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PN Review 275
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This report is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
Report from Trinidad
Anthony Vahni Capildeo
This report comes to you from a little blue room of birds. The south wall consists of bookshelves above two built-in cupboards. An inbuilt gap in the middle allows the shelves to double as a desk. Nobody has used it as a desk. This report is being written on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. Warned by an angel, the Magi – the three wise men, astronomers ‘of colour’, as some would say now, more attentive to skin tone than aware of where on earth knowledge of the skies anciently was located – flee King Herod’s land. They had meant well. They arrived with happy news of a kingly child. What a thing to tell a reigning king. Herod ‘had all the male children killed who were two years old or under, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men’. (Matthew 2:16, Jerusalem Bible). O trustful astronomers, who had not foreseen slaughter, when they gave the coordinates. My report’s coordinates of place and time? Blue-infused, with birdcalls, on the fourth day of Christmas, 2023.

The ‘twelve days of Christmas’ run from 25 December onwards. 6 January is el día de los Reyes, the Day of the Kings. I cared less for their journey, than the excitement of counting. Where number failed was awesome. King Herod allegedly killing all the male children under the age of two: how? Checking a census? Searching all the nooks? How many is ‘all’? The rabbits in Richard Adams’s Watership Down can count up to four in Lapine, the language Adams invented for them. Anything more than four is hrair. If that children’s book seems strangely bloodsoaked, that is not strange at all. Richard Adams based the fluffy critters’ adventures on his service in the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. War was not far from home. It just needed a little age-appropriate translation. King Herod arranged the state murder of hrair children.

For years I pondered hrair. So many! Never enough imagination! I loved counting: it bordered on the marvel and abyss of hrair. ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ became a favourite. This carol lists the gifts that someone’s true love gives them on each day. Delightfully, it begins and ends with ‘a partridge in a pear tree’. I was taught the perhaps false etymology for this phrase: a medieval mishearing of Latin, apertuit in aperto, meaning that she (the Virgin Mary) gave birth in the open. I was too young and foolish to care about maternal risk. I loved the plump creature nested high up in abundant foliage. What did the song promise, though? The daily gift of a partridge in a pear tree every day – items repeated, giving you hordes of things, people and creatures – or one-offs that added up? I’d be happy with one partridge.

Poets often make a living by creating educational materials that will train up more poets. Dear Reader, here is no homework, but five days’ worth of poetical words, with inspirational quotations (at least, I like them).

1. Alphabet. Dictionaries may tell you that alpha and beta begin the Greek alphabet. Resemblance to letters in other, geographically contiguous alphabets is not coincidental. Dictionaries may not tell you this. ‘Alphabet’, formed of two letters, borrowed and compounded into a single word, means the whole set of letters. In ‘After One Year’, Martin Carter says:
So jail me quickly, clang the illiterate door
if freedom writes no happier alphabet.
On a recent work trip to San Francisco, I picked up Mosab Abu Toha’s Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear (City Lights Book, 2022). This was before Israeli forces separated him from his wife and children while fleeing Gaza, and he began writing prose reports from a renewed ordeal. His début opens with ‘Palestine A–Z’, an abecedarian prose poem. Each letter is allotted two stanzas, with a gap, or border, axis of reflection, or breathing space, in between. Dear Reader, when reading aloud, where do you break, and how do you place pauses?

2. Gecko. Here in the little blue room of birds lives a gecko named Lorenzo. On the feast of the martyr St Laurence, he began chirruping responses to Spanish YouTube Mass. Since then, he seeks conversation with the humans in the household, and takes turns. Unbelievable? Locally, magic realism is pure realism… Once Lorenzo flattened, venturing behind the struts of the bookshelf. Like a lady sawn in half by a magician, part of him appeared either side of a piece of solid wood. Apparently divided, he emerged as whole. St Augustine, in his Confessions (tr. Henry Chadwick), writes:
When I am sitting at home, a lizard catching flies or a spider entrapping them as they rush into its web often fascinates me. The problem is not made any different by the fact that the animals are small. The sight leads me on to praise you, the marvellous
Creator and orderer of all things; but that was not how my attention first began.
The movement to praise reclaims a moment lost to distraction.

3. Beloved. The Beloved Witness (Viking, 1992) is the title of Jeet Thayil’s selection of Kashmiri-American Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry. It is also the name of the Agha Shahid Ali digital archive at Hamilton College in New York. Born in 1949 in New Delhi, dying in 2001 in Amherst, his unpretentious, wild, learned and moving art results from the fruitful encounter of European, Urdu, Arabic and Persian culture. Whoever encounters his work shares in this love, and in this witness. India’s outrage to Kashmir is ongoing, as so many places to so many places; it is now a generation ago that the poet, imaginatively contemplating Srinagar’s rubble, concludes ‘The Country Without a Post Office’
I’ve found a prisoner’s letters to a lover –
One begins: ‘These words may never reach you.’
Another ends: ‘The skin dissolves in dew
Without your touch. ‘And I want to answer:
I want to live forever. What else can I say?
It rains as I write. Mad heart, be brave.
Shahid translates to ‘witness’ in Arabic and ‘beloved’ in Persian. There is a journey within that word, without boundary, without compounds. Aga Shahid Ali’s final poem, ‘The Veiled Suite’, was a canzone that he had promised to the Israeli-American artist Izhar Patkin, and dictated to Patricia O’Neill, his friend and colleague; after his death, O’Neill would curate his archive at Hamilton. In Delhi, I heard Forrest Gander speak of him with great love. What would your archive consist of – tangible and intangible? Who would curate it? What fire would you take to it?

4. Pirate. If you can access the UK-based online Poetry Archive, you may enjoy listening to Jamaican genius Kei Miller (good son, good friend, good Carnival player) reciting ‘How we became the pirates’, in his unique, ex-preacherman voice.
And what a thing to mock –
the way we shape words differently.
But maybe it’s the old colonial hurt
of how we became the pirates, dark people
raiding English from the English,
stealing poetry from the poets.
I am as guilty as anyone else of the occasional impulse to wear a ruffled shirt, but I know that folded into the word ‘pirate’ are many reversible ruffles of bleached and pleated theft.

5. Burn. How many libraries have been burnt over time? Why? In autumn 2023, I pleaded at the online AGM of the UK writers’ registered trade union, the Society of Authors, for the deathly situation in Gaza to be addressed, as the deathly situation in Ukraine had been. I do not know how that organization, of which I am a member, may answer. A member… War, and genocide, target the spirit, in targeting the body. Enacting death to the letter, they burn to the ground the material foundations of a people’s culture. Past, present and future then can be treated in terms of those tropes suspiciously popular in western culture: ghosts, ruins, traces. The Society of Authors, as far as I know, still campaigns against the Internet Archive, which offers free resources according to principles that seem to me library-like enough. I rely on it here in Trinidad, little provided with bookshops and libraries. I once wrote, in Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013):
Accept of me this staircase.
And that I too yearn skywards in the manifold increase of simplicity for which there is another name.
And that we look up hotly.
Oh you are lifted from me!
And about that which I left
‘Gift of a Staircase’ was conceived as I stood among poet-friends on green grass in Delhi and heard about the devastation at Fukushima. The staircase itself reaches to the sky in an abandoned house in Port of Spain. The gift is hopeful. It invites you towards the hrair possibilities of a better world, celeste, azur.

Five days of words: enough to count on the fingers of one hand (if you’re lucky to have a full set of them). Do you want twelve words, to make up the carol? There remains a week’s worth of lexical items, and literary snippets, to fill in, illustrate, ponder in your heart, or sing. What will yours be?

This report is taken from PN Review 275, Volume 50 Number 3, January - February 2024.

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