Vahni Capildeo – Punishable bodies: poetry on the offensive

Enquiry: Essays on offensiveness, risk and the risqué

“You don’t understand how offensive this poetry is,” I held myself back from saying. “No, please, wait. This poetry would offend a lot of people. It has the capacity to do that. Don’t applaud it until or unless you understand that.”

We were four poets: Gregory Pardlo, Shivanee Ramlochan, Natalie Diaz, and Vahni Capildeo. We had met in New York for ‘Poetry and Desire: A Reading and Conversation’, co-sponsored by Poets’ House and the PEN World Voices festival. It was early summer. Shivanee Ramlochan had just finished reading from her (forthcoming) first book, Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree, 2017). In her poetry, there are abortionists; transvestites; rape survivors who accuse the police and invoke Shakespeare; multi-gendered women-born, whose sexual desires are expressed in images of attack and dismemberment: an abundance of queer personæ. The audience, sitting with their backs to the plate-glass that gave onto the darkening streets, feasted on the richness and bravery of it. We writers sat looking out at them, and into the night that seemed not so much falling on us as being pulled up from the river.

Don’t say forced anal entry.
Say you learned that some flowers bloom and die
at night. Say you remember stamen, filament,
cross-pollination, say that hummingbirds are

vital to the process.
    (‘On the Third Anniversary of the Rape’, from ‘The Red Thread Cycle’)

What was the problem? Was there a problem?

It is a truism that poetry, transferred from one place to another, gains or loses in its power to offend; or its vulnerability to being deemed offensive. This truism becomes striking when the experience of that transfer is lived.

Those not ‘from’ the Caribbean diaspora may not be aware of the infighting that is breaking out sporadically, in real and virtual spaces, over what is ‘authentically’ Caribbean. Just after the historical moment of independence, now that the archipelago has begun speaking to as well as of itself, giant bell jars have started being clamped down upon it, empty yet already echoing with imported divisiveness, ethnic and otherwise. Writers who were peers have fallen out; some refuse to be in the same room, let alone mentor or review each other. People – poets – write, read, and are offended.

Caribbean literature may be at risk of ‘defining’ itself according to the community battle lines, grant-awarding criteria, and teaching requirements of cold-climate eyes. Such a self-redefinition would have its costs. The loss would come at world literature’s expense, with the near extinction of an older, continuous, and differently diverse archipelagic heritage, as ventriloquised and refreshed by writers who cannot be pinned down, mocking shape-shifters, Mercutio mashed up with Macbeth, laughing in the face of death, ironising and creolising faster than any online ordering site can be clicked.

So what was the problem I felt – perhaps nobody else did – at this particular reading?

It was as if the bass on a sound system had been turned too soft. Was Shivanee Ramlochan’s poetry sounding out as it should – disturbing the heart’s function, not just thrilling or pleasing it? For the scope and foci of her writing are deeply and subtly offensive, both to the internationally marketed ‘Caribbean woman’ image, and to the strand of conservatism at home in the region (and not without its mirrors or twins elsewhere).

The first offence is simple. ‘Caribbean poetry’, massaged into a recognisable ‘identity’ for international book sales and programmes, abounds in the bodies of women: lush, dripping, papaya-like females, beautifully rebellious fuckers; their wise, dried-up, once-fruity grandmothers, maybe politicians’ mistresses but depicted as witches; culturally appropriate, or appropriated, ghosts snapped out of recent agricultural labour or colonisation’s early massacres; perhaps the occasional petticoated prophetess speaking in tongues, or a schoolyard oppressor armed with a yardstick. Representative women – the canon is still too new for them to be stereotypical women – are devilish and/or nurturing; innocent and/or wry. By contrast, Ramlochan’s characters are not the expected or rewarded characters, and her ‘nature imagery’ is subversively deployed. Ramlochan’s personæ flip as soon as you think you recognise them. They are equally unlikely to gratify the reader by offering themselves for incorporation in exotic copulation fantasies, or in earthy ancestral yearnings. They are articulate and shameless about their dissonance and extremes, refusing to oppose or reconcile intellect and desire, embeddedness and travel, home and away. They would be difficult to summarise, except by forced assimilations.

Perhaps this offence – against the formation of identity – will melt away in the reception of Ramlochan’s volume. With any luck, the unconscious essentialist bias of every reader who just feels this is not quite the right fit and therefore does not review, buy, or shortlist the book will be offset by ten others who feel this is just what we have needed for a long time – though statistical precedent for such a positive response does not exist.

The second offence is less simple, and does not seem modern. However, how often, and in how few ways, and as heard by whom, does the actuality of modernity resemble the stories that ‘modernity’ tells itself about itself? Ramlochan raises subjects that are taboo. This is a question of content, not form or angle. The events in her book belong in the kind of conversations that women, or LGBT+ persons, or field workers, or fourth-generation almost-Hindus, or any other ‘subaltern’ or ‘alternative’ group, have amongst themselves and would absolutely never publish. Such stories are dirty linen and desperation’s prayer flags. These are not the stories that keep up with the neighbours. They are dangerous ammunition for ‘the other side’, the always potential enemy who might well also be a loving part of the family; or chairing the Commission of Enquiry, or influencing the appointments committee. This is not a matter of etiquette but of life and death, in societies that have resisted examination of their transgenerational normalisations of cruelties; and for all of us, as messy individuals within the framework of reasonable civil behaviour as constructed by law.

We are created equal under law, but laws are not equal. Legal codes figure among the ‘languages’ against, and within, and beside which the crafted language of poetry makes itself heard; even if we choose to, or are privileged to, ignore this harsher framework which holds us. In February 2016, in the Christian liturgical season of Lent, the body of a visiting Japanese musician was found behind a tree in a popular and central green space of Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain. The steel-pannist had been murdered during Carnival, possibly by someone known to her; but there was little clue to the circumstances. The mayor of the city took this as the occasion to denounce, more than once, the “vulgarity and lewdness” that women have the “responsibility” to “enjoy Carnival without”.1 His speech was far from poetic: “It’s a matter of, if she was still in her costume – I think that’s what I heard – let your imagination roll”.2 This sparked protests, and the mayor resigned. The protesters were met by counter-protesters, many female (and not a hired crowd), who supported the mayor: identity-politickers practising ‘whataboutery’ – why fuss over a relatively pale-skinned foreigner when our own are missing; and self-appointed enforcers of sexual mores, supposedly focused on women’s dignity. This happened in a nation that prides itself on its ‘culture’ – while permitting child marriage, restricting and partially criminalising reproductive rights, and (like at least 73 countries worldwide) making homosexuality an offence.

Ramlochan’s transgressive poems are not, or not only, about self-fashioning for the sake of self-discovery or self-expression. They have grown up in blood and soil that create bodies as glittering yet punishable; which make the human turn metamorphic, transformed under excessive heat and pressure. When they are in drag, drag is also dread.

Nine days before the Poets’ House reading, Ramlochan had performed her work under the glitter ball and rainbow flag of the Euphoria Lounge in Port of Spain, at the Bocas Lit Fest’s ‘Lit: On Fleek’ showcase “for emergent and established LGBT writers”. There, in a contained party atmosphere, a bubble in that context of a homeland where affirmation and condemnation lurch in a seemingly forever tango, her words felt tentative as well as powerful, in a way that was not quite the same as in New York: endangered as well as dangerous, on the offensive as well as suffering offence. For poetry and offence is give and take, as well as re-read, misread, place, displace, and replace.

Sudden, invisible, American light interrupted the Poets’ House Q&A. Fireworks were going off. They boomed, in immense quantity, reminding us of the immensity of the city that we were in. That day, President Donald Trump was paying a visit to New York. The next day would be Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of Mexican-American culture. Which of these wildly differing occasions was being marked? The booming continued. We imagined explosions of colour somewhere in the sky. Had something entirely different happened? A triumph or disaster – and for whom? The air in the room was thick with unpredictability. We had to halt the Q&A, and observe a jittery, chattering half-silence. It was like crowd-sourcing tension; like a flash mob of apprehension. A column of people in Star Wars gear, mostly white males, carrying light sabres like real offensive weapons, laughed their way, soundlessly to us, down the pavement. Who were they for or against? With what might their light-heartedness align? Did it have intention? Would it turn into action?

Right there in Manhattan, it began to seem possible that in a generation or so, Shivanee Ramlochan’s poetry might have regained its power to offend in the ‘first world’; in un-Caribbean countries, which are cutting back on human rights. In fact, should such a day come – not unforeseeably – not just her book but her brown body might be banned from circulation.

Half a lie can do more damage than a thoroughgoing lie. One half-lie in circulation at the time of writing is that ‘political correctness’ – the corrective to the public and private derogation, i.e. the normalised abuse, meted out to the less powerful – and related practices, such as questioning why those who can buy media attention to incite violence should be invited to share the platform when debates are conducted in learning environments – are so offensive to self-identified free-thinkers and allegedly disenfranchised non-minorities, that such attempts at more civilised discourse should be targeted as the cause of prejudicial behaviour against those who have requested respect by these and other means. Curiously, there is less attention given to those who might ask whether truth and reconciliation commissions, or educational programmes, might be needed to clear the air, not to mention the hearts and minds, amongst those who are the natural inheritors of the transgenerational attitudes that thrived in lands acquired by murder and enriched by slavery. That statement would cause offence. It also might not fit in the type of poem that gains a ‘platform’.

‘Offence’, as an abstract noun, is an odd word in the constructions that home it. In English, offence may be taken or given. In emotional truth, offence may balloon around full of poison gas, leaking and punctured, but not owned – and with a trailing string. Sometimes it drops like a mis-launched firework. If I am – if one is – aware of an intention to offend, a space may open up where distance can be taken; the offence can be dodged or coolly allowed to go flying; and the intention, or the ill-wisher, be dealt with rationally. It is possible to have a detached response. When one’s life is not immediately at stake, or dependent on the whimsical mercy of overpowering forces, that is.

People are good at feeling what they ought to feel: at catching a communal emotion, and letting it carry them away; or at carrying through with whatever action that communal emotion may move them towards, or justify, or apparently require. In extreme yet not uncommon cases, where a poet has been disappeared, killed, jailed, tortured, banned, or terrorised into compliance with the state or some other dominant grouping, how many good citizens – if compelled to attend a reading of the offending poems, a recitation of words, no body to punish – would feel personally offended, upset to their core? How many would have suspended a personal self in favour of a collective self, in a kind of internal keeping up with imagined and cruel neighbours? In aligning themselves under the banner of anger, instead of experiencing offence, might they not be the opposite of upset – in tidying away a supposed threat, perhaps they might feel righteous, strong and strengthened? Even in the case of ‘blasphemy’, is the condemnation really for the what (let alone the how) of saying – is the poem condemned? Or is it the poet who is condemned, for the temerity of speaking out of turn?

Poetry, and offence, are both personal and impersonal. Foisting a documentary, rather than imaginative, duty on the poet at work, and marketing poetry by encouraging the identification of the work with the ocular proof of the poet in body, rather than expanding the role and responsibilities of the audience, is perhaps not the most clarificatory – or inoffensive – move for literature today.

1. Transcribed by Vahni Capildeo.
2. Clover Hope, ‘Trinidad Mayor Blames Woman for her Own Violent Death at Carnival’, (12 February 2016).

1072 TPR cover w shadowVahni Capildeo’s latest book, Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet, 2016), won the Forward Prize for Best Collection. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 107:2, Summer 2017, where it appears alongside other ‘Enquiry’ essays by Kathryn Maris and David Wheatley. © The Poetry Review and the author.