Dark and unaccustomed words

“It knocked me onto the bonnet and I went through the windscreen—which I remember—and I saw the blood going in front of my eye. Then, I went up into the air. Apparently, I came down on the road on the back of my head. The next thing I know I woke up and it was dark and I put my hand up to my head where it was hurting and I couldn’t feel anything. There was only a wet hole, there was no skin.”

Wearing red lipstick and a black long-sleeved blouse with delicate embroidered accents, Capildeo betrays little or no emotion as she tells the tale. One gets the feeling that she’s done this all before; told the story of her ordeal to countless friends, relatives and acquaintances. But her well chosen words, which sound like a mantra as she speaks them, express all that need be expressed about the incident.

“I call it my Oxford souvenir. I got little bits of the tarmac coming out of my head for the next two years,” she says, as the rain pours outside. I ask her what grade she got for her essay. “An ‘A’,” she says, smiling. “Apparently, there were blood stains on it.”

Miraculously, Capildeo escaped the incident without serious injury. And she will, tomorrow evening, be the featured guest of a reading and discussion session hosted by the Caribbean Review of Books at the Reader’s Bookshop, St James.

An acclaimed poet in her own right who lives and works in Britain, Trinidad-born Capildeo is the author of No Traveller Returns, a book-length poetry sequence, and Person Animal Figure, a series of dramatic monologues. Her forthcoming book The Undraining Sea is due for publication next year. Another book, the startling Dark and Unaccustomed Words, is to be published in 2010.

Capildeo was born in June, 1973. She is a cousin of Nobel Laureate Sir VS Naipaul. Her father was children’s poet Devendranath Capildeo. Her grandfather was Simbhoonath Capildeo, the elder brother of Rudranath Capildeo. Her uncle, Crisen Bissoondath, married Sati Naipaul, a sister of Vidia. Yet, it was only once, in 1984, that Vahni met Vidia.

The meeting occurred after Sati died tragically of an aneurism. Vidia and his brother Shiva Naipaul had returned from the United Kingdom to attend the funeral in Trinidad.

“I was 11 and I went to meet them,” she says. “I was very nervous because I had been brought up to be aware of tensions in the extended family.

“But Vidia Naipaul leaned forward and tried to make conversation. He was trying to put me at my ease. He felt a nervous child. I couldn’t really respond, I was too nervous, but I always remembered that; he really made an effort,” she says.

Capildeo describes her school days in Trinidad as being marked by a peculiar frustration.

“I studied at Dunn Ross Prep School,” she says, “then, St Joseph’s Convent, Port-of-Spain which I really hated because there was an ethos –which was very good—that people should help each other.

“But I was a lot quicker at some lessons. I’d spend 15 minutes in some lessons finishing the work and then I would have to spend 25 minutes helping people, which is a way to become uncharitable,” Capildeo says.

“I was very eager to learn and I wasn’t getting pushed and that can be quite frustrating as a child. I was envious of my brother Kavi who was at St Mary’s College. He was under a lot of pressure there getting pushed.”

But Capildeo wasn’t good at everything.

“I usually failed Art and I was very bad at Geography and Biology. I was bad at anything where you had to draw. Even when I was at Montessori school the teacher laughed at my water jug when I tried to draw it.”

Capildeo would later read English Language and Literature at Oxford and then pursue a DPhil in Old Norse on a Rhodes Scholarship. For her, Old Norse was a perfect fit because it exposed her to literatures which had parallels with this region. In particular, the narratives of Iceland, in context of that land’s relationship with mainland Europe, had almost colonial echoes.

After graduating, Capildeo literally worked with words, becoming a research assistant with the Oxford English Dictionary. She left this job to pursue writing full-time in December 2007. And this year, she finished Dark and Unaccustomed Words, which will be published by the Eggshell Press in Britain.

“What is dark and unaccustomed in one context is clear and bright in another,” Capildeo explains of her newest collection’s title.

The book is a dazzling display of Capildeo’s poetic process, which grounds itself in formalism but not pedantically so. Her analysis of images and ideas is rigorous, but this is accompanied by an elegant and musical use of metre and form which opens each piece to syncopated emotional effects.

The poems aim to crystallise relationships of all kinds: between human beings and their masters, between man and the environment and between society and history. But it is the self, and its relationship with that vexing theme of the meaning of “home,” which dominates, right down to the very last lines of the poem “About the Shape of Things” where Capildeo writes: “The theme of everyone/ is Nameless Bones…/And this morality of nameless bones/ begins to stir in me against my will/ to help—each flight home, every holiday/layered by plane wings flouting nameless bones.”

The work has a hint of mature Sylvia Plath and is clearly influenced by Martin Carter. But most strikingly Dark and Unaccustomed Words is woven with natural imagery, and in particular tree imagery which comes to symbolise human relationships as well as the veins of the English language itself. Capildeo explains her self-professed obsession with trees.

“There was a samaan tree in front of our garden in Port of Spain which was absolutely enormous,” she says. “Its roots were cracking up the driveway. I was quite afraid of it. I remember spending hours looking at it. I had a slightly warped relationship to that tree.”

A Conversation with Vahni Capildeo, hosted by the Caribbean Review of Books on Tuesday, starts at 7.30pm at the Reader’s Bookshop, off Patna Street,St James. Admission is free.


"Dark and unaccustomed words"

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