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Review - “The Dusty Angel” by Vahni Capildeo

Steve Spence


“The Dusty Angel” by Vahni Capildeo, pub. Oystercatcher Press, 24 pages

Here we have a new chapbook related to Vahni Capildeo’s writing residency at the University of the West Indies in 2020. It is split into three sections: Walk; Nocturne and Lullaby. There’s always a degree of experimentation in Capildeo’s poetry as well as a strong lyrical drive and the subjects of climate change and the Covid virus appear as a sort of background to the entire sequence. From Walk #5 we get the following, nine stanzas (couplets), a variation on ‘coupling’, a form which pairs a line of found text to echo with and reflect the shape of an original line:


          Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,

          Cling and fall: satin rags from cliffside trees


          Each like a corpse within its grave, until

          Wrestled into resurrection, wrestling


          Angels of rain and lightning; there are spread

          Nets of wildfire on the charcoal hill


          Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere

          Time can’t break to run forwards or backwards.


The final couplet quotes from Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ in an unusual manner, suggesting perhaps a different relation to the natural world, reform rather than revolution, though any possible remedies are likely to be urgent and far-reaching: ‘Oh Wind! The trumpet of a prophecy / Isn’t required. Just bring our seasons home.’ The mix of plaintive and down-to-earth here is quite moving.


From Walk#6 we get the following:


          Oil painting of itself, this shocking dullness

          known to be sea-harbour blue. Paint by numbers.

          Sahara dust dumps pink on ochre. Fullness

          of allergens. Who breathes in these streets? Cumbered

          with a bad job, looking down at his bare feet,

          the shamed, outsize angel shakes dust off his heels.

          His tunic purple. His task: to spread new plague.


There’s a mix of celebration of the world, its colours, light and of the physicality of movement while also suggesting the limits of a ‘surface recognition’, (the ad man’s dream), where tourist landscapes are penetrated by a more challenging view of things, a darker reckoning given a ‘theological’ twist with the references to ‘angel’, ‘light’ and ‘plague.’ The final brief stanza brings this multiplicity of viewpoint to a conclusion with its strange resonance, suggestive and slightly disturbing:


          The wind blows as he goes about the city.

          There’s no fixing his hair. Brightness thickens.

          People fall. He leans in. Light falls from the air.


Walk#7 is more puzzling and has a lighter feel yet with its repetitive use of ‘an imaginary…’ throughout its four short stanzas we are again confronted with the nature of our reality in these dark times. It’s hard to avoid interpreting these poems in the light of our current predicaments but there are plenty of textual clues which make such a reading feasible:


          An imaginary memory

                      a circle nested in a box

          An imaginary freedom

                      This life is very real

                                (from ‘Walk#7’)


Nocturne#5 reads as a dark seduction with plenty of references to colour – ‘Blue cat under a car at noon.’ - and ‘red lantana in profusion;’ - while there are hints towards both musical composition and a painterly lyricism which suggests related artforms. The final seven lines bring us back to the crisis in climate, if in slightly oblique fashion:


          This is a nocturne. Unbecome

          the book, Reader. It’s way too late.

          Unknown – waves up to two metres

          in open areas – your number

          comes up – but less than one metre

          Preciso – in sheltered areas

          He wants you to live till you’re dead.


Nocturnes#2 and #3 have the puzzling nature of a nursery rhyme for adults where the apparent simplicity is reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience with the added ingredient of magic realism. There’s a hint of menace amidst the childlike celebration of nature in all its optimism and awe which ties in with the overall feel of the sequence, at least that’s the vibe I’m getting on a second reading, while Nocturne#1 shifts between continents while evoking a mix of longing, immediacy (living in the moment) with a descriptive abundance of sound, flavour and aroma:


          Dogs bark, at least a block away.

          The night is quiet, with crickets.

          Nobody has fired a gun

          tonight, I notice, nobody

          within earshot. Bougainvillea

          grows purple, grows white, festooning

          the fence with spikes. …….


It feels again that observation is laced with both a celebration of the moment and anxiety which comes from both ‘the here and now’ and is connected to the wider world and to historical resonance. The reader may wish to fill in the gaps.


The lullaby poems (each section is made up of seven individual pieces) while having a drowsy, comforting feel relevant to the musical suggestion of the form, also have a distinctive sense of the requiem, perhaps indicating the association between ‘easeful sleep’ and death. I’m speculating to some extent here but I can’t help associating this with the underlying context of the pandemic and to the emerging facts around climate change:



          For a stormy siesta


          rain gurgles more gorgons more

          hair spreading snakes in the sky

          more mouths drooling infrasong

          gutters gurgle dividing

          garden into passable

          garden and reptile garden.

          rest, somewhere a timer says

          deep in your dreaming mind; quakes

          won’t happen at night, okay,

          the timer reassures you;

          quakes won’t happen during rain,

          it lulls; if you let yourself –

          okay? Sleep lulled by thunder


There’s a fantastic opening line in Lullaby#2 which brings home the dialectic at the heart of the lullaby – ‘the lawnmowers are singing Verdi’s Requiem’ – where the mixing of tears and laughter, of the lions’ voices and the lack of gunfire, allied to some wonderful associative wordplay, brings us at last to the final lines which are indeed final if, according to the softness of the soundings, somehow comforting:


                                                                  Happy the rain softly

                                    effacing dates, happy the stonemason

   turning, turning, to less dreamful sleep, softly in his grave


Lullaby#7 (for the grieved and glad) has a mix of repetition and rhyme which adds resonance to the whole and underlines the nature of the entire sequence in its shifting refrain:


          Sweet whispering

          The street wears us, we wear the street

          Too living to be late

          Too dying to belong

          Why did I make you wait so long?


The cover image, entitled Pink pouis, Queens Park, Savannah (photo by Rachel Lee Young) is of a line of trees, wonderfully in bloom with the rich greens of lawn and foliage in the fore and background. There appears to be a single tiny figure in the far distance, dressed in blue and red, which gives you a sense of scale. As always Oystercatcher covers are as intriguing and as full of the interest as the poetry.




Copyright © Steve Spence, 2021



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