Radicalising “the feeling world of a poem”: Alice Hiller on why new work by Vahni Capildeo, Eugene Ostashevsky and Anita Pati is calling the ‘English’ language to account.

Photo 24-10-2019, 14 29 26Vahni Capildeo Skin Can Hold Carcanet £9.99

Eugene Ostashevsky The Feeling Sonnets Clinic

Anita Pati Dodo Provocateur The Rialto £6.00

How do thought and feeling realise themselves into language? Personal, political, or historical – what forces can obstruct this process? I wanted to begin this review essay with the battered, beloved, re-read books by Vahni Capildeo, Eugene Ostashevsky and Anita Pati that have helped me ask these questions over the past months.   Core to my own work of giving creative witness to sexual abuse in childhood – the same questions also go to the heart of our attempts to communicate, and represent our experiences, on or off the page. Hurrying to get the words out, we risk rushing past them, and the serious issues they raise, particularly around voicing more resistant, or culturally and socially ‘prohibited’, materials.

But poetry is one of the places where time can be freeze-framed, and rewound. It can transpose the past into eternally present, multifaceted, moments – and give them the possibility of different outcomes. Vahni Capildeo does this in their new collection, Skin Can Hold, within the essay ‘Astronomer of Freedom’, which also defines “the feeling world of a poem”.  The essay describes using a black box theatre at Cambridge University to explore and stage Martin Carter’s poem of struggle and independence, ‘I Am No Soldier’. Like peeling an orange to discover, its tense, translucent segments, and scent the zest, it shows how Capildeo, Jeremy Hardingham, Paige Smeaton and Hope Doherty collaborated to open up the apparently sealed and fixed world of Carter’s work:

Photo 05-11-2019, 10 28 30We were not interested, either, in a conventional dramatisation of a poetic script. Instead, immersive experiments became the context for events including reading of full texts alongside what I call ‘syntax poems’ gleaned from them.   The syntax poems offer traces of a way of being with and inside Carter’s poetry. They are not the kind of independent verbal artefacts called responses or reworkings.   They are rearrangeable elements for future experiments. They require several voices. They are best realised via bodies in motion.


“Being with and inside Carter’s poetry” and locating its “rearrangeable elements”, moves the reader away from the fixity of language on the page, and towards its energies of origination, and the forces resisting them. These were made visible in Cambridge through sets including a colonial school room, a jail/resurrection yard, and a galactic dance space. Capildeo writes of how, when realising the words live in this way, the performance arrived at “a dimension that exceeded the words: here, a reversal of the traumatic ‘Middle Passage’ voyages of slave ships, into an ark-like transit that embraces all ‘comrades.’”

The black box staging, with its possibility of giving the audience “an insight into symbolic and representative social environments by being in them with us and having them co-exist in one blackbox” also challenged the power structures implicit in established cultural practices. The two poems which make up Capildeo’s ‘Prologue’ to Skin Can Hold open the collection by highlighting the forces hemming in and constraining certain voices.

In an age when border controls can determine life or death for those trying to cross, ‘The Brown Bag Service’ satirises “brown bags in Wholemeal, Bleachers or Cricket sizes”, that are “tailored to your citizenship incorporation experience and your journey with us today.” Travelling of another kind shapes the second poem, which reads, in its entirety, via variously sized and aligned typefaces, ‘(IN THE)/ ZOO I AM/ (LEFT)/ THE/ CIRCUS’.

To inhabit this transformed, resisting, role-playing self, however, Capildeo suggests that shamanic or somatic rituals of self-reclamation are required. Instructions are given in the ‘Four Ablutions’ under the title of ‘Black Box Cleanout.’ In each of these, the ‘poem’ is not only the sets of directions addressed to a “you”, and expressed in black typeface on the white page.   Rather, it is the evolving instructions themselves, as reproduced within the reader’s imagined body. ‘Ablution I’ opens: “Standing at a great height in a black box rigged by chaos, take a stainless steel tankard. Dip it into a white washing bowl. You are not nude.”

What follows is an act of cleansing, and an act of claiming.   It is vulnerable and powerful both together.   It has agency, but it is also insecure – with the quality of a dream in which everything keeps shifting, and the clothes that once covered you, dissolve from your body. This happens in ‘Ablution II’, which asks “you” to inhabit one of the places from which the creative energies of Skin Can Hold originate. Without any explanation, now “you are motionless at his feet”, clothed, “unitarded”, or undressed, and

you are ignored by him and knowable to any others as vulnerability in
situ, a heap of lines that cannot be crossed out, except deletion by
delivery is what his voice does. He reads in a beautiful voice. The
evil in the room wants it petty, sieved, meshed, strained, howled:
the voice surrounded by surrogate sound, the rustle of unhung
shutters. But it is a beautiful voice. He does not notice you. He
does not look down. He steps over you; over and around.

Here is the raw feeling of having your selfhood denied – from which acts of resistance and reclamation can begin to arise in Ablutions III and IV. In III, armed with an “iris” wand, “you” starts to get their own back as “the giant reader is tied to his microphone with shredded clingfilm, the dolphin-choking image of liaisons past.” He is now immobilised, while

you stoop, stretch, circle, segment, re-attach the relation of your body
to the space around him. The iris is painterly. It brushes him into
existence. The long Chinese scroll of himself acquires a mountain
of characters.   Is this a ritual of freeing, or a ritual of realisation?”

“Freeing” and “realisation” remain touchstones throughout Skin Can Hold, afterwards informing Capildeo’s responses to Martin Carter and Zaffar Kunial. The fourth and final ablution moves into a voice made possible by the rituals of the “Cleanout”.  IV features “metre after metre of blue, green, bluegreen, azure cloth: water to be terracotta cladding”, shaken out by “healthily feathered” arms. It is the backdrop to the central image whereby –

Standing on a ledge under a tree, a thin girl sings vowels. Her arms are raised.
She is rigged with makeshift wings that double as racks for scarlet
and yellow ribbons: wishings and blessings blank of desire, since
nobody but herself tied them on.

Upright, vocal, and self-clothed, working in sympathy with what is present of the natural world, the “girl” figures the energy that the word-skins of Capildeo’s poems hold.Her singing holds a flame of resistance against the stories about attempted degradation within the ‘Shame’ sequence, that come immediately afterwards. Performing this at the Poetry London spring launch, Capildeo explained that the stories were not exclusively from their own direct experiences. The narratives are introduced by a series of statements challenging the possibility of shame, including “I have no shame but fury” and “I have no shame but the knowledge that I shall be disbelieved.” The first ‘Shame’ story describes a female child being sexually abused by an adult male:

I was not ashamed as an infant when he set me on his chest, my
chunky little legs wide and my cottony vulva unconscious of being
close to his face; nor when he made me learn to tweak his nipples
until they were peaks.

After further interactions, including being asked to “brush” his pubic hair flat, the child then surrenders her doll to this man, who “moved her up and down like a scrubbing brush, making her eat plip. She took her punishment mutely, and I did not reinvent her voice.”   “Plip” is glossed as meaning “shit.” Beyond the specific child/adult context of this text, the face down doll is afterwards a figure for others obliged to endure degradation without recourse to protection.

Something like “the scream” in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘In the Village’, her muteness shimmers over, and is ultimately dissolved by, the other ‘Shame’ stories that follow, and other poems in the collection. The next story describes how a woman with “brown skin” is humiliated and physically injured by a beautician during the course of a hostile intimate waxing, and then again by her story being circulated by a third party within academia.

Lastly, ‘Shame’ gives us two attempted professional shamings, linked to publishing and academia. These are given additional weight by the recent publication of ‘Tackling Racial Harrassment: Universities Challenged’ by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – showing that a quarter of BAME students still experience racism at university – and the many academics of colour who have since gone on record saying how regularly they also experience racism in their professional and institutional lives.

The first attempted professional shaming is visited upon the narrating “I” in the course of meeting a “powerful-editor-poet-translator” – “Heinrich asked to meet me in a cafe, ostensibly to discuss the manuscript of my second book, but really to tell me to stop writing.[…] My book was antipoetic and destructive of poetry.” To face him down, and retrieve their book, “I” summons the “hella angry” Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. The closing exposé describes providing teaching cover at what appears to be an Oxbridge type university, where the narrator is denied access to study rooms, and obliged to teach students sitting on the floor in a corridor and finds “Shame on behalf of others flips into fury.”

The writing through which each section is enacted summons the miasma of ill will that confronts those obliged to live in the face of malignant, misogynist and racist obstructions – which Anita Pati and Eugene Ostashevsky will also investigate. Capildeo asks the reader to absorb what it could mean to have to generate work within the orbit of this aggression and oppression. This includes the challenge of making creative work using the same ‘English’ language through which the assaults are being perpetrated, including those generated by “structural racists at well-meaning gatherings.” They are referenced towards the end of the ‘Shame’ segment, whose close sits somewhere between enactment and exhortation. It redefines the “feeling world of a poem”, making it a power source from which to appropriate and generate imagery and language. Whispered voices from within and beyond the self make words which arrive in a new dimension:

Shamelessness does not feel, smell, or taste until it is at home, its home,
wherever you are not, you are not at home, where is your home, and you
don’t celebrate Christmas, do you? Shamelessness is polyfleece. I open
the tap and drink it offcast in the water. Well.

You can do shamelessness. Shameless.

Two ‘Reading for Compass’ poems, one responding to Mark Ford, the other to Zaffar Kunial, go deeper into resistance to silencing pressures, and the making of new work beyond them. The reader discovers that while “Mr Ford didn’t/ get around to my corner of the world,” reading Kunial’s Us generates a very different feeling – “In each of these poems, I am with you./ They are with us.” Blurring the boundary between the creative and the critical, Capildeo forms a poem from noticing how Kunial reclaims and remakes language in the “yellow airy treehouse/ of your multifoliate verse”. Capildeo suggests it achieves its effect partly by moving into the gaps and absences from which people and experiences have been left out, and claiming them as apertures to enter through.

From the first you offer us ellipses,
long dashes, and like time itself the space
of triple spacing inside which a phrase
frays. The spacing grows longer. You whisper
death and birth in winged scripts and hospital
familiarities; no guarantee
of arriving pulsed and present; except
via soft, often untelated forms:
phoneless phonetics, limb-like roots, typed words.

Vowel-driven, like the song of the “thin girl” in the fourth ‘Ablution’, the sonic qualities of the lines generate a redemptive beauty which enacts the argument that they, and Kunial, are doing something different. Skin Can Hold also contains language of deliberate ugliness, as voiced in the slow-burn break up ‘Interlude: Ways to Say Goodbye’. Spoken by a covert racist, to the woman they are breaking up with, it showcases how the language of daily speech can be used to enact what Claudia Rankine and Fatimah Asghar characterise as the “microaggressions” of racism.

Using the second person, the speaker moves from the seemingly innocuous “I have fallen in love with your silence”, to the apparently throwaway – “Didn’t your mother teach you/ to cook ethnic food?” – to the determinedly othering: “We are very different people.” Capildeo’s text retains agency against the speaker throughout, via a use of black humour, but it does not seek to diminish the wrong, or hurt, of what is being enacted. The poem ends:

I am sitting here looking at you
without the slightest desire to kiss you.
Why do they want to get married?
Wow, that dress makes you look hefty!
I have activities on Sunday;
I can’t schedule in the seaside.

Drawing together the strands and arguments which have built through Skin Can Hold, the ‘Epilogue’ returns to another abandoned lover, but one who takes matters into his own hands, albeit at a cost. ‘Ringing Völundarkviđa/ Wayland Smith Moves’ retells the Old Norse story, from the Icelandic Poetic Edda, about how Volundr took control of the tools and mechanisms used to suppress him to reclaim his freedom and agency.

Volundr was originally one of three brothers, married to three swan maidens, who left them after nine years. While his brothers went off in search of their lost wives, Volundr remained behind making gold rings for his, and was captured by a king, who took him prisoner on an island, and had him hamstrung to prevent escape, forcing him to make jewellery.   Volundr’s revenge included killing the king’s sons when they visited, and then turning their skulls into jewelled cups. He afterwards drugged and impregnated the king’s daughter, before escaping into the air.

Capildeo’s retelling is divided into three segments – ‘Swanmaiden’, ‘Hunters and Government’, and finally ‘Artisanal, Isolate’. Spoken by Volundr alone, ‘Artisanal, Isolate’ is without shame about his retaliatory appropriation of the bodily materials of those who have exploited him, showing how “my wounds are wings”, and enacting the reclamation of self which has occurred:

I who had joy am joyless
and make joylessness
and fool your daughter
and fill her with grandchildren
and stamp out your laughter.
Though I languish under your vigilance
my wounds are wings.
Watch me go
if you can see how
my love and I never stopped flying.

These are Skin Can Hold’s last words. While the rape of the king’s daughter is challenging to applaud out of context, it occurs within the same register as the violence enacted against Volundr. The children born from it will carry Volundr’s genes within their skin. Likewise the ‘English’ language can be occupied from within to hold and transmit Skin Can Hold’s radical acts of insurgency and transformation.

Photo 05-11-2019, 10 27 43Volundr refers to “my love and I”, and the energy of reciprocation is also integral to Eugene Ostashevsky’s The Feeling Sonnets.   Written by a poet of Jewish heritage living between New York and Berlin, who originally migrated from the former Soviet Union to the USA aged 11, the fourteen part sequence questions what a poem is, and how it may achieve itself relative to the language from which it is formed, and the worlds it seeks to represent.

Ferociously playful, like exuberant, sharp-toothed young puppies, the sonnets simultaneously progress a deeply serious inquiry around challenging and disrupting exclusion, which speaks also to Capildeo’s and Pati’s work. While Capildeo gives witness to the presence of selves which history and dominant cultures have sought to ignore, Ostashevsky begins by asking us to engage with what constitutes a self, or place of consciousness, and how this may be defined. Sonnet I opens


It is with profound ambivalence that we inform you of our feelings.
We read feelings as a victory of the particular over the universal.
We cannot read feelings as there are always feelings between feelings and under feelings.
If we read feelings they would be called readings. Feelings are what we feel.
Can we name feelings and do they respond to their name.
The name feeling suggests there is something to feel for here.
Does it give us a hearing. Is it even here.
If it is not here is it even there.

Like waves mounting a beach and falling back, but successively bringing the tide in, the refracted, repeated formulations, by their gaps and absences, carry the reader towards understanding the sort of space that “our feelings”, and a feeling response – along with the poetry which they generate – may occupy.           These multiplying strands remain at play within the second and third sonnets. Setting up an opposition between what is experienced, and how it may be represented in language, Sonnet II warns “If the feeling is smothered it touches no one./ If it touches no one there is no one feeling.”

Sonnet III, which gives us “hands” which can “show us what it is to feel” whether “from the outside to the inside” , or “to the outside from the inside”. To ask this question, and to be prepared to hear its answers, is automatically to enable each experience registered in this way, denying the diminutions and exclusions of racism and misogyny which value some perspectives more highly than others.

How we may transmit, and receive, ideas, and what their recognition can entail, whether undertaken solo, or in relation, are explored more expansively in Sonnet IV, which begins: “We are trying to make sense of a feeling. /Making sense of a feeling is like building a boat from water.” Using the term “sense” moves towards the idea of touching another, which becomes a compass of intention for this shifting journey: “Feeling about means trying to touch the object of your feeling./ It is often done in the dark. We feel about when we cannot see and grasp.”

Sonnet V draws on the more public signifiers of portraits, and star signs, under the opening gambit of “feeling without feeling”, and then segues into the idea of “The portrait of war on the news. /It is my war by other hands. I do not feel it.” Like a tide going out, Sonnet VI then withdraws into a more intimate process of relating again, gesturing towards the form’s long history as a love lyric in the opening:

There is a you in this poem. Whose you it is.
It is my you. It is your you.
Is there a belonging in this poem.
Has it been left unattended.
Is belonging a possession.
Whose possession is it. Who is possessed.

“Belonging” questions to what extent the process of translation of anything into language constitutes an act of appropriation on the part of the generator of the language. But it also simultaneously registers the vulnerability and desire on which this act is founded and from which it arises, in the closing couplet: “Must belonging end with longing. / How long is longing.”

Eugene Ostashevsky’s awareness of the relative values of language is of course informed in part by his own multi-lingual experiences. English, German, and Russian (in Cyrillic characters) are present within Sonnet VIII. We learn “The Babylon of my body is falling./ My body is multilingual. It sticks out its tongues. Ah.” A sonic waterfall of images follows, separated by the word “rot”. They return over and over again to the changing body in super-long lines, which spill over the boundaries of the form. Sonnet VII ends: “My altars alter. My altars falter. My altars totter. My body, my body, my body, the Babylon of my body is falling.”

Broken into by time and multiplicity at its midpoint, the sequence is now able to open itself to sorrow and loss, enacting and transmitting the concept of feeling, which it previously showed itself as feeling towards. The first eight lines of Sonnet VIII each comprise two or three Cyrillic characters, apparently representing sounds. A sequence of longer, over-spilling lines follow, asking the reader to consider what may be invisibly embedded in language:

In economics or economic sociology, embedding refers to the degree to which economic activity is constrained by non-economic relations.

Sonnet IX is much blunter, beginning: “These are our words. What we do with them”, exemplifying how form may frame and direct meaning : “By how it looks the portrait shows us how to look.”   Sonnet X takes this further, positing “Reading. Writing. Rhetoric. Arresting” as “Agents with agency.” Written by someone who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and published The Feeling Sonnets under Trump’s presidency, the inference is anything but light-hearted: “Our rhetoric left us arrested./ We were framed.   We wrote what we rote by rote.”

From the start, The Feeling Sonnets have simultaneously wrestled with, and submitted to, the conventions of the sonnet sequence – whose fourteen lines it may elongate, or abbreviate, but never breaks. The decision enacts the constraint implicit in entering into conversation with the traditional practices and forms of language – even as it makes deliberate ‘nonsense’ of them. Sonnet XI parrots well-worn phrases, reaching back to Roman civilisation. Setting them alongside each other in a surreal, freely associative flow, the effect is to disrupt their traditional associations to make new ones, which serve to describe the process of imperial oppression, and enforced complicity, by which power and authority transmit and reinforce themselves:

Wrote. Red. It was the Faust. Or fist.
The fist with a pen. The fist with a penitentiary.
With a rotten mouth. A fistula.
A scent was sent up and rose. It was the scent of the century. When the centurions came marching in.
The fist came first. Centuries marched under the arch.
No one had anywhere to run. Instead, they greeted with roses.

“Wrote. Red.” is a history of the Left in two words. It calls to mind the writings of Karl Marx, and how in being read, and learnt by rote, they helped bring about the Red Revolution.   If this captures how political systems can enforce themselves through language, it also shows language is continually escaping. “Fist” elongates into “fistula” – and is then tramped down by the marching feet of the centurions of the rotten empire, whose feet beat out the compulsions of rhythm and meter from which form engages.

Sonnets XII and XIII address literary practice most directly, and the ways in which cultural dominance may be perpetuated and reinforced. Sonnet XII is titled ‘Teaching a Poem’, and is constructed to approximate more closely to a naturalistic, image-based work, insofar as it contains a location and a form of narrative. The landscape features are disruptively reflexive, however, and the reversed order of the ‘poetic’ diction of the first line rapidly descends into punning play, and colloquialisms, before swerving back:

Under the Pont Mirabeau cool the Seine.
A cormorant, black as a punctuation mark, comma.
The bridge is riveted. Are we riveted. We are riveted over the river.
We are riveted by rhyme.
I think of my daughters. I am here for my daughters.
My daughters are not here. Where are my daughters.
I think of Clara Smith’s ‘Shipwrecked Blues.’
‘Well I don’t mind drowning but the water is so cold.’
Under the Pont Mirabeau cool the Seine.

The final six lines open with the defiantly outsider melancholy of “It is possible that poetry is possible but not my poetry”. They reveal of the Pont Mirabeau that “Celan fell from here, arms flailing, before his time as if to Giudecca.” “Giduecca”, the name given to Italian Jewish ghettoes, was also the penultimate circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, called after the Jewish Judas Iscariot. Ostashevsky continues “Dante wrote Tolomea but meant all the Jews of Giudecca riveted in ice.” When Dante and Virgil pass through Giudecca they do not linger to talk because all its inhabitants are frozen wordless in positions of agony cased within the ice.

It is a strong symbol of enforced silencing.   Within the context of The Feeling Sonnets, Giudecca also becomes a symbol for groups of people rendered voiceless by dominant or hostile cultures – as Jews were successively by the Catholic Church, the pogroms, and the Third Reich. Of Jewish heritage, the poet Celan grew up in the German-speaking area of Rumania, and lost his family to the Holocaust. He continued, however to write in his German ‘mother’ tongue in exile in France, composing some of the most resonant poems calling the twentieth century to account, in the language previously used to enforce the barbarities of the Nazi regime.

Celan can be seen as performing an act of resistance and reclamation commensurate –in different ways – with Vahni Capildeo’s process in Skin Can Hold, and also with Anita Pati’s in Dodo Provocateur. Ostashevsky’s closing Sonnet XIV is titled in Russian, and written equally in German and English, as if to call his three parallel languages to his side in order to support him in the task of finding a form of wording adequate to what is trying to be expressed, while declining to submit to the constraints of any single one.

It is an inherently disruptive and reclamatory act, requiring the reader to accept that any fixedness of meaning will be loosened by the triple language system. Full of feeling, Sonnet XIV opens “Das Lied hat gelogen. The song lied./ Sorrow was the issue. Der Ausgang war Leid.” This is the burden of feeling which jolts the poem into meaning. The lines then play their way sorrowfully, and subversively, through the permutations of “Lied” – song – and “Leid” – sorrow –  closing on a note of reclamation, through articulation, “Often you write das Leid but read das Lied.” That is, “Often you write the sorrow but read the song.

Photo 05-11-2019, 10 29 44Somewhere between a pamphlet and a collection, at 36 pages, Anita Pati’s debut, Dodo Provocateur, winner of the 2019 Rialto pamphlet competition, concerns itself with both sorrow, and song.   Intermixed with them is a powerful jolt of anger at the acts of racism and violence which some of the poems record, as they move between bird and human life, and England and India, and past and present.   While Capildeo and Ostashevsky summon agency, and varying measures of lightness and pleasure, in part through their recourse to wit and black humour, Pati additionally generates a redemptive tenderness around the generosity of love within families. This becomes a place of resistance and nurture, notwithstanding the very dark materials with which some of her poems engage.

With a manifesto-like clarity, in 8 short lines, ‘Ornithology’, Pati’s first poem, indicates the direction of travel. Its three stanzas outline three different sorts of “bards.” There are those whose paths are apparently easy. They know “the plume/ in their chest from the nest”. Others “follow and fuss/[…]/ swelling the flock with voice”.  Then come those whose process of song is resisted by both internalised and external pressures – “For those too wounded to squawk:/ Earth tamps down their song.” Skin Can Hold also works within this terrain. What sets Pati apart from Capildeo is the deliberately undignified, rambunctiousness of “squawk” as a verb, along with the ugly, strangulated noise it carries to the reader’s ear.

As a poet, Pati reaches repeatedly for words in common usage, as well as more archaic and deliberately ‘clunky’ coinages. The result is to bed her poems down into the ‘everyday’ lives to which they are responding. ‘Silver Jubilee’ gives witness to an explosive moment of violence in 1977, told from the point of view of the child experiencing it.   The action opens with the child running “red crayon/ around her bunched fingers/ to draw knuckly flowers.” The image is tender with menace.   The crayoned line calls to mind the outline drawn around murder victims, while the ‘u’ sounds in “bunched” and “knuckly” generate a subliminal punch waiting to be landed. Sure enough, it comes:

Her face, hushed,
is a copper ha’penny,
serene, like the Queen’s,

when the brick gets in,
sailing like boats
she’d learned to fold as a toddler

to land square at her face
the patio glass)

from where their splinterous
ransack the air. And no

it’s not fair that no-one will see
her picture now.
Should she draw it again?

The heft derives from Pati’s ability to hold in play the delicacy and creative hope of the child’s world of folded boats, and crayoned drawings – and the arc of the brick which shatters it.   Drawing the “picture” again, within the poem named for the “celebratory pageant on paper” on which the child was working, Pati stages a punk refusal of the 1977 Jubilee images of mugs and street parties. She asks us her readers to be with her in seeing the totality of British life of the late 1970s – and the ugliness that crouched within its displays of supposed patriotism, which remains unresolved forty-two years later.

While ‘Silver Jubilee’ is a poem which tucks down into the world of a small, absorbed child, ‘Paperdolls or Where Are My Curly Scrolls of Sisters?’, starts with images of child’s play, but grows them into a simultaneous child/adult perspective. The poem opens with a couplet that evokes injury, healing, and resilience in equal measure:

They are wedging me open with lapwings, the feathers
angled and birded to hurt. But I’ve a tight heart.

Voices off whisper cruel comments in italics – “that’s where you come from// your hands are dirty”. They observe and reflect their consequences–“you’re so quiet we thought you’d disappeared: sssshhhh.” But the speaker of the poem has a centre of self which, though driven deep underground, refuses to be extinguished, hunkering down “in the boiler room, making ski lifts from off Blue Peter.” While not without complexity and ambivalence, this is an image of elective integration. The child is choosing to use British cultural prompts to foster her own creative making, and this agency becomes central to the process of healing, and recovery, also held within the poem, whereby the speaker becomes both paperdoll, and cutter:

cut me a row of paperdoll aunties –

keep cutting inside me with your instruments. You are making holes
for the light to get in. I’ll stay in Recovery if you nurse me.

Where are my mockingbirds for sisters?
Tetrapak houses, rainy terraces, grey, no laughters.

I’ve threaded the mothers on daisy chains which I pluck
some times. Plant in oasis.

Tumeric lightens the skin: we’ve become cream boaters and lace.
Fold up your plaits, village girl. I know I lapse; please keep on trying.

The poems which follow develop this careful alternation of child and adult perspectives, accreting a narrative which cuts between early experiences, and their impacts and resonances later in life. All are held within an unblinking scrutiny of the larger cultural artefacts which can be seen as working to sustain a hum of subliminal hostility to those deemed as outsiders. ‘Twixt /(after Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXVIII)”, appears at first to be a witty, modern update on obsessive, unreciprocated passion. It begins “Call this love? I’m whacked and dainty over u –/ that pigeon heart has pestered me all year.” But reading it against Shakespeare’s original, plays in another more shadowed strand, which looks back equally to Capildeo’s and Ostashevsky’s investigations of how language has been used against groups of people.

Pati does not directly quote Shakespeare’s reference to “the swart complexiond night”. But the sublimated metaphor turns the reader back towards the earlier image of the child, “her face, hushed,/ is a copper ha’penny,” in ‘Silver Jubilee’ – when the family’s different skin colour led them to be attacked. What ‘’Twixt’ gives us instead is an ubiquitous white-out, which appears to infect the speaker’s mind with inescapable persistence:

My brain’s not a computer yet it fires
a trillion cross-wired pings that sting of thee.
And when I work to block you out, my screen
spurts Facebook feeds that eat the nub of me.
I pick your pixelled face to breath hard on,
I flatter flesh but then your steaming head
spirals into kitty snarls so I
start furrowing your golden forum threads.

These destructive “golden forum threads” have been valorised in opposition to Shakespeare’s explicitly “swart complexiond night”. As such they reflect the process of cultural ‘grooming’ which endeavours to generate a sublimated, internalised racism, even within those whom it discriminates against. Pati touches on this in the final couplet of ‘Paperdolls or Where Are My Curly Scrolls of Sisters?’ (already cited) and ‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Unknown Features’ which describes how the speaker sweats “behind skin-lightening Hollywood mango cream.” ‘’Twixt’ ends:

I meditate I plead I flick you off
and still you grunt in me no mind to stop.

Continuing the investigation into canonical contamination, Kipling’s ‘The Boy Who Would Be King’, and Vaz de Camōes ‘The Lusiad OR the Discovery of India’ both come under scrutiny in Dodo Provocateur. The latter informs the first person account of ‘I, Washerwoman’. A citizen of “our Old Goa town”, the washerwoman relates her forced sexual encounter with “Dom Felipe” under the cover of night. He has watched her, “ a copper pot by the temple”, and then come for her “in blackened robes, sceptre flesh.”   Her rape is conveyed with precision through an image from the natural world, which nails the part of the body attacked with a compelling deftness:

A gecko clamps in its jaws a moth
whose purple wings breath a twitch like velvet gills.

For anyone tempted to relegate such assaults to the more distant colonial past, or even Britain of the 1970s, Pati makes it clear that such attitudes are also informing the rise of Islamophobia within the UK and beyond. ‘Operation Homegrown 2024: My Lone Wolf Has Boarded’ begins “Hello, Hamid, we have you/ frisked in white noise”, but goes on to show how such persecution has the capacity to permeate at a cellular level:

Let us finger your unzipped spine
till it spills
a marshbog of sleeper cells; somatic green.
Your lung, what a wheezy kameez!

The ‘jokey’ phrasing parodies the ways in which groups who deploy racist language endeavour to downplay it, and turn on those who call them out.   It also performs the acts of subversion that are at the heart of Pati’s recuperative, redemptive project. Like Capildeo and Ostashevsky, she declines to defer to linguistic and grammatical conventions – in order to reclaim a form of agency within the language through which her work realises itself. All three poets may write in ‘English’, but it is an ‘English’ which their work has challenged and called to account with reference to “the feeling world of a poem.” Or, as Pati writes in ‘Self-Portrait Exaggerating My Unknown Features’:

And so you know my made-up face? I make me up.
I’ll echo me, I’ll echo us, we won’t shut up.

Skin Can Hold by Vahni Capildeo

Dodo Provocateur by Anita Pati

The Feeling Sonnets by Eugene Ostashevsky










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Alice Hiller

Activist writer and poet working with words to change awareness around sexual abuse in childhood while writing 'aperture' and 'album without photos'.

One thought on “Radicalising “the feeling world of a poem”: Alice Hiller on why new work by Vahni Capildeo, Eugene Ostashevsky and Anita Pati is calling the ‘English’ language to account.”

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