardstick" (from 'Person Animal Figure' again).  So it's fair for the poet to remark on what might have been missed, whether that's the pun on bookshelves and coastal shelves, the sources of the quotations, or the statement of intent.  It's also fair to keep these at the back so as to avoid narrowing interpretations, hence earlier spoiler warning. The inner flap lets on that Capildeo’s CV includes contributing to the work of the OED; should it be tempting to speculate on the relationship between these different ways of opening up the meanings of words?  Whether or no, it’s almost certainly linked to the pleasures of ‘Found Song’, assembling a narrative of sorts of love and violence from a seventeenth-century “Caribbian-Vocabulary”.

If there must be a cavil , it would be that the trouble with offering several of the larger canvases of longer poems is that shorter lyrics can appear throwaway in comparison.  The temptingly-titled 'From First To Last His Books, That Started Thin, Grew Less, And I'd Put Myself in Debt to Buy All Four or Five of Them', for example, seems merely illustrative of its title.  Gathering most of the shorter pieces into the third section of the book may exaggerate this feeling.  However, giving in to that sensation means ignoring that 'Which Way Up?' manages the technical feat of parallel cancrizans within a larger one, and that the mistimed empathy of 'Kitchen Business' for a bird hitting a window is sketched economically in seven brief lines whose syntax provokes a pleasurable blurring as to the owner of the "blinking pain / perched outside my head."  It's possible, then, that the arrangement within the book is overshadowing the shorter ones - and it's also possible that my own interest in longer forms, or expectation of them from the pamphlet joy, is more responsible for that than Capildeo is.  What she is responsible for, what I'm grateful for, is a wholly recommendable collection that justifies the praise on its back.

Andrew Bailey is a writer based in Sussex.  A first collection, Zeal, is forthcoming from Enitharmon.