Venus as a Bear by Vahni Capildeo review – direct, intimate and funny

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From Björk to beasts … impressive cross-cultural investigations into the natural world–a review by David Wheatley for London’s Guardian.

Agood place to find bears in Roman Britain would have been north of the Antonine Wall, the subject of a poem in Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear. “I want you like I want a wall / I want you in bits”, we read in “Romano-Celtic Contact in the Antonine Display, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow”, though the “bits” here refer to archaeological remains rather than the aftermath of a human-ursine encounter. As the author of the outstanding Measures of Expatriation, winner of the 2016 Forward prize, Capildeo has already given evidence of her border-crossing imagination, and in Venus as a Bear she expands her cross-cultural investigations into the natural world.

Björk fans will catch the allusion in the title to “Venus as a Boy’” and in “Björk/Birch Tree” Capildeo celebrates creaturely transformations: “Lady into swan, come down; swan into sea, / set down; fire from the sea, set out; reach; launch.” As a genre, the bestiary has appealed to poets from Guillaume Apollinaire to DH Lawrence to Donika Kelly, with the interest lying as much in its classificatory challenge as in the animals themselves. “What is the term / for the gathering of one falcon?”, asks “Day, with Hawk”, while “The Last Night, a Nightingale” worries that our interest in them may not be such good news for the animals (“Whoever drew you also caged you”).

“Another armored animal,” exclaimed that most famous laureate of the beasts, Marianne Moore, in “The Pangolin”. Moore’s zoomorphic fantasias are frequently couched in imagery of armour and elusiveness, and the variable forms and torsive syntax of Capildeo’s work perform comparable acts of self-estrangement. Like many poems here, “Brant Geese” tugs language in the direction of the inhuman, and relishes the onomatopoeic results: “open a bubble of babble / swagger and swallow a vowel / turd it turn it shine it slime it”. 

Capildeo is engaged in remaking poetic style rather than accommodating herself to it

Many poets of the natural world have turned away from Romantic anthropomorphism, but the idea of an art truly scoured clean of our human projections is no less tricky. Yeats was once upbraided by a reviewer for his description of a dancing peahen. Peahens do not dance but, with a fine disregard for the facts, Yeats announced: “As to the poultry yards, with them I have no concern.” Capildeo describes a stone curlew engaged in “nietzschean dancing”, which may have its share of Yeatsian licence, while in “Catifesto” she embraces full-on identification, announcing: “I am my own cat.”

For a poet who has written so well on migration and displacement, Capildeo anchors her imagination in some of the earliest poetry of the British archipelago (poetry that is itself dominated by migration and displacement), as she reminds us in “Seastairway”, with its epigraph from the Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer”, and “After Hávamál”, a translation from Old Norse. “Seastairway” appeared in a recent centenary anthology for WS Graham. As well as sharing the Scottish poet’s frequently maritime subject matter, it captures perfectly the specific gravity of his philosophical meditations on language and belonging.

Another translation, “After Catullus 5”, reminds us of Capildeo’s playfully erotic side (“the blonde from Gallia / who lays her head / low on my belly / while she tends my lady-garden”), and a series of homages to Pierre de Ronsard show a rare sensitivity to the French poet’s delicate forms. As a translator, Capildeo espouses an aesthetic of impurity, of versioning rather than any more notionally strict fidelity, and in “Bullshit” she eulogises the impure in the form of actual bullshit, as a large bull sprays manure all over a diplomatic compound (“A great bull is shitting on my street. Let him have his quiet enjoyment”).

Elsewhere, a series on plant life strays into prose poetry in a manner reminiscent of the mystic materialism of Francis Ponge, matching the French poet in its unerring, granular eye for detail. Intricately detailed landscape writing is a strength too, as in the beautiful memoir of “Trinidad Sugar” and a sequence set on the Galway island of Inishbofin, where the theme of peeling off and swapping skins is once more in the air:

sea for a bit
lovingly lifting it off
this felted skin
this roof needing resurfaced

A bald enumeration of Capildeo’s influences, subjects, travel destinations and poetic forms might give an impression of dizzying multifariousness. Other noticeable affinities, for instance, are to Helen Macdonald (Macdonald’s 2001 poetry collection Shaler’s Fish) and, of all people, Captain Beefheart. But the essential remains the same throughout. Capildeo, it is only fair to acknowledge, is a demanding writer, someone who stretches the conventions of the lyric poem in unprecedented ways; but Venus as a Bear demands nothing from its readers that it does not also repay generously. She is, among much else, a direct and sensual poet, warmly intimate and very funny.

She has also been a copiously productive poet; Venus as a Bear is her eighth collection. Writers are sometimes praised for being “representative”, to align them with the spirit of the age, but Capildeo is engaged in remaking poetic style rather than accommodating herself to it. These hugely intelligent and impressive poems, to borrow a phrase of their own, are “flame powered by roses”.

  • Venus as a Bear by Ahni Capildeo (Carcanet Press Ltd, £9.99).

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