Review by Helena Fornells
Metamorphosis is brought to the foreground by the title of Vahni Capildeo’s latest poetry collection, where Björk’s song title ‘Venus as a Boy’ turns into Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018). In exchange, Björk gets a dedicated poem, ‘Björk/Birch tree’,in which further transformations take place: ‘Lady into swan, come down; swan into sea, / set down’.
Barriers fade and re-emerge constantly in this multifaceted work, which moves from the animal to the human, from art to nature, from Scotland to the Caribbean, from the inanimate to the animate, from English to Icelandic, Italian, French and Spanish. The drastic plurality that shapes the collection is ambitious and, in turn, demands ambitious readers, yet Capildeo’s one hundred-page, seven-part book is sure to reward those prepared to invest themselves in its complexity.
In a welcoming spirit, the poet opens with the warming image of ‘Early lambs born some hours ago’, in a poem fittingly called ‘Welcome’. The first section, ‘Creatures’, goes on to explore the experiences of different animals until its last poem develops a register that simulates the rhythm and perspective of a pet’s life: ‘downriver from calling calling owner predator / who that who tagalong meaner whose canines further’. Closing the first part, this piece establishes the linguistic flexibility that is one of the collection’s outstanding features.
The third section of the book, ‘Langues/Tongues’, constitutes an exploration of the fluidity of words, as is visible in ‘Two Foreign’:
learnt our statues: lesteners,
let’s lessen to poems:
but these words have class issues;
is it she’d rase or e-race
The modified spellings play with the versatility of language: the word ‘lessen’ has its own meaning, yet used as ‘lessen to’, after ‘lesteners’, especially if we read it out loud, it acquires the meaning of listen. ‘E-race’ takes the meaning of erase, while it also introduces ‘race’ into the poem, adding ‘race’ to the ‘class issues’ mentioned in the previous line.
The playfulness of the poems does, at times, interfere with syntactical or narrative coherence. In ‘The Seething Sea’, for example, the sentences don’t follow conventional continuity, making it hard for the reader to follow the subject of the poem and, perhaps, demanding a less precise, almost automatic reading if we want to extract any meaning from the text:
for vortex read vertex, for phosphorescence
read foreigners, for read read repeat
ah ah thing that does not exist
ah ah children who have run out
for stones read bombs rough stones dear bombs
the sea releasing where from you ways
However, not all the poems challenge the reader in the way the one above does, nor do all of them experiment to the same extent. The book has space for more traditional poetic passages as well as for innovative language, a range that is also shown in the choices of form.
There are almost as many different forms used in the collection as different poems: prose poems; a variety of more conventional pieces and fragments where meter is marked; poems that visually stand out for their repeated use of symbols such as slashes, parenthesis and tildes, or the use of wide spacing between words; and poems whose formal innovations are difficult to describe, such as ‘Novena Body Parts’, which produces different symmetrical shapes with its stanzas.
The energetic experimentation of some of the poems could potentially lead to a depreciation of the more conventional passages in Venus as a Bear, but in order to counteract this danger, Capildeo provides moments of astonishing lyricism. Towards the middle of the collection, the series of four ‘Inishbofin’ poems becomes a peaceful space where readers can process the complexity of the first half of the book and prepare for some of its later experiments. In these poems, named after the Irish island on which they’re set, the poet explores the meditative power of the lyric in verses of intense beauty:
Beyond a road with stone and clover edges
A looked-for line between wet sky and water
Seams non-existence: large and swift, headed out,
Disappeared in a tilting and a pouring.
How have I been so stupid and not known this?
Heaven most probably is underwater,
Sounding with ease, increasing pressure on us.
The shorter poems, ‘Inishbofin: II’ and ‘Inishbofin: IV’, of two and four lines respectively, present vivid glimpses of life on the Island: ‘You do just have to listen to the boatman. / Let the boatman make the decision’; and ‘sea for a bit / lovingly lifting it of / this felted skin / this roof needing resurfaced’.
Then abruptly, after ‘Inishbofin: IV’, the book returns to its experimental endeavours with ‘Seastairway’, a poem with an Old English epigraph from The Wanderer which opens with these lines:
It is when we consider the distance travelled between poems in terms of style, register and subject, that we realise how challenging Capildeo’s work is. The stark differences comprised between the two covers at times put the coherence and stability of the collection in danger. But thinking twice, who would want a book that thrives from radically embracing plurality to be fully unified?
As the prose poem ‘Moss, for Maya’ says: ‘Don’t scrape too much off. It’s beautiful. Bleach it all off. It’s a risk. Coexist. Moss exists. Our stone selves roll on different tracks, unmatchably cracked’.
In Venus as a Bear, Vahni Capildeo succeeds at revealing and stretching the potential of contemporary poetry with a dynamic selection of poems that demonstrate time and again their widely varied interests, knowledge, and all-round poetic skills.
Helena Fornells is a poet from Barcelona based in Edinburgh. She writes poetry in both English and Catalan. Helena works as a bookseller and freelance translator and is currently a Poetry MFA student at St Andrews.