When he saw her walking
he knelt down to the pavement
and bending, with his nails and fists
tugged at a stone the shape of a fish
so she could step smoothly;
and she did, without looking.
At the foot of a statue
blessed with lions and pigeons
she changed direction; then he dug
into his shoulder blades to found an arch
to hold back the sun for her.
But the winding road took her.
The winding road took her
where – like piano hammers
that rise and strike in accord with the keys
whose black-and-white sound is produced out of sight –
people fall into action,
play a violent rumour.
She fiddled, half crying.
The lock would not open.
For a quarter-hour plants increased
far above. She no longer sensed
the meaning of talking;
and the catch kept on sliding.
When she’d finished climbing,
six centuries hemmed her.
Careless how her eyes added up,
raising her voice, she flung a demand.
But it shivered back against her.
For the figure she spoke to
lay fast, without turning.
As egrets fly over
reclaimed land in a whiteness
more plangent than the mangrove salt
crusting their wings,
just so was the gate
less wrought than what lay there,
arms fronting the ceiling.
But she shouted to it,
I am missing a layer.
You know how it has gone.
Where is the skin that pasted my bones?
My breastbone is pulsing
with my breath palpitating.
By my life! Give me cover!
What amends for no surface?
I keep down to a walking pace.
Still it goes surging, spilling out, life:
I need to close it,
what you took without moving.
When a sculptor, dying,
leaves abandoned, confounded,
half-made in marble, human grain,
even those prisoned bodies relate
more than was forthcoming
from under this linen.
Then it stirred, more slowly
than someone feeling drawn to
make friends with someone they resent
makes an occasion for getting vexed.
The sheets like milk thickened.
And it said,
Yes, you beauty.
Just don’t make this about me.
You get too far into your work,
then turn around with a tragic look
to see who still loves you.
You should try being lonely.
I won’t exchange stories.
You lose so much from people.
Seen from within fleece rings of clouds,
shadows of mountains deepen to blue.
I will not get over
what you guess at and worry.
You won’t make me ask you
to get out. If you want to . . .
you go. I’ve said more than I want,
you’re pushing fire, I’m not sure it’s right.
You’re almost as bad as
when your skin had not opened.
The night she went into
boxed the city in velvet:
the Hunter sewn onto the sky;
rose and pistachio buildings foiled.
The rich were out strolling.
The poor, costumed as statues,
made a plea of slow motion
but, hurriedly springing, would break
attitude, taking coins, giving thanks.
Where the law insisted
(but the river went shrugging
like snakes between gigantic heels)
bridges emerged, and cavities filled
the middle of towers.
Every turn became civil.
The form of the city
made it hard to realize that
worlds may exist without a frame
made to the measure of man. No escape
for harmony’s conscripts,
neither random nor single.
City bridged by gestures,
streets that frame us as symbols,
granting a light too great to adopt,
city that drowns each given heart,
a spring of tears with it,
stone aflower with strangers!
And, petal by petal,
the night-lights of apartments
descending tremble to a glow
mirrored as columns, innocent how
they join, draw black water
into amber reflection.
Now she – his beginning
is where she finds his limit,
voiced thing of light she strives to reach,
showing beyond beyond her reach,
hers, spirit’s dreamed boundary –
Don’t say it so clearly!
Unlike speakers who look for
new forms to put words in to make
sense out of visions forced to escape
dialogue, he fell back
on timeworn words, time-honoured.
There’s nothing beyond words.
You can always be clearer.
So shame becomes both vain and false.
Too self-regarding, it has no place
in the face of this living.
Work deserves to be needed.
Is this too complicated?
Forgiveness, when our concepts
slide towards slickness, seeking repair,
slipping the rope of heart-ridden air
where language crests, hopeless –
to be true, he should stay there:
restricted to breakage
of images that penned them.
She even put the air to blame,
when (as was right) it worked around him,
piece of brightness surrounded
by good humour, half-savaged.
See courteous sounds shiver,
as words, when air has frozen,
spoken, disperse on iced-up breath.
Unspoken instead against the mouth
they would have displaced winter.
For the place of kissing
permits the supreme act
of interpretation –
obscure salutation, lucid exchange –
all forms fall short of.
So love would make
more than reparation:
Through that thought, rest truly.
At best they could have left there,
not practised praising.
warm through cool levels. Stress in one phrase,
imperfectly levelled, may unshutter love wholly.
The purest convention,
empty words, best can bear it
when content must surpass the use
intellect claims for analysis.
This surpassing content –
love – is that recognition?
There was a questionnaire
that began with a statement:
Your ideal object’s clothing hangs
badly. You must account for two things,
perhaps more, and others,
before we will clear you
to cross our borders.
If you take it for granted
that local variants exist
in the experience of air, how best
would you, briefly, describe it?
Second, can you answer
(not compare or contrast)
what basic opposition
should hold between a pair that seems
similar as a skeleton leaf
seems to crumpled paper’s
rose-shapes littered with letters,
when both let light through them?
She was tired and panicked.
Someone had stolen the cheap bag
containing her documents. In her hand
three sets of house keys, unlabelled.
Her women’s clothes had no pockets.
She couldn’t pay for
so much as one cup of coffee.
These evenings closed early and cold.
Walking too fast, she had to pretend,
in muddle-through England,
to be making an effort
like a free choice, unguided.
She made it to the station.
A silver-haired man walking past
as if on business, hissed Fuck your breasts.
She moved away quickly.
The lech stared at her kindly.
Not fear. Not anger.
Disgust crawled her fingertips.
Cold blasted through her cotton dress,
handsewn too far away.
She went along again, harassed,
through streets patched blue and amber.
A man like an index.
A woman, not a flower.
There was a questionnaire that asked
nothing on earth and all the rest.
A man like a lily.
A woman like a city.
Clever people are drinking
and, watching their anger
over wineglasses, say what they do,
each to their own, the bottle eyed up.
They name far-flung lovers.
Their failing mouths grudge full bladders.
So she sat there frozen
and still simply bewildered.
The thing not to be called a soul
cringing within her – such ugliness hurled
at random, no reason,
an attack on aloneness.
She’d become a member
of the waiting classes
attached to winter’s cold. Half-seen,
how it increased, populated the street,
cold winter’s mist forming,
going slower but surer.
She is like a knife blade
that has been too much sharpened:
less like metal, more like a leaf;
so apt for use, so used to be keen –
it can no longer cut
without risk of breaking.
She cannot stop seeing
his real presence as memory.
Half face-to-face, the mind’s eye looks.
Floor swishes to fire underfoot
and bends (piece of brightness)
the way he is going.
Is love time’s destroyer;
love’s essence, recognition?
An empty space grazes his side,
large as success; another beside
her. Light pumps out from them,
light, flame one stage purer.
There was a questionnaire
that began: What appearance
does fire have, where you were born?
How do you hold someone in your arms
and yet not touch them? or,
How to smell shifting weather?
Tearing my eyes on them,
locked in to their image,
I looked far and began to write,
hoping to answer the things of my mind
so their hearts could open
and open unexamined.
To tell about fire . . .
Dawn’s cloth, cut out to try on,
slides light along the Northern Range,
pins pricking seams of sunrise that graze
the iron-pink mountains
that start showing their temper.
Like Indian cotton,
so fragile in its brilliance,
dawn’s gentle colours are not fixed,
readily bleeding, lost in the wash.
The mountains stay pink with
their own ore and where forests,
being slashed, come down burning.
Helicopters go raiding.
Man traps, built like they were for slaves,
guard marijuana planters’ estates.
Young government forces
stand round bonfires, smiling
at the weed they set burning.
It goes with the territory.
The godly tree, flame Immortelle,
rare, yes endangered, shoots so tall
one makes up for thousands.
Home to poor planters,
rich land scratched out given
perennially to drugs, that stun
those who must grow them for export; that stunt
the growth of the country
that depends on bad money.
He is like a grotto
built from imported coral.
The blocks look porous. They are rough.
Animal-ocean stuff too close up
yields notions, not natures,
being dragged from lost totals.
Some people look hungry
even when well looked after.
Is so they stop. Their faces set,
calamitous in their innocence,
speaking weakened by anger
that is strength to the lonely.
If she tries re-creating
some past and some present,
it is a form of gratitude,
shaken out from the aptitude
for joy: not desire,
but light, light through all living,
beyond likely resources.
A future – that’s not in their gift:
infinites more of work than faith,
time grown consequential,
a sense of consequences.
[Vahni Capildeo (b. Trinidad, 1973) moved to England in 1991. Poetry collections include No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003), Person Animal Figure (Landfill, 2005), The Undraining Sea (forthcoming), and Dark and Unaccustomed Words (in progress). She is a Contributing Editor at the Caribbean Review of Books.]
Copyright © 2008 by Vahni Capildeo, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.