(ESSAY) Thinking With Vahni Capildeo’s ‘Odyssey Calling’, by Azad Ashim Sharma
In this essay, Azad Ashim Sharma voyages the fraught expanse of colonial legacy, migration and racism explored in Vahni Capildeo’s stunning new pamphlet from Sad Press, Odyssey Calling (2020). Addressing the poems through close reading and reference to critical histories and cultural expression, from Windrush to Greek myth to Stormzy, Sharma shows how Capildeo’s work, while plugged into the reverberations of historical traumas and harms, also feels into the base/bassline of a possible future, building a living intensity through and against post-Brexit Britain.
> I recently attended a conference at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London called ‘Thinking Art’ which closed with a performance-lecture by Ayesha Hameed. Hameed took the audience through videos and lyrical thoughts to Barbados and her research into the Plantationocene – a theory that looks at Climate Change from the perspective of the slave-plantation. In the questions after, Hameed discussed how electronic music had added another dimension to this long project, and described how the baseline pulled at her organs and connected her with the ground, with the roots, with history. The last words of Vahni Capildeo’s recent Chapbook Odyssey Calling (Sad Press, 2020) are: indigo blue baseline (p.34). Since its publication Odyssey Calling has pulled at my organs. In what follows I want to think with the energy and spirit of this new collection, to feel the pull of its baseline, and understand what rhythms of contemporary life Capildeo attends to.
> Capildeo’s collection of poems and musings on some of their recent creative experiments captures a moment in our fraught times that warrants witnessing, demands listening, attends to the contemporary expressions of racism whilst conjuring a ‘humming brain-cave [that] you can step into’ (OC, p.2). This pamphlet offers itself to its reader as ‘a magic gift’ which ‘create[s] active silence[s]’ from which one can contemplate a true experience of our moment (Ibid). This humming or active silence is exactly what the baseline is, a low rumble, the sound of the sub, the undercommons, a play on ‘white noise’ as ‘Azure Noise’ (p.3). It’s a sound that laps at the body bringing it into grounding and into a liquiform murmur. Azure noise is the sound that Lewis Gordon has in mind when he reflects on ‘our willingness to become ancestors’ and ‘join a stream of accountability through descendants’ (Melancholia Africana Foreword, p. xi). It is the sound of gratitude as much as it is our riotous cry against the erasure of our history. That azure-noise is the sound of this ‘brain-cave’ implies an echo, a reverberation, an openness and willingness to hear and to summon the spirits, of those who have passed on, those who have been killed before their time, and those to whom we are responsible.
> What I mean precisely by this moment is what has been described by Maya Goodfellow as a ‘hostile environment’ in which the lives of those of migrant descent and newly arrived migrants are made unbearable, untenable, unliveable. As a direct consequence of the 2014 and 2019 Immigration Acts, what we are now witnessing in the UK from the deportation of Windrush citizens and the still on-going search for justice for Grenfell, the absurdities of Prevent, is a space in which people of colour are being left to destitution. We are those people called funny tinge, cockroach, burden, the swarm of supposed illegality that is threatening the economy. What is missed from all of this right-wing brouhaha is, of course, history. A history that is being obfuscated by the charlatans in Westminster who – aside from a minority of MPs – are in cahoots with these violent Acts and the legalisation of state enforced racist policy. It is an environment in which performances by Black British artists such as Stormzy and Dave are described as ‘racist’ for pointing out the very real concerns, experiences, and frustrations of communities who are essentially criminalised by the Tory Regime.
> What is so ‘scandalous’ about what has happened to the Windrush generation (if scandal is the right word for the deportation and death of citizens), is their misrecognition as other than citizens in the first place. This confusion between the various labels of immigrant, migrant, citizen, refugee, etc, appear in the poem ‘Odyssey Response’:
Sometimes, words, you launch in many lovely languages: yet, before you begin to fly, you are misrecognized, like an owl entering a superstitious person’s open-plan room being beaten to death, Athena’s wise bird struck down, bloody feathers everywhere, a soft body a futile piñata releasing clouds. (p.7)
The link between migration and birds is a common theme to this pamphlet’s thrust into the heart of the contemporary moment. But before the bird (migrant) is able to fly, misrecognition as a pest or an unwarranted guest leads to its demise: beaten to death, in someone else’s room. Capildeo’s use of the word ‘superstitious’ to describe the person doing this beating is marvellous. It precisely calls to the fore the grandiose whimsy of English nationalism, the sheer fiction it relies upon, the myth of its superiority and uniqueness. Furthermore the image of the piñata made me think of the right-wingers in this country like blindfolded children, striking at an imagined enemy, in the hope of sugary reward. Of course the bloody reality in this scene releases the opposite, the stark death of the ‘wise bird’. If the owl here represents the citizen-as-migrant, the wisdom this person contains is only released by their death, as if something as final as death was required to attend to the life and history of the journey that was over before it began. Bifo’s work on Breathing defines poetry as a metaphor for the ways in which we can escape the suffocation (of language and of our own capacity to breathe) by a landscape that has been invaded by nationalism, racism, and religious fundamentalism (p.9-10 Breathing Bifo). The accented slippery assonance of ‘superstititious’ is, to my mind, exactly what Bifo has in mind when he refers to poetry’s ‘excess of semiotic exchange’ that ‘can reactivate breathing’. It is the ‘breathiest’ moment in this saga of the wise bird’s demise, a hissing-lampooning of the fundamentalisms of post-Brexit Britain and its racist policy.
> And this brings me to something I think is curious in Capildeo’s poems, their evocation of a specific history. In the poem ‘Windrush Reflections’ we encounter history as a narrative, a narrative that contains the kernels of truth that are not taught in schools in the UK, namely the history of why the Windrush generation should never have been ‘sent back’. Capildeo delves into the heart of the matter:
…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 (p.16-17)
This argument is familiar to those of us who have read and know our history. The experience of migration for many formerly colonised peoples was one of welcome in a Britain that was rebuilding after the devastation of WW2, a time when there was no need for ‘documentation’ because it was guaranteed by our status as ‘members of the Commonwealth’. The argument here, presented with increasing force through line breaks speaks truth to power; it is ‘birthright’ in the sense of the right to be born and to live, the right to thrive and have one’s rights respected, that are absolutely called into question by the hostile environment in today’s UK. To recall this history is to assert the right for Rights, of recognition, of representation, and of equality. It is against the hostility of the Union Jack that Capildeo writes, with a willingness to educate as well as to critique. It’s a stylistic mark of a lot of cultural production in the UK today from the music of Lowkey and Akala to Capildeo’s work which seeks to encourage a transformation of consciousness through the reactivation of anti-racist politics. Such work always bears the marks of history, and more often than not, is positioned on the right side of history.
> I also want to turn back to the poem ‘Odyssey Response’ as I think one of the great achievements of this collection of poems is its reimagining of the relationship between the histories of colonialism and migration that define a contemporary creolised UK and the old ‘classical’ relationship between poetry, myth, and epic. What Capildeo achieves by addressing the Odyssey as well as Windrush simultaneously is a Spivakian sense of the ‘ab-use’ or ‘use from below’ of the Enlightenment. Capildeo recasts the images of the Odyssey as that of Windrush, caught between the Scylla of Priti Patel and the Charybdis of social erasure. By recasting the migrant -both living and (socially) dead- as an Odyssean figure, a Spirit and Time traveller, Capildeo makes the request of them ‘if you see Columbus, shoot on sight’. This bullet that travels through spirit and time abuses the relationship with the epic, the odyssey is now the story of migration and not a classical text held above the historical experiences of Windrush as a kind of cultural prison. This conceptualisation of Odysseus in the plural moves against ‘the song of yourself simplified on the news’ (p.12) and delineates a space (or sound-space) where ‘words, take wing’ and ‘fly commonly among all people / who share vulnerability on a trembling earth’ (p.7). This abuse of the Odyssey raises our attention to ‘the uneven diachrony of global contemporaneity’ and is a supply, empowering gesture marking another fine addition to Capildeo’s important oeuvre.
> Where politics is revealing its true fascist face, poetry and by extension contemporary Grime and UK Rap are leading the way as a force for change, for consciousness, and for a deeper connection with histories both of colonisation and of the present. The most overt display of this has been Roger Robinson winning the T. S. Eliot prize for a collection of verse that engages in this precise moment we find ourselves in. Around the time of that announcement, the global poetry community collectively grieved for Kamau Brathwaite who, we learned, had joined the ancestors. In Brathwaite’s Middle Passages, which I re-read as soon as I heard of his passing, I encountered the lines ‘There was a land not long/ago where it was other-/wise” (p.88). That land may be the future we are working collectively towards, poetically and educationally through poetry, which I think captures something of the essence of what I am thinking with when I think with Odyssey Calling. In revealing and accessing that land, we return to the future.
Odyssey Calling is out now and available to order via Sad Press.
Text: Azad Ashim Sharma