Nikita Biswal reviews Bhanu Kapil

How to Wash a Heart published by Liverpool University Press (2020)

How to Wash a Heart, Bhanu Kapil’s illuminating new collection of poems, assumes the perspective of an immigrant artist living with a citizen host. These poems move in the world as a tenant does in a guesthouse, navigating the borders of personal and national identity. The questions of belonging raised here are intersectional and compelling. The book is a continuation of Kapil’s argument for those who do not immediately fit in. 

Told in bare-boned language, the collection perceptively breaks new ground. The title comes from an ‘installation, performance, poetry reading or ritual’ developed by Kapil and her sister, Rohini Kapil, at ICA London in 2019, where each member of the audience was given a red ice-cube to ‘welcome them into the space without using any words’. This is precisely what the collection sets out to do – to carve a language outside of language. ‘Yes, I want to wash a heart and watch it melt,’ Kapil states in the exhibit’s blurb. The note on the title digresses from a discussion of Takotsubo syndrome, commonly known as broken heart syndrome, to a faintly remembered news clipping about a couple in California who had hosted an immigrant with a precarious visa status to the experience of inhabiting the dominantly white spaces of a private, liberal arts school in the United States. Gestures are made towards an increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric and the Partition. All this to say, the writing isn’t concerned with eloquence. The title is all the reader has access to before they are plunged into this loaded, but charismatic, world of poems – each of which comes untitled – as Kapil begins, ‘Like this?’

The poems tragicomically come back to each other. The first poem ends with the narrator showing the host’s daughter, an “Asian refugee”, how to become a bird. Kapil writes, ‘Showed her how to drink water / From the bowls / On the windowsill’. The lines are returned to the beginning of the poem, ‘Like this?’. From the first instance, the collection is an offering of freedom. The writing is clever and full of references laid out in a stunningly distilled form. Kapil resolves the stray question in a poem tucked away at the back, written in a show of freehand writing. ‘How to wash a heart: / Like this.’ she says. In another poem written off the title, she captures the essence of the book’s form: ‘There’s nowhere to go with this / Except begin’. These borders mimic those of a landscape where crossing the line between mine and yours is easy.

Kapil has an index on her characters that gives the poems a particular perspicacity. This is an invitation to view an intimate relationship, however cordoned off it may be, through sophisticatedly staged exposures. In one poem, she writes:

But in private, when it’s snowing 
Or when the sun 
Is ruddy, a speculative 
You say no. 
No to the wet towel 
On the bannister. 
I’ve had enough.

Boundaries are drawn swiftly and sternly. The gift of shampoo, douche and powder is followed by conditional hospitalities: ‘…I never knew / When you might open my door, leaving it open / When you left’. Kapil relays the contrast between such moments with an absolute nakedness, which makes her voice all the more absorbing. The heart exists in a perpetual negotiation of this intimacy.

The unconventional style lends a comicality to the grim subject. ‘Hold a funeral for the imagination / I thought.’ she states in response to her own matter-of-factness. Don’t be fooled – the jovial tone only holds a mirror to problematic realities. The crudeness provides an unusual, provocative register to these poems. Kapil makes clear that this is not a hotel. Language comes free of its embellishments in the writing, presenting the truth plainly.

Oils, sugars, pearls, crushed diamonds, linens and songs 
Populate your crappy cabinets. 
Make a list of what you need 
And I will get it, you ungrateful cow.

The obscene finds its place in Kapil’s poetry, where neither material nor voice is understated. At another point, she casually asks, ‘I can smell your vagina. / Are you wearing your genitals / As a brooch?’. As promised by the title, the insides are left on display. The body squeezes out an egg, excretes a load of hormones and houses shame, quite memorably, in the anus. Together with the heart, repeatedly removed from the body, washed and packed in ice, the collection verges on the macabre. This is a theatre of the absurd, set in illusions that jolt the reader out of context.

But for writing that is so polymerous, the ambiguities are plenty. Unclear jumps in theme and place are peppered with a past built in patches. While these childhood memories contain some of the collection’s most remarkable images — one where Kapil imagines herself dressed in ‘wet caps’ of the okra her mother made for lunch — they stand out. The poet makes no attempt to hide this. Instead, she answers, in another poem:

Then here we are 
At the part where even if something 
Goes wrong, 
That’s exactly how it’s meant to be.

How to Wash a Heart pushes the literal one step further, just beyond the surveillance of meaning, where poetry can be careless. To this effect, the writing runs the risk of wearing off from sharp to serviceable as the images turn less and less stressed.

There is a moment halfway through the book, where home is described as a place ‘where you shit / And sleep, dreaming one night / Of jellyfish’. At this point, the image seems simply delightful, part of an eternal exhaustion that echoes throughout. It opens up the sometimes peculiar, often original and always fascinating relationships that Kapil develops in this collection.

Nikita Biswal is a writer based in Delhi. Her criticism has previously appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and Review 31. She is on Instagram @nikitabiswal.

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