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This report is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Tongueless Whispering
TW: Sexual Violence
Vahni Capildeo
This essay, whether or not printed in PN Review, arrives late: late in the inbox of the editors; long after many of the events to which it refers. It is the shadow of another essay, the one I wished to write. I wished to write a detailed analysis of the poet Martin Carter’s ‘Listening to the Land’, a lyric famous in the Caribbean since its appearance in The Hill of Fire Glows Red (1951) but lesser known elsewhere. Carter begins with a reminiscence, using the first instant of address to create a past shared with the addressee, and unknown to the reader.

That night when I left you on the bridge

The reader therefore is suspended: waiting to coalesce with the addressee, if the poem proceeds to recreate the past; accepting a floating and partial state, partaking of ‘I’, ‘you’, and neither, if the poem decides to get over the past and concentrate on creating the present.

Two other pronouns, however, have been invading my mind: the ‘me’ of the #MeToo, which accumulates reports and stories of sexual violence; and a highly sociable ‘he’. Yes, I have been raped, on more than one occasion (by persons known to me, successful credible straightforward-looking white professionals, whom I may meet or with whom I or my colleagues are likely to work; so far as I know, they are unacquainted with one other; they were in my life at different times), and molested by others. This type of incursion (I shall not say ‘experience’) began as early as I can remember, and I do not expect it to stop, I mostly determine to retrain myself, with or more likely without appropriate support, to act and react appropriately, or less inappropriately, within the cultures of violence in which we (I appropriate and deploy this pronoun here without shame) live and failingly love.

Did you find that difficult to read? Badly written? The quibbling, the repetitions, are deliberate. What happened; what is this; not ‘who is speaking’, but how to locate the voice?     

I bent down
Kneeling on my knee
and pressed my ear to listen to the land.

The guidelines on the Rape Crisis England and Wales website, regarding how to support a rape or sexual abuse survivor, start with: ‘Listen: Listen, and show that you are listening, to what she or he has to say, even if it’s difficult for you to hear. You might have a lot of questions but try not to interrupt.’1 These are interesting times of devalued language, reminiscent of Mordred’s communications in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. The adjective ‘controversial’ appears in reports about speakers who are proven liars dealing in emotion at the expense of reason, and the word ‘refugee’ seldom moves people to search for ways to offer sanctuary. Who has not met with this modish conversation-killer: ‘He’s a friend’? I have no idea what the motivation is of the novelist, academic, poet, and others whom I have heard pre-emptively deploying that phrase. Without attaching blame, I wonder if they themselves are so precarious that they cannot envisage surviving an upset to the emotional and social structure of their world. Ironically, despite having imaginations formed by the long-established literary trope of ‘woman’ or ‘beloved’ as cluster of elemental and/or geographical variables (delete as appropriate, O my cornsilk-haired, stars-and-moon, mango-breasted, oceanic America/Ireland/India/Caribbean), how many fellows (of any gender) in our ‘creative industries’ might prefer to go on a psychogeographic walk, or a guilt-inducing historical tour of blood-enriched sites, while preferring not to listen to something nasty about their ‘friend’? Personal upset is bound to occur during structural change.

The bridge which structures the way into Martin Carter’s poem is not simply a physical detail, though it would be good to know whether there was a particular bridge or type of bridge which the poet had in mind, if only to imagine Caribbean poetic geographies less insufficiently (why are we are all still playing catch-up with the Lake District?). If he/I/you has left someone on a bridge, is it because they were accompanying us, but cannot or do not wish to follow? Is the bridge an intersection, suggestive of movement and division, as the poet either returns or enters somewhere that the other does not belong or dare not traverse? Is the bridge a pause, a meeting-point, a location representing compromise, where two speakers have been together in so far as they can, and perhaps only there, but always were going different, if not separate, ways – uptown and downtown, married and single, colonial and revolutionary, or whichever overarching paradigm grabs, claims and limits the souls who long towards each other? Is it a bridge between worlds? In practice, not only in the Caribbean but in societies that represent themselves as secular, there are numerous ‘spiritualities’ which change the understanding of action and place. Sometimes we trespass, or intentionally cross, into realms that are more than ordinarily meaningful. Sometimes an ordinary-looking interaction is also ceremonial. We cry in the cemetery but not in the office. We lie down and alter our brainwaves in the yoga studio. In saying goodbye, we bless, curse, dismiss, acknowledge, appreciate, liberate. In a workshop discussion, two participants from Martin Carter’s country were able to identify intensified or irreconcilable details in the rest of the poem which convinced them that place, here, needs to be read symbolically, beyond documentary record.

In that workshop, trying to go beyond picturing and to feel the events in the sparse yet dense lyric, I actually tested Martin Carter’s words by enacting what I thought I had read. Kneeling down, I pressed my ear to the floor. Some of the participants thought that the posture itself was next to impossible, therefore a stylised act of attentiveness and obedience. We needed to know. I did find it uncomfortable enough not to be an obvious thing to imagine doing. Nearly a year later, I realised that with the words flat on a page before us, reading poetry at tables rather than outdoors, unconsciously we had been thinking of kneeling on a level surface. Of course, if the land has a gradient, it is possible to go to meet it, as it comes to meet you.

Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ sounds like a luxury directive. If you and your listener are not on common ground, whether in regard to a #MeToo narrative or a postcolonial (?) political (?) pastoral (?) text, everything gets at you, gets to you, misses you, like a fun-house done for serious. You meet on a slippery footing, like the mossy steps of a university building where my friend fell, clutched the railing installed for support, and broke her arm.

I bent down
listening to the land
but all I heard was tongueless whispering.

The phrase ‘tongueless whispering’ becomes a refrain in ‘Listening to the Land’. This essay is in a state of distraction. I could further have harrowed up my editors, not only by delivering it late, but by disrupting the ‘field’ of the page. I need visible erasures. I need strikethroughs, defacements, semi-transparent warring and jarring skewed and superimposed text. I want multiple columns and overactive footnotes. Impractical criticism, this essay desires nothing but engagement with Martin Carter’s words, yet requires space where memoir can be dumped. #MeToo is reverberating in my body, and I cannot make my mind not mind, yet my job is to write about poetry, and my calling is to write poems.

A final note, on ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe space’. Warnings go out, for example, when there is ice on the road, or a traffic ‘incident’. How many warnings for hazardous physical circumstances have you encountered, issued or observed (consciously or by rote) in the last month? The warnings inform us what kind of care to take as we proceed. They are not prohibitions. It is perhaps necessary to state that warnings are not prohibitions, as I write in a country where an ‘advisory’ referendum is being treated as binding. I think with joy and admiration about Martin Carter, but cannot reach towards doing the writing he deserves; I write with my ears whining with tinnitus, migrainous floaters in front of my eyes, and a packet of kidney-destroying painkillers at the ready, recently having been ‘triggered’ by hearing a friend praise the performance of a known serial abuser. Any fool, even of the dangerous-silencer variety, should know that a well-thought-out trigger warning enables audiences to make the adjustments they need in order to listen. Our bodies are already loud to our minds.

A good sample of Martin Carter’s writing may be found in University of Hunger: Collected Poems & Selected Prose (Bloodaxe, 2006).

There is no conclusion.



This report is taken from PN Review 240, Volume 44 Number 4, March - April 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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