“The I that can be we” (Review of “Skin Can Hold”)


“The I that can be we” is a review by Chris Edgoose (Wood Bee Poet) of Vahni Capildeo’s recently-published book Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019). [See previous post New Book: Skin Can Hold.] Here are a few excerpts (read the full review at Wood Bee Poet):

Of all the contemporary poets writing in the UK today, Vahni Capildeo is the one who, with four or five books behind them, most gives the impression that they are only just getting started. Capildeo’s intelligence, learning, wit, anger, skill and insight appear to be, on the evidence so far, limitless; and it is a brave person who would hazard a guess as to what they will come up with next. Of course, it is not actually any of the above qualities that make Capildeo’s work stand out (they are adjectives that could be applied to any number of active poets), but it is the way those qualities are used – the purposes to which they are put.

[. . .] Capildeo’s poetry is not easy, and I would suggest that, as with Hill, their work provokes in the reader a “sense of challenge and vital unsettlement”, but Capildeo does not require us to dive to the dark seabed of language in search of understanding, as Williams had Hill doing, rather they bring it up into the joyful, harsh, sometimes blinding sunlight on the surface. Puzzling, maybe, but hardly arduous.

In some ways Skin Can Hold moves thematically away from the previous two Carcanet collections, Measures of Expatriation and Venus as a Bear, in as much as the constant questioning, testing, stretching and redefining of the ‘lyrical I’ largely shifts in focus from some of the strategies that have served the poet so well in the past (for example, using geographical dislocation as a metaphor for distancing inner from outer / mental from physical worlds, and some of the more Ovidian forms of metamorphosis to be found in, particularly, Venus as a Bear). Capildeo is clearly continuing their project of breaking down the I, but in this collection, we find more twisting together and opening-up of pre-existing texts [. . .].

[. . .] Language here is inseparable from the physical individual, and Capildeo makes chromosomal references several times, most overtly in the second section of ‘from The End of the Poem’: “The poem is Trinidadian, / is double x chromosomed, is one hundred and fifty cm, / is creatively crushing on a dead Scottish man / and imagines itself in medieval Italian / and is none of I, Lord have mercy, it is not what I am.” So, the reader would clearly be unwise to identify poem and poet as synonymous and yet the poet appears to run through the poem at an almost genetic level (I’ve written about linguistic DNA before, and find myself on an unfinished learning journey myself here too, as this link will show). But for Capildeo, individual identity, like gender and like race (which are of course inseparable from self) is fluid, creative, unfinished and ultimately not actually individual at all: Martin Carter’s I is described as “extensive, inclusive” and containing a sense of “the I that can be we” and this is also true of Capildeo’s own I (and all of ours) – this is both political (“I am this poem like a sacrifice” wrote Carter in ‘I am No Soldier’, whose poems Capildeo wishes to be “with and inside” through syntax poetry) and personal (“Do not SHE me” the poet puts it bluntly in ‘Shame’) In contrast with ‘she’ / ‘her’ the personal pronouns ‘they’ / ‘them’ are plural, inclusive and as such reflect the communality of a self-definition which seems to wrest the notion of ‘containing multitudes’ away from Whitman. Capildeo does not make any claims on ‘largeness’ but expands the I to celebrate all the unfinished, unfixed, and fluid plurality that the Skin Can Hold. [. . .]

Skin Can Hold is published by Carcanet, and is available here.

For full review, see https://woodbeepoet.com/2019/06/11/the-i-that-can-be-we-review-skin-can-hold

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