BHanu Kapil’s fourth collection of poetry, Schizophrene, conveys a scene from the partition of India. A girl fleeing her childhood home glimpses, through a hole in the car she is hiding in, countless women tied to trees on the newly drawn border with Pakistan, their stomachs cut off. “This story, which was not really a story but a picture, was repeated to me many times at bedtime from my own childhood,” Kapil writes. This image was, in fact, “a way of transmitting information.”
Throughout his work, Kapil examines the intergenerational effects of a historical silence that has slowly risen over the largest mass migrations in history, which was also one of the most violent. These images demonstrate how the colonial violence embedded in the heart of the British Empire generates racial trauma for migrants within its own borders. As he writes, again in Schizophrene, “it is psychotic not to know where you are in a national space”.
Combining poetry and prose, ritual and performance, Kapil asks broader questions about migration and belonging. How to Wash a Heart, his first UK book publication, which won the TS Eliot award last month, continues this questioning. It is made up of a series of interconnected poems, inspired in part by a story about a liberal white couple and their adopted “Asian refugee” daughter. How to Wash a Heart begins where other works by Kapil end, such as Schizophrene and the prose poem based on the Ban en Banlieue performance. However, it exposes with greater linguistic and lyrical precision the visceral damage of a host country with a white majority suffered by its post-colonial guests: “The guest knows that the logic of the host / is variable. / Prick me. / And I will cut off the power / To your life ”.
Born and raised on the western outskirts of London, Kapil immigrated to the United States two decades ago, finally landing in Boulder, Colorado, where she taught at Naropa, a liberal arts college whose creative writing program dates back to Allen Ginsberg, Diane say Prima. and John Cage. In 2019, Kapil returned to take a one-year fellowship at Cambridge University and has remained as an artist at Churchill College.
Given Kapil’s very recent return to the UK, it is perhaps not surprising that apart from the passionate following among readers of American experimental writing, often scholars, artists and poets themselves, his name may be unknown to an audience. of poetry from the United Kingdom. But How to Wash a Heart is written with them in mind: “I wanted to write a book that someone in England could read in the time it would take to make and drink a cup of tea. Then I imagined that the tea was getting cold. Could you write something that is irreversible? So I had to do it fast, changing quickly as I changed. “
At first glance, the five unnumbered sections of the book’s short, sometimes monosyllabic lines may seem like a quick read. “I’m curious about the progress of the sentence when it is reduced … how do you generate emotion in a work?” Kapil says. “The non-verbal elements of the poem are the place where the emotion resides. In this book, it is less about commas or semicolons, but about the way lines are broken. I understand it as syntax. “An anonymous guest (dark-haired woman) and a hostess (white woman) enter into a toxic intimacy, mimicking the immigrant’s relationship with the liberal nation-state that barely tolerates them. A vase is broken; a towel is left wet on the railing.At the end of the book, a catastrophe occurs that we should have seen coming.
The book opens with a nod to John Betjeman (“poet of the British past”) but also, in particular, to the poet of the youth of Kapil’s Metroland. There is a use (albeit unstable) of the theme of the lyrics and a “you” that addresses you, who is sometimes the host, sometimes the guest. Writing for a British audience, Kapil says he knew he needed to produce something that was more like poetry than his previous hybrid books. The first line of How to wash a heart, “Thus?”It’s such a lyrical moment, one where the listener stumbles upon a conversation midway through. If we read this voice as “Do you like this?” or “Do I do it like this?” The eagerness of the newly arrived foreigner to win the favor of his host is evident. The exchange of gifts may subscribe to the laws of hospitality, but here a metaphorical cup of tea illustrates the theft of the empire.
The visibility the TS Eliot award brings to an experimental writer like Kapil, one who until recently has not benefited from funding or scholarships, is uncomfortable but it is also a lifesaver for her family. Ironically, Cambridge University, a national monument to Winston Churchill that houses his papers and those of Margaret Thatcher, has made it possible for him to return to the UK without inheriting wealth or a home. Yet Kapil is keenly aware of her passport privilege as a returning citizen to hostile Britain where “the border is something that happens every time you try to rent a house or get a job or access care.”
What kind of writing is possible here? And for who it is? If in the United States Kapil was able to reimagine the England of his past, reversing and articulating its fragments, returning has sown new thoughts and images. Kapil has been traversing the confines of Churchill College’s Archives Center, “the beating heart of colonial legacies,” but also, as he points out, anti-colonial ones, regardless of what’s inside, built by law, authority, and power, but what other truths can silently seep into the ground along a kind of web of mushrooms. I imagine Kapil standing by the oak roots on the university grounds, planted in honor of his namesake, who supposedly called the Indians “a beastly people,” considering this dark web of earthly secrets.
Kapil is a rare poet, one who crucially restores a traumatic story to his diaspora while resisting lyrical pressure, responding to the empire both through his presence and his contributions as a poet who, until now, has written from afar. . “It’s hard to study something just by standing in front of it,” he says. “I like the mix of looking at something from afar and then at the ground nearby. Perhaps this is what becomes possible upon return. I can observe the stains, the cracks, and then recover while barefoot on the ground, which is the dirt where I am from. This is my home.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism