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This report is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

Snakes and Stiltwalkers

Letter from Trinidad
Of Snakes and Stiltwalkers
Vahni Capildeo
The driveway sloped down to the west-facing boundary of the house, a half-height, green-painted brick wall inset with a row of black-painted metal railings. These railings were thick with bougainvillea. Along the lower part of the wall, the wanted and unwanted shrubs and vines were trimmed to a common height, but too mixed up for the eye to disentangle stem from vine or leaves from brickwork. The electric gate stood between two pillars at the end of the driveway. It had begun to malfunction. It opened and closed at random. Sometimes one side approaching quicker than the other was triggered by the other side into flying open again. Sometimes both sides closed, slowly, but stopped just before they shut tight.

The men who were mending the electric gate had found a snake. There are rare reptiles on the island. Ideally an expert is called, and the thing is rescued. There are poisonous reptiles on the island, including the fer-de-lance, one of the few snakes anywhere that will turn and charge an intruder on its territory, rather than slinking away. The men were keen to do their job well. They called the lady of the house to see the snake. What did the senior lady of the house say? ‘Kill it quickly,’ perhaps? ‘Please deal with it’? In any case, she felt the kind of terror and extreme disgust that are inseparable from each other. She may not have said anything. She passed as quickly as she could, on her nerve-damaged legs, into the house. Somehow, she communicated the presence of the snake, and the need to do something, to the people in the household. I was there, and I went out.

The men, feeling a little deserted, had come with shy machismo part way up the driveway. They did not cross the invisible threshold that separated the doorless garage from the garden space. The younger one had a machete. His elbow was low, and his hand was high. The machete pointed downwards. The snake was impaled on it. The astonishingly bright green-gold body moved in mid-air. It described pain. ‘You need to kill it,’ I said. The snake was flipped off. Feeling the ground beneath its belly, it began to move with more confidence. The man cut it in half. It described an arc of pain. ‘No, you need to crush its head,’ I said. I spoke kindly and quietly, because he was keen to do its job well. ‘The part where the head joins the neck. Otherwise it’s still alive.’ Theatrically, he lifted his boot. He stamped. A royal red spurt under his heel left jelly on the garage floor. That would need cleaned. Suddenly sure of what to do, the men took the body out to the grass verge beyond the gate. They would leave it there for the birds; the green-gold colour dulled fast. In that way, at the back of the house, we leave overripe fruit for the birds. They clean it.

Although their ideas were not mine, I recognised that the repair men had a code of behaviour for how to do a job well. What extras the job might entail (reporting and disposing of snakes, for example) was part of keeping the boundary safe. Gatekeeping: this must be why they had parked their truck as if blockading the driveway, while working on the motor. My desire to preserve a variety of life, or to avoid cruelty or mess, might have made sense to them; but why? What I wanted, if I knew what to do, had not been intelligible, not in the way I communicated it. Neither of us had the knowledge to decode the other: priorities, housekeeping, risk-taking, tone of voice, body language… oh it can be so bare, trying to go by words. Not being forward, not being aggressive, not acting on their own interpretation without an explicit command, may have been part of their code. Being deferential can be a transgenerational survivor habit. So can having zero expectations of the well-housed employer’s preferences, kindness, logic, common sense, or basic sanity. I recognised a craft in the use of the machete. That craft could have been, at other times probably was, deployed in manifold ways, mostly unimaginable to me; I knew only of the most basic – breaking ground, pruning trees, delicately slicing spoon-like implements from a green coconut shell.

The webs of relation in which I found myself in Trinidad, the proximity to differing crafts, reminded me of Nisha Ramayya’s proposal of a ‘Tantric poetics’ in Sandeep Parmar, Nisha Ramayya and Bhanu Kapil’s Threads (clinic, 2018). She takes ‘Tantra’ (‘etymologically cognate with “text”’) back and forth from its meanings to do with patterning, with being both ‘frame’ and ‘threads’. The following quotation is not a simple representation of her proposal, which is far-reaching and complex. It is a sample of the revolutionary, precise weaving and unweaving by which Ramayya’s thought processes evolve the proposal as if co-thinking with the reader:

A Tantric poetics affirms closeness, relationship and community, without enforcing touch, agreement, or commonality. A Tantric poetics realises the possibilities of relating without sharing interests, without getting on, without liking – we can dislike each other without denying each other’s possibilities.

As I write this, I am seated in the economy class aisle seat of the second aeroplane of my day, 35,000 feet above the Indian Ocean. The holy man in saffron robes who was sitting in the middle seat when I arrived has moved to the window seat, so as not to sit next to a potentially impure being. I heard him use the word ‘lady’ as he explained his seat swap to the man who is now asleep between us, the blue cap pulled over his eyes not really shading him from anything except the feeling of exposure to sleeping among strangers. I cannot decode the less-holy man’s religion – so many in the region are a little similar – but from the signs and tokens and rituals familiar to my Hindu diaspora upbringing in Port of Spain, I can tell that the thread circling his right wrist is not an ornament, but a talisman.

The sea keeps me thinking of Trinidad: of Moko Jumbies, the stiltwalkers, euphoric on their two-foot, four-foot, six-foot, nine, twelve, fifteen-foot stilts, who channel the vengeful, healing West African god. He crossed the Atlantic, walking behind the slave ships. Not so long ago, he/they walked back, for a performance and installation in London. Who is looking and listening, I wonder? Who will be for the healing and who for the vengeance? Who will take plenty falls until they ‘touch the sky’? I reopen Threads, balanced on my lap. I think about the gravity and dizziness of a poetics of vectors and points, at each of which the reader takes a sounding of an ever-changing relation to different currents and crafts.

This report is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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