Martyn Crucefix Reviews Vahni Capildeo, Sean O’Brien and Alice Miller
Venus as a Bear will be seen as an interim statement from Vahni Capildeo, coming as it does just two years after her game-changing and magisterial Measures of Expatriation (2016). There is a miscellaneous feel to the new book (animals, ekphrastic poems, language-concerned poems, the sea, thinghood (sic), metaphorical pieces, descriptive pieces). Capildeo’s reach and curiosity is reflected here and this is what drives her more ambitious explorations of borders and transgressions. It’s not that she sees all things as one; but that all things can be potentially brought into relation with each other. Whatever Capildeo’s personal faith, her vision would not erroneously be described as humanist, assured as it is of the mind’s capabilities. Accordingly, several of the animal poems here suggest William Blake and for those who have found her work hard-going at times, I’d suggest starting with ‘Tending’ or ‘Welcome’ in which early-born lambs are closely, amusedly, admiringly observed in an unlikely echoing of Philip Larkin’s ‘First Sight’.
Such poems – they are lyrics – contrast with ‘Crossing Borders: Assuming the Habits of the Day and Night’ which reads as a more characteristic off-cut from her previous collection. A longer sequence, mixing verse and prose, it tracks shifts in perception (“They saw an infant [. . .] They saw a child [. . .] They saw a problem”) and “outward show” as manifested in the “subtle body’s extension into material” and this is leant up against other passages which explore the use of the term “home”. Having tuned in to the wavelength Capildeo broadcasts on, even ‘Welcome’ reads more richly, returning to it, with allusions to fences and the success, value and individuality of lambs which are a “hybrid flock”. Hybridity – as the generative inter-relation of things and cultures and people – is what Capildeo celebrates and is as good a term as any for her mixed literary forms.
‘Day, with Hawk’ begins as a description of watching a peregrine falcon. The sounding board this time is Hopkins who, in his efforts to translate the quiddity of creatures, bent his language into new shapes. Capildeo faces the same problem: “He stunned me so I’m hanging on / to language by its clichés”. The experience is one of the short-comings of expression, a sense of both saturation and emptiness simultaneously: “An embarrassment of poets. / An adoration. An abyss.” Such a focus on the limitations of language leads Capildeo into her more abstruse experiments with it as in a poem like ‘Seastairway’ and ‘Brant Geese’ is a fairly mild example of her playfulness: “a bubble of babble / swagger and swallow a vowel / turd it turn it shine it lime it”.
The book is also studded with startling images and linguistic strings which embroil and surprise the reader and – in amongst the fierce intelligence and erudition – moments of great tenderness. For me, the most consistently rewarding section was Some Things. ‘Trinidad Sugar’ is the kind of “myriad-minded lyric” that Edward Thomas once aspired to and is not open to paraphrase. Alongside it ‘Moss, for Maya’ consists of 5 brief prose pieces moving through a child’s eye view, etymology, life cycle, language and our relation to the world. At 104 pages, the reader’s wish for a little more editing of Venus as a Bear is but a small price to pay to continue to follow the development of Capildeo’s fulsome and generously given gifts.
Picador presents Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit which does nobody any favours. It’s a more heterogeneous set of poems, though the opening 19 pages certainly have the UK and Europe in their sights. What these two blocs share, in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict. ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem asks how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words evokes military numbers as well as peace-time political conflict. Other poems draw on material from the Great War, the divided city of Berlin and the Balkans, but O’Brien is best on England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. The most vital activity here is “counting the takings”.
Those who live outside this circle of privilege, in “Albion’s excluded middle”, likely end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meetings brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’ where “[w]ould be Werwolfs” plan to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism is clear but complicated by his inability to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions recur in Europa, though to pin these to Brexit is surely reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of disaster is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and perhaps it’s significant that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).
The equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and he beats himself up again over the poet’s impotence. The cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene while ‘A Closed Book’ echoes Shelley’s apocalyptic ‘The Triumph of Life’. Someone impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through a European square. Europa is full of incisive attention combined with a breadth of vision few contemporary poets can match and to wholly denigrate the art runs a risk of allowing darker agencies to run amok through a culture that, for all its faults, upholds values of a liberal civilisation, in the interstices of which pass lives of relative peace, prosperity and achievement as well as poems with fewer explicit political designs, yet which also play an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what we wish to protect’.
Alice Miller’s title, Nowhere Nearer, suggests unfulfilled aspiration: possibilities are raised but hopes are thwarted, relationships break down, the streets are fragmented and subject only to change. Miller is from New Zealand, now living in Vienna, and perhaps the deracination this implies is a key. The book’s epigraph is from Anna Freud, writing in 1938 about her father’s move to London: “We are no longer quite here and not yet there at all”. Unlike Capildeo, who finds as much inspiration as deprivation in up-rootedness, Miller is simply plagued by it. ‘Maker’ is an ars poetica of sorts, opening: “Home’s far and grown old”. Though new life is brought into the world (a friend gives birth) the poet can only “walk with a pen and futures I tried to have / and couldn’t.” The possibilities – and the ineluctable sense of regret after choosing – loom large. Though the final lines of the book urge, “Let’s take pen, work ink”, this is an artistic endeavour built solely on what might have been.
An earlier poem has its protagonists tune in to “all we hadn’t done / the towns we wouldn’t visit / the people we’d never meet”. Another makes use of anaphora to list further possibilities lost and the poem ‘Saving’ opens the collection only to conclude: “what I am failing to say // is that some of the moments we cling to most / are the futures we never let happen”. This poem also refers to W.S. Merwin, a writer whose similar openness to possibilities instead manages to suggest a plenitude in human experience, whereas Miller’s openness to the things missed out on seems only to breed a sort of cosmic remorse. But it’s not all personal because Miller does have an interest in history. ‘Eva Braun in Linz’ imagines an alternative life for Hitler’s mistress, yet to live continually in Miller’s hypothetical mood gives the real (as merely one option among many) a desperate air of fragmentation and up-rootedness.
Sights and sounds are noted from a distance and each poem accumulates a sense of impotence. ‘St Peter’ suggests neither religion nor imagination redeems this condition. Auden is referred to and ‘Neutral Air’ makes use of a phrase from ‘September 1, 1939’. Auden revised his original line, “We must love one another or die”, replacing the “or” with “and”. Miller updates this: “We love one another, we die”. By doing so she casts further doubt on the relationship between the two phrases and asks, “what laziness will save us? / What brinks?” We are left to wander in a reverberating field of infinite possibilities forever ‘brinking’ on the horizon. I guess Miller offers this as a diagnosis of our modern condition, yet the absence of any commitment that such an outlook entails infects the reader too, allowing these poems to pass through our hands without really grabbing our attention or shaking our hearts.
Venus as a Bear by Vahni Capildeo is available from Carcanet Press, £9.99.
Europa by Sean O’Brien is available from Picador, £9.99.
Nowhere Nearer by Alice Miller is avaiable from Liverpool University Press, £9.99.