Bhanu Kapil’s award-winning poetry collection, How to Wash a Heart, argues for our essential and shared vulnerability as a global society, a keener acceptance of our physical, mental and cultural differences, and a more humane and humanistic social discourse, writes poet and scholar Basudhara Roy.
For every reader acquainted with the work of Bhanu Kapil, an arrival to her writing is integrally accompanied with the readiness to be surprised. How to Wash a Heart (Liverpool University Press, 2020) is no exception. The title, in all its neatness, unsettles. Why, one broods, would it be necessary to wash a heart? Would that be a clinical image? Or, might it not, with all its purgative echoes, qualify for a spiritual one? The indifferent precision of the title’s tone reminding the reader of the numerous self-help/DIY manuals in the world complicates matters further, engendering a distinct contemplative chaos.
When you meet the forty untitled poems in the book, they astound as much by what they say as by what they don’t. And this is not accomplished through compression, obliqueness or understatement alone but by a highly configured use of language operating at a densely symbolic level. Silence is, aurally, visibly and psychically, an important textual component in this collection. With each poem being roughly around twenty lines and uninterrupted by titles, the written text on the page seems to establish a direct and deliberate spatial relationship with blankness – a relationship that brims with the possibility of both the fertile and the fatal.
In reading the poems and in taking cue from the highly imagistic ‘Note on the Title’ by Kapil, a definitive narrative emerges. Here is “an attempt to work out a relationship” between “an immigrant guest in the home of their citizen host”. The speaker in this collection, it is emphasized, is an artist – a fact that increases the speaker’s vulnerability. The narrative derives some impetus from the writer’s having come across an article about a white Californian couple with an adopted daughter from the Philippines and their offering of “a room in their home to a person with a precarious visa status”. The white woman’s “ornate way of describing the hospitality that she was offering” and something about the tautness of her facial muscles as she smiled in the photograph seemed, to the author, to be contradicting each other. This conflict between host and hostility on the one hand, and hospitable and hospital on the other, becomes the terse narrative motif of How to Wash a Heart – a perspective that has largely been nourished by Kapil’s own experiences as a non-white academic in the United States, encountering “an outward-facing generosity or inclusivity that had not, always, matched the lived experience”.
““It’s not the men who exile me,/ It’s the women. I don’t trust/ The women,” wrote Aurora Levins Morales” states one of the poems. Explored in this collection is a tangible web of relationships between women and the world – the immigrant woman artist’s relationship to her host, her relationship to the host’s adopted daughter, her relationship to her own immigrant past, her relationship to art, and her relationship, ultimately, to the globalized social world where many complex forms of violence thrive unabated. As the first poem states, the “keywords” here are “Hospitality, stars, jasmine, Privacy.” The arrangement is telling. While ‘hospitality’ is what the host presumes to offer and ‘privacy’ is what the guest expects to receive, bracketed between them are the Occidental ‘star’ and the Oriental ‘jasmine’, making the entire line appear like a neat binary with two categories each or a semantic arrangement in descending order of value.
Identity is an overarching theme within the collection and as the poems establish, it is an entity continually under duress. One’s identity, at any point of time, is determined by too many factors beyond one’s control and is constantly in the un/making. For the immigrant artist, trauma lies in her host’s imposition of an overworn racial stereotype on her lived/living self, and her inability to see her in her vulnerable individuality. Her confessions are straightforward: “I come from a country/ All lime-pink on the soggy map.” “My spiritual power was quickly depleted/ By living with you.” The presence of racial difference in the new home in the shape of the host’s Filipino daughter (described by her mother as “an Asian refugee”) makes the immigrant speaker feel “less like a hoax”. “I don’t want to beautify our collective trauma,” she says and yet this is what she must keep learning to do as a welcome guest.
The forty poems that shape themselves via the consciousness of this non-white artist become an intimate documentary of psychological trauma and the subtle kinds of erasures that immigrants are routinely subjected to in white spaces:
The messages we received
Were as follows:
You are a sexual object, I have a right
To sexualize you.
You are not an individual.
You are here For my entertainment.
Or in another poem where she says:
I can smell your body
I can smell your vagina.
Are you wearing your genitals
As a brooch?
The attempt to overwrite identity, one notes, is carried out throughout the collection, on the material site of the body – “Shame invites the sun/ To live in the anus, the creases/ Of the throat”; the white city becomes “A grey ribbon tied around the wrist” of the immigrant, gradually growing taut; and sometimes, with “a voice/ That was too loud”, the host rudely interrupts the immigrant artist’s reveries. The body, for Kapil, constitutes a vital receptor of the responses of the world. Its needs, no matter where it is placed, are constant, predictable, intimate and insistent, and it is in their being met or denied that one feels, by turns, homed and homeless. It is partly, therefore, to increase the body’s tenacity that its regulating organ, the heart, needs to be symbolically removed, washed and replaced at regular intervals.
What makes the immigrant experience more layered in How to Wash a Heart is the interaction of three personal racial histories of the three women here, and the psycho-cultural subtexts of home, family and parenting that effortlessly emerge as relationship metaphors in this sociological encounter, only to be violently subverted and vandalized of their native meanings. Images of m/othering loom large over these poems and the power equation between the host and the guest is partly illustrated through that hierarchy. The host offers care as an “intrusive mother”, buys her “pretty bras” but also ‘bangs’ the cup down by her sleeping person, wields silence like ‘an axe raised over the head’ and can hardly be trusted (“…I never knew/ When you might open my door, leaving it open/ When you left.”) because
this is your house
And there’s no law
What you’re offering me to last
The moment I crossed your threshold
The collection assumes a surreal quality as the intrusive mother-figure in the host coalesces with the ‘conditional caregiving’ biological mother who, in the speaker’s memories, stuck wet caps of okra to her young daughter’s “forehead, cheeks and nose”, and to compound all these is the lurking suspicion of whether a mother, at all, exists – “Or like a baby crawling on the bumpy/ Carpet, am I my own/ Mother, actually?”
As one moves through the book, home, as a signifier, loses its stability and concreteness, becomes free floating, infirm, and an infirmary of sorts:
The art of crisis
Is that you no longer
Think of home
As a place for social respite.
Instead, it’s a ledge
Above a narrow canyon.
The danger is unignorable in these lines as the comfort zone emotively signified by home transforms into a mere niche of survival, any other version of it causing only shame and fear in this new world – “It’s extraordinary how afraid I am/ All the time.”
Inhabiting the psyche of Kapil’s poems are significant existential questions. What is a home? Has such a space ever existed? Is it wise, then, to mourn its lack? How does art feed on life and vice-versa? “How do you live when the link/ Between creativity/ And survival/ Can’t easily/ Be discerned?” “Are these questions enough/ To violate/ Your desire for art/ That comes from a foreign/ Place?” Does the Filipino daughter experience her home in the same way as the immigrant artist does? “What are the limits/ Of this welcome?” Does the bonding between her immigrant guest and her Asian refugee daughter make the host feel insecure? “Without words,/ Your daughter and I/ Drank water/ From the bowls on the windowsill,/A traditional form/ Of consumption.” Is the host’s ultimate betrayal of her guest an attempt to reclaim her daughter? “Your daughter is screaming./ My eyes are on fire”
Belying the enunciative methodical promise of the title, the narrative that these poems enclose is highly chaotic, disjunctive and determinedly evasive. Here is an interaction of complex histories and the inability of individuals to countenance them with clarity, understanding or empathy. Language is a vital site for Kapil’s intellectual and creative experimentation, and a continuous interrogative terrain for positing and unpacking statements of identity. Sparse, terse, and highly imagistic, her language functions, often, as still, clear water faithfully performing its role of reflecting the mind’s brisk tectonic movements. Animated with the aesthetics and politics of her performative work, Kapil’s language takes on an agility that allows for its sustained sharpness without compromising its lyrical grace, rendering it, thereby, both incessantly combative and redemptively poetic. Consider these lines:
I could not bear the facial expressions
Of the people
I was closest to, a source
And so I left,
Never to return
Or to a home
That was intact.
Or these lines from another poem:
My secret is this:
Though we lost all our possessions,
A strange relief
To see my home explode in the rearview mirror.
The line breaks are highly unusual here. On close listening, however, one realizes that this clipped manner retains the performative rage, audacity and spontaneity of the spoken language. There is a gnawing poignancy in Kapil’s style accompanied, in her best poems, by a sedative seduction that emotionally overwhelms even as it spiritually illuminates.Her register is wide, her metaphors well-processed, and her wits sharp. Note how, in the following lines, the dwarfing and gradual erasure of the immigrant’s identity is presented through the metaphor of an envelope:
The host-guest chemistry
Is inclusive, complex, molecular,
Does the host envelop
The guest or does the guest
Attract diminished forms
There is a palpable sense of dis-ease in How to Wash a Heart, an overwhelming existential claustrophobia that addresses the world’s unforgiving contradictions beyond the ‘native host-immigrant guest’ dialectic, and whether the speaker facing the world in these poems was interrogating ableism, heterosexuality, genderism or anthropomorphism, the angst would remain the same. Here is a trauma as much historical as it is personal and social, constituting an inviolate kernel of the transgressive yet inevitable self/other relationship. Splintering as these poems are, they remain, at the same time, undeniably therapeutic. By calling for special attention to the heart in both medical and emotive terms, Kapil seems to be arguing for our essential and shared vulnerability as a global society, for a keener acceptance of our physical, mental and cultural differences, and for a more humane and humanistic social discourse.
Theorizing the integral public dimension of our personal bodies, Judith Butler, in Precarious Life, writes, “The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, but also to touch, and to violence, and bodies put us at risk of becoming the agency and instrument of all these as well. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own. The body has its invariably public dimension.” Kapil’s poems culturally perform this public dimension of the body, urging us to ethically identify all bodies everywhere as our shared responsibility.
Derived from the Latin ‘vulnus’ meaning ‘wound’, vulnerability constitutes an essential recognition of our subjection to power and violence, and of our inherent inability to avoid, counter or overcome it as humans. Having been inoculated by the profound vulnerability of these poems and by their intense pain and beauty, the heart is purged of apathy once and for all, and an expanded awareness of being-in-the-world dawns – “Because living with someone who is in pain/ Requires you to move in a different way”.
Bhanu Kapil’s How to Wash a Heart is published by Liverpool University Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.