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Vahni Capildeo: Reflections on travel, reviewing poetry and Zaffar Kunial


“Good morning, neighbour!” An old-fashioned greeting, shouted by two repair workers over the dilapidated wall of a government-owned house in Trinidad as I unthinkably walked, rather than drove, down the road, brought my mind right back to Leeds, and to the North. Travelling for poetry, I had started to feel as if my brain’s compass were broken. I could not trust it to take me to any of my homes – the east coast of Scotland, West Yorkshire, the southern Antilles. Some component in my brain, not my sense of self, was letting me down like a bird going astray from a long-known flight path. A familiar road would shift like a snake wanting to shed; roughen, so I could not balance to step on it; go translucent, with the shapes of other, similar roads, some very far away, shining through. I do not believe that such disorientation always happens to travelers. It may be a result of the technologies of travel, which force our enskulled brains to swing at speed across time zones. Perhaps the same distances, travelled on foot or by a not-too-fast ship, would pass imperceptibly, enrichingly.

So, when I wake up, often not in the mornings but as dictated by travel, both wrecked and rested, I practice a kind of meditation: sending my mind out, before moving my body. My imagination searches for how to locate itself. It searches for landmarks, habits, or adventures by which to rebuild a sense of self. Waking in Leeds, I am aware of neighbouring poets in ‘the North’: those resident here or at the University, of course, but also those from other northern places, yet often sighted in town: Polly Atkin, across from Grasmere, Rachael Allen, just up the road in York, Zaffar Kunial, down from Hebden Bridge…more could be listed, like a genealogy of heroes from a pre-modern epic. With relief, my mind dips from the squashy bed in a rented Hyde Park attic, to the air raid shelter on Woodhouse Moor, the great open metallized snail shell of the walk downhill to the station, around and about, perhaps to the east coast train line and the edge of the sea – and all with a sense of writing happening in the environs. Waking in Leeds, my mind re-sets its compass, full of conversations that might or might not ever take place, but which could. Good morning, neighbours.

One such literary neighbour, Suzannah V. Evans in Durham, had come up with a new sub-genre of writing, or perhaps revived an old one, and tempted me to experiment with it: poetry reviews written as poems, i.e. where the poet-reviewer responding to another poet does not ‘translate’ into prose, but makes just as thorough and responsible a reading as any other reviewer, while using verse. Suzannah encouraged me to embody critical thinking in the forms of expression, the devices and voices which are most natural, or naturalized to the poet-as-any-kind-of-writer. She was kind enough to publish my first such poem-reviewing-poetry, on Mark Ford’s Enter, Fleeing, in Compass magazine,  Zaffar Kunial’s debut volume, Us (Faber & Faber, 2018), inspired my second foray into poetry-as-review. Both pieces will appear in Skin Can Hold (Carcanet, 2019), the book I completed thanks to the Douglas Caster Fellowship at the University of Leeds.

Zaffar’s collection left me transformed. I was shaken with the feeling of having experienced non-toxic masculinity: of being a boy rolling down a hill fighting; of being a boy preoccupied by a tall yellow laburnum tree trembling; of the different aspects of a father among other men, and the hot and cold plains and mountains of another, shared north, in ancestral South Asia. In Zaffar’s book, the sense of safar (Urdu), ‘journey’, with its particular vision of the wanderer’s identity, and the tradition of reverential treatment of the most random guests, is both animating and healing. The poems are remarkably modern and truthful in how they convey a kind of constant inward double coding: in crude terms, everyday ‘western’ and no less everyday but ancestral ‘eastern’. Zaffar’s is an exemplary, crafted yet accessible reckoning of one individual’s post-imperial Britain: what it means for someone’s real home to have and develop its own intercultural life, not in a headline-mongering ‘interracial’ way, but even in the match/mismatch/rematch of words, etymologies, and pronunciations.

Zaffar gave a reading to a rapt audience at the University of Leeds Poetry Centre on Valentine’s Day, 2019, sharing with confidence and vulnerability that he was reading one of the poems for the first time; offering generous context, both scholarly and personal, for others. Here, as a small tribute in record of that occasion, is my poem-review of his book. As a critic should, I offer a full disclosure of having heard this travelling fellow poet at other times, in other contexts. In a poetry blog, I shall also disclose how exciting it was to quote poetry within other lines of poetry in order to appreciate or weigh, rather than to rework; I hope that these textual effects are illuminating or at least interesting.

Response to Zaffar Kunial, Us (Faber and Faber, 2018)

Zaf, at breakfast we outfaced a peacock:
taxidermied, in the poetry hotel,
it ascended a red drape; a model head
looked on. And you supported Liverpool,
I Real Madrid, in the Brexit pub
where you, a man, were scowled at; I, female-
presenting, ushered into the garden
with the smoking couples and the big screen:
another typical poetry night.
You made up the StAnza number in March
when we jumped into the Scottish sea, cold
initiators of a new tradition.
All this to declare an interest: I know
your voice, speaking around events, reading
at your events, before I read your book;
more than I’ve read your book, which I’ve re-read.
This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up
as an inventor of voices for dead
books, impossible, inherited, odd
volumes, middle slices missing, made up;
colonial texts for memorization
autoexecuted in rolling tones;
‘Indo-European’ languages drunk
like milk alchemized from blood, acquired
history. I know in my bones a desert,
or somesuch suddenly green lush place, where
our ancestors could have met with opposed
weaponry. What has survived of this is
us. And your advice: take heed of the vowels.

In each of these poems, I am with you.
They are with us. Clearly, you are careful
of the reader of these poems; and I
am a reader; alongside many more
who will stand with you in the post office,
on the cricket pitch, tumble down the hill
in forced fighting, wonder at poppies, hear
the I of you speaking to other yous:
working, buried, gone, separated, loved,
born, remembered, travelling, Rumi, Donne,
Jane Austen, Jabir; the parted lyric eye
you share with Shakespeare through reflective glass.
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 unrelated forms:
phoneless phonetics, limb-like roots, typed words.

Halfway through Us, considering your name’s
origins, your poem passes into
Urdu lovesong; quits that for Yrs affec,
the abbreviated signoff archived
in an English novelist’s hand; which leads
to another correspondence, letters
to letters – their afterlife – , childlike
loss of consonants, how everything dis-
connects in the yellow airy treehouse
of your multifoliate verse, where to climb
a wardrobe is to find a family Quran
fittingly high from the ground, while to touch
wood is to happen on branchy Narnia.
Ishq: love: ish: halfway misunderstanding,
assent accented into ascent, tall
kahani, a word for ‘story’ I heard first
and now always in old-time filmi song.
Y, y, y, in the whirl of your world
are briefer forms seeded with unfoldings:
us the well of undulations, the ink
of unsure, the dip of the universe.
Pronoun transmuted by vowel to verb,
Ys, ice of the year on Oðinn’s ash-tree
Yggrdrasill, highlighter ‘y’, adverbial
ending eeling wordlessly, possibly
away; and the arms that open are yours,
ours, a father layer, Zaf’s sky map.