Issue 1: Vahni Capildeo

Disappearing People

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:

unfinishing delight.

Through that thought, rest truly.

     At best they could have left there,

not practised praising.

Thermals rise

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.

Promethean mountains?

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,

such superabundance,

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.