Oscar Wilde’s 1887 novella The Canterville Ghost features an American family that has moved into a British estate that is haunted by a ghost. Of the new residents, the narrator observes: “We really have everything in common with America nowadays except of course, language.” The ghost tries his best to terrify the family, but they prove difficult to rattle. Perhaps this is because, as one of the American characters remarks, “we have no ruins and no curiosities.”
When I first moved to Oxford, I was awestruck daily—like Wilde’s Americans— by the visible traces of its deep history. In fact, just a short walk from my office in central Oxford, you’ll find yourself at the site of a partly ruined medieval castle. The castle mound was built in the early 11thcentury and incorporated the tenth-century Saxon structure St. George’s Tower, which you can still climb today. You would be hard pressed to find any material evidence of the 10thand 11th centuries in the United States. Much of it was erased and replaced by colonial history. It will take another century for Wilde’s Americans to understand this. By comparison, such remnants are commonplace in Oxford, and in England generally. But these traces too only represent the past that is allowed to remain visible.
Vahni Capildeo, who was born in Trinidad and studied at Oxford, explores the layered, polyphonous histories of the places we inhabit and pass through in their recent book Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018), which was shortlisted for the 2018 Forward Prize for Best Collection. Capildeo’s book opens with a series of ekphrastic poems inspired by the items in the Ashmolean Museum’s permanent collection, part of their book’s rich investigation into the material and immaterial persistence of the past. Last December, I met with Capildeo in London to talk about history as a reckoning of erasures, translation, and roses.
Poem read in this episode:
“Heirloom Rose, for Maya” from Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet, 2018)