Words, Take Wing: Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Odyssey Calling’

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The Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener was among the first 5,000 West Indians to be encouraged to migrate to the UK to alleviate the severe labour shortages following the Second World War. Born Aldwyn Roberts, he had acquired his stage name a few years before that, and become known as an innovative performer and subversive lyricist. On the deck of the Empire Windrush in 1948, Kitchener was interviewed by a Pathé News reporter. “Now I’m told you really are the king of calypso singers, is that right?” “Yes.” “Will you sing for us?”

London is the place for me
London, this lovely city
You can go to France or America

India, Asia or Australia,
But you must come back to London city
Well, believe me, I am speaking broadmindedly
I am glad to know my mother country
I’ve been travelling the countries years ago but this is the place I wanted to know, darling
London, this the place for me.

Lord Kitchener sang acapella as he stood waiting to disembark at Tilbury docks. But my transcription hides his use of voice to fill the gaps where the ensemble music would have carried the rhythm through to his next line—subtle runs and breaths that offered a ghostly shorthand version of clarinet, steelpan, bass guitar, claves, jawbones. These instruments and their notes were the moving, collective body of a musical genre that is still, as it was then, overtly political.

Vahni Capildeo’s Odyssey Calling, more than a pamphlet, a palimpsest of eclectic tones and narratives—summons that moment from history. It feels at times like a score to be performed, operating as essay, song, concrete page—just ‘writing’. It is framed by a meta-narrative: of writing and reading, and speaking and listening, in which notable consideration is given to the latter activity in both of those dichotomies.

The pamphlet begins with “Holy Island”, a deceptively small and simple poem (a description that could stand for the whole book). “Holy Island” summons the reader to consider questions of migration, contestations of “home”, language, absence and loss:

The seals have gone to the other islands.
Come back this afternoon.
Listen for the seals.
What do they sound like?
They sound like ghosts.

“In a series of experiments with breaking away from poems on the page to creative immersive installations, I have been seeking to re-create what the process of enjoying reading or writing poetry feels like. . . . It is easy to blank at the sight of a poem . . . agonize over its meaning . . . So I desired to create active silence in a room filled with happy concentration.” This passage comes from “beginnings of bluegreen”, in which Capildeo writes of developing, with their collaborators Jeremy Hardingham, Paige Smeaton, Olivia Scott-Berry and Hope Doherty, an approach of “kinetic syntax” which uses gesture – not gestures of narrative interpretation, but gestures that respond to the “linguistic skeleton” of a text. An audience was invited to drop in and out of durational performance, unconstrained by any sense of a beginning, middle and end. In contrast to its essayistic precursor, the second section of “beginnings of bluegreen” is a stripped-down drift:

. . . Deeper water. Emptier silence. Susurrus. Only you cry a thousand treasurable cries, wetnosed as a swimmer. The crevasse, dark subtle wound, extended beyond dark silver, all blue drift, all blue drink, gateway joy. Lauluaa.

The pamphlet is carried along, of course, by the sea, and an Odysseus who is not a hero (“Is it a hero you want? Why not say so? / I am suspicious of heroes”). This is an idea of odyssey: an idea of a journey undertaken across countries, across languages, across concepts, in speculative search of a home. The sequence “Odyssey Response” unpacks the implications of the politics of power: “Words, take wing, fly commonly among all people / who have power of health and employment over us”; “What if the hero shining like a falcon arrives / having traded their body for life, trailing killings / and transactional sex?” It is here that the kinetic syntax becomes more urgent:

Nothing runs so swiftly. Did you think I was singing
about death? Should we give death preferential treatment
Should we be women singing to death? You saw. You know.
The sea is a cover for bones, how busyness covers news.
New bodies are laid every day in the innocence
of the sea. New burdens explode every day
in the innocence of the air.

The sequence “Windrush Reflections” shifts from trans-historical concerns to the urgency of contemporary events, and the deportation of citizens whose citizenship their state, this state, this disunited kingdom, has decided to erase. “They came in earlier ships, / Mahadai’s ancestors and mine, / with hope, and by imperialist design / . . . post-war Britain already was home / by birthright: documentation / was not a prize or a promise / for this generation born under / the far-fetched Union Jack”. Citizenship as Lord Kitchener would have understood it is being erased, via a definition of blackness that is in turn shaped by a structural whiteness. Beyond the chronology of imperialism lies a literal, ideological and conceptual empire.

Hear now: Lord Beginner. Lord
Kitchener. Sam Selvon. V.S. Naipaul.
Mikey Smith, stoned to death in Jamaica.
Una Marson, ruling the airwaves.
Wilson Harris. The nationality
act in one of its ever-revisable
revisions.

To return to the imperative of “Holy Island” is to feel that the whole of Odyssey Calling is an exhortation to act, to perform; as a reader, I long to recount, to perform my passage through every poem. The pamphlet ends with “A SHORT PRAYER TO OCEANS, BY ERASURES”, whose concrete layout allows readings as if by navigation – East to West, North to South. To plot my own course, I choose: open formula—light—light—blue freedom of—blue responsibility for—all law—territorially—exceeds—shrinks—sovereign—exclusive white white—white white—dark resources—black—black—indigo blue—baseline.

Odyssey Calling by Vahni Capildeo (2020) is published by Sad Press.  Find them on Twitter at @sadpresspoetry

This article first appeared in the Brixton Review of Books, Issue 10, 2020. (Find them on Twitter at @BrixtonBooks