In the 'Exeter Book' manuscript of Anglo-Saxon poetry, there is a mysterious little poem, compiled along with the riddles and sometimes read as a riddle, not really about people at all. It could however also be a fragment of a better-known story lost to us. It seems to be spoken by a woman confined on an island, in a state of longing for 'Wulf', who may be her lover, possibly an outlaw confined on or coming from another island, though many other interpretations are possible.

Four Departures from ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’

(i) reverse

It takes nothing from you that I have him –
Bunched up in your ruins, you cannot lose.

He works alone.

Two sides of one city hide us.
Things fall apart, worked roads recoiling.
Your lot would siphon grey from graveyards.
Bunched up in your ruins, you cannot lose.

He works alone.

Near him I narrow to survival mode, wink out;
cannot say the time the place the mood,
hardly the aspect or the gender; again
we did nothing, we did nothing.

Could he for once be nobody’s business –
All too brightly meaningful
ringbound dossiers flashing their backs,

I reach for the sleep he’d implanted in me;
turn my thorax inside out.

No pen and ink does it justice –
A Stanley knife lullaby score.

(ii) outside

“What was so lacking in the upbringing we gave her that she had to go off with a stranger, one of them as well; she’s worthless, no getting her back, but so long as they’re in touch with each other they’re within our reach, for globalisation is also on our side. Their so-called love’s as natural-seeming as the rain that falls with bitter charge, entering through the eardrums of our not-so-young houses to ancestral designs he only hopes to repossess. She’s torn – it is transparent – about throwing in her lot with a fancy-passport foreigner whose hyena ways must make her sick. Best not lose sleep over prayers that her bastard will self-destruct in the womb, taking the mother to some lesser mansion in Heaven; never forget she is one of us, after all. A satisfactory solution will be found.”

(iii) inside

If the present could be bloodier – can’t imagine how.

Dear Lord, I never intended this.

You were one kind of invasion, and another,
and it won’t stop raining.

“I gave us all up?” To him. For him.

Dear Lord, I never intended this.

We made notes only in mud or on pieces of wood
for burning, burnt; for cementing, trampled.
What can you hope to recover?
The nightjar stuck in my throat?


Eliminating all others from this poem save yourself, man, and what it made it worse, the brutality of your reception / well we have left a misfit serenade, anachronistic whispers, slit of a wolf’s eye into which to post a brazen letter // ring around that // one comprehensive guiltfear package presented via compressive anticipatory history // ring around that // and if a wood were to turn on its own trees / hurt by their individuality / and the seas rise up / in a perilous access of island envy / and our coastal regions take sides about natural processes / pitting churchmen against border guards against architects against weathering / could we make ourselves call what we have / a gift // one wanted or unwanted // I’d be first to destroy it, my bad love, without doubt

from Utter (Peepal Tree, 2013), Vahni Capildeo 2013, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

Anthony (Vahni) Capildeo in the Poetry Store

The free tracks you can enjoy in the Poetry Archive are a selection of a poet’s work. Our catalogue store includes many more recordings which you can download to your device.