Review - "Like a Tree, Walking" by Vahni Capildeo

Steve Spence

“Like a Tree, Walking” by Vahni Capildeo, pub Carcanet. 2021. 103 pages. £11.99

I love Vahni Capildeo’s poetry and their most recent publication, a compilation of sequences is as good as it gets. The background to this work is one of ecology, linked in some instances to ‘the lockdown’ and also to climate change but the sheer invention and creativity evident here makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Take, for instance, the opening poem ‘In Praise of Birds’ which mixes an almost incantatory repetition with a plethora of unexpected sentences which combine lyricism with confrontation and arresting images. Take the following out-of-sequence extracts by way of example:


          In praise of birds eaten by aeroplane engines; in praise of

          birds trained to hunt drones; in praise of birds that, having

          nothing to do with human processes, crash aeroplanes.


          In praise of badly drawn birds.


          In praise of high-dancing birds carried on the heads of

          masqueraders and built by wirebenders to carry the spirit of

          an archipelago of more than seven thousand isles.


          In praise of the peacocks invading the car park at the Viking

          conference in New York, warming their spread tails on the bodies

          of cars.


          In praise of birds that are not punctuation, that are not

          calendars, that are not words.


          In praise of birds that singing still do shit, shitting ever

          singing, above a low-rent skylight, on a diet of chips.


          In praise of Old English birds of exile, the gannet’s laughter

          swathes of remembered seabirds booming and chuckling,

          the urgent cuckoo blazing on about summer, mournful

          and mindblowing, driving the sailor over the edge towards

          impossible targets, scornful of gardens, salty about city life – I

          can’t stand not setting off; far is seldom far enough.


          In praise of fine feathers, prophecies, and export regulations.


The cover artwork, a striking image of a Scarlet Ibis, relates to the title via a story of ‘sight miraculously regained’ which in turn presages the often unexpected imagery and approach in these wonderful pieces. Poetry with bird themes seems to be on the increase in these strange times and I could cite Jeremy Hilton’s Fulmar’s Wing, Rosemarie Corlett’s Flightless Bird and Andrew Martin’s Shoals of Starlings as examples of a current trend in response to events.


‘Odyssey Response’, an anti-epic in eight sections is filled with flights of lyricism, tempered by sober analysis and passionate questioning – ‘How can there be freedom of the sea without protection?’ – and concludes with a wonderful polemical flourish:


‘Traveller in body, buffeted about as a guest, Zeus, / Time Traveller, if you see Columbus, shoot on sight.’ Here as elsewhere in their work, Vahni Capildeo utilises their vast erudition in a manner which feels both modern and inclusive, yet they never dumb down or patronise their readership. They explore our current predicaments in poetry that both soars and questions, that crosses historical and subject boundaries with an apparent ease and lyrical fluency:


          How changeable is a hero, like modern rainfall patterns.

          How fearful is a hero, patched like an archaic sail.

          How lifted up is a hero, like the great grandchild

          of immigrants, hurting his parents, hoping his child is kind.

          Witness those ghosts who, after a natural disaster, don’t know

          they’re dead; poor, wet ghosts, trying to board real taxis home.


                    (‘from II. Hero?)


Amid the rhetorical flourishes and pure enjoyment of the language ‘for its own sake’ there is a persistent and serious questioning of human engagement and an appreciation of the ‘other’ which runs deep.


There are several ‘open field’ poems here which incorporate layout and space in an effective manner and which refer to other literary works (‘Stylish Deer’ and ‘Erasure as Shinethrough’ for example) and a series of lullabies which includes the following:


          Lullaby 7


          Why did I make you wait so long?

          Death is a passing state

          Night comes late

          The nature of a day is long


          Strange angers come along

          The street breathes us, we breathe the street

          Why did I make you wait so long?

          Death is a passing state


          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?


There’s a sense of melancholy here and a degree of alienation where the questioning of the traditional notion of ‘lullaby’ is related to the search for a home but there’s also a conflicting sense of comfort – ‘The street wears us, we wear the street’ which has a more upbeat feel and counters the deep longing.


In another long sequence (‘In Praise of Trees’) Capildeo declares that ‘Radical care is the new revolutionary.’ From II First Person Arboreal we have the following meditation:


           How much from what I expect from hearing is touch! The cold

          flips and ripples my hair across my forehead, and it feels like

          it should be a sound. I fool myself that I am hearing the hedge. It is

          tinnitus mingling with traffic in a small bay between my left ear and

          the tree trunk.

               I feel you while I hear me and only you allow.


A lot of the work in this collection has that meditative feel, an embracing of landscape, often walking through the world as it were, a mix of questioning and acceptance but always an awareness of surrounding space and other inhabitants of our planet. There is also material here which I’ve visited in a previous review and I’m not going to repeat myself but there is another long sequence ‘Windrush Reflections’ which is certainly worth a mention. Much of the work in the entire collection relates to travel, to walking, to migration and immigration, to displacement and to exploration and Vahni Capildeo’s own life story embraces this sensed of movement. Here is the final section of this long poem:



          IV. Windrush Leeds Cento


          Stay, if you’ve come all this way.

          I also know about uprooting.

          In the airport the smells were

          mixed. Anxious. Friends

          to lonely, what a journey.

          Who did you leave behind?

          Approach. Anxious. Someone

          to love. A travel buddy.

          You will be welcome here;

          we finally settled.

          How was the voyage? 

          Come here! I would

          take you for a walk

          and show you York.. Leeds

          Town Hall. Kirkgate Market.

          Bradford. Chapeltown. Spain

          Blackpool. Windermere. Turkey.

          Not everybody lives in Buckingham Palace.

          I’d like to show you round

          Leeds. Celebrate the NHS.

          Dear Mr Churchill… Dear President

          Kennedy…. Getting experience

          after unemployment. Nursing and tending

          to old soldiers. Can’t wait for peace

          and quiet. In this big freezer.

          Family near me.

          Know the area. Explore. Enjoy.

          I walk around the park.

          and I found a friend.

          Please sing another song.


There’s a lot of complexity here but ultimately it’s a celebratory poem, filled with life and energy and endless curiosity, which is what I’d say about the collection overall, that and a celebration of language and difference. Like A Tree, Walking (note the comma) is a great read, never boring and once read a book to revisit.






Copyright © Steve Spence, 2022