Review by Alycia Pirmohamed
I read How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion Poetry, 2020) on an early spring evening, when the days are still getting longer. Evening blue (inky-late?) extends now for so long, that I feel like I am reading the collection within a pause, a held breath. Somewhere beside me hovers my own heart, newly rinsed, whether in animal or ice or both. Through this experience of organ, of muscle, of blood – of ‘good blood’, Bhanu Kapil’s work exceeds beyond the page; it is felt somatically, it moves and it pulses and tremors and it tears.
A prolific artist and writer, and the recipient of numerous awards (most recently the Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry, 2020), Bhanu Kapil is undoubtedly an important figure in contemporary poetry. I first came across her work in 2013; The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (2001) was recommended to me after I lamented my own gap in knowledge of poetry written by South Asian women. Even as a South Asian woman myself, it felt sometimes impossible to retrieve such work back then, particularly given the pervading whiteness of the industry and even within my own private writing circles. For me, the collection’s long lines of imagination, how it associated and dissociated between continents, between voices, opened a world of possibility.
Beyond my personal affinity for her poetry, Kapil’s work is striking for its sharp, transnational approach and imaginations, its fragmentary-sequential style – an apt form when considering how her collections dance through space and time, whether pleating them together or splicing them apart. Now, with her latest collection in my hands, published within a decidedly British context, I feel as if I have come full circle. Having also moved from North America to the UK, I immerse myself in this parallel and approach Kapil’s work anew. Across the ocean from my family, from my friends, from decades of my history, I have arrived here, and it is here I where I consider this instruction (question?) of how to wash a heart—
How to wash a heart:
Animal or ice?
I am reminded of ‘Avert the Icy Feeling’ (Threads), where Kapil characterises ice as ‘a public form of whiteness that does not melt but freezes.’ This metaphor, this white public, is a chill felt on the skin throughout this latest collection. How to Wash a Heart foregrounds a very particular, intimate relationship: that of ‘an immigrant guest in the home of their citizen host.’ Within the narrative, even “public” itself becomes a variable, as the speaker must navigate the intersubjective sphere of their glossy new life. Imperceptibly, concepts of hospitality, of unbelonging, of privacy, of inclusion, blur together. Eventually, I realise that beyond dream-worlds, beyond a quickly fading memory in the shape of an estranged cousin, privacy is but an alluring myth amongst a deeply surveillanced existence.
In part, this collection was inspired by a photograph of a Californian couple who took in an asylum-seeker. I might describe the experience of reading How to Wash a Heart like that of looking through a viewfinder, a kind of witnessing that recalls what Susan Sontag writes about photography: ‘photographs alter and enlarge our notion of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.’ With each new page, Kapil further distills an image of the West, framing a body: a neighbourhood: a nation that the public often refuses to see, choosing to gaze instead at a perfect façade—
As your guest, I trained myself
Our collective trauma.
The poems uncover “host logic”, a kind of dangerous, unpredictable, swerving logic, where there is no room for missteps or cracked vases, for any kind of imperfect brokenness. Within “host logic”, there is no value in anything that is not beautiful enough to wear or to consume. We see this as the host’s power flourishes in each capitalised line. Where the guest recedes (‘I don’t remember / The underneath’), the host thrives: ‘Prick me’, we imagine the host saying, ‘And I will cut off the energy / To your life.’
How to Wash a Heart exposes the violences of how stranger and citizen come to be. It upends conventional understanding of what it means to welcome difference (a heroic or celebrated act) and reveals, instead, the power dynamics at play within these relationships.
This shit’s not manageable,
On the fourth night,
Something you underlined
When you found my Diary
And read from it
Was this the moment
An alien form?
And though the story Kapil tells is literal, its speaker and their citizen host are also symbolic, a way to understand other institutionalised or enacted host/guest relationships. These symbols are made even more effective by the interplay between the collection’s wry tone and its poignant, emotional observations – how a phrase like ‘Google it’ is both sarcastic and desperate, depending on whether ‘host-guest’ or ‘love’ is in the search bar:
The host-guest chemistry
Is inclusive, complex, molecular,
Does the host envelop
The guest or does the guest
Attract diminished forms
Perhaps most vividly, Kapil is in conversation with Sara Ahmed, who proposes ‘the process of expelling or welcoming … [produces] the figure of the stranger in the first place’, and that the idea one should simply welcome the stranger takes ‘for granted the stranger’s status as a figure that contains or has meaning.’ Kapil’s speaker, once a stranger, must emphasise their own meaning, equip their own power, their own diadems. I am captivated by how these poems lay bare their certainties, and then burst: into wide open spaces, into my bloodstream, into dazzling and evocative images that bend or tilt or challenge my understanding:
Yes, just like everyone else,
I had to deal
With the strong feelings
That moved through my body
Like sheets of rain
With navy blue diadems.
In an interview with Amber Pollock, Kapil questions: ‘How can the poem’s form – the shape that it takes, and the limits of that shape – tell the truth (or one of the truths) about what it is like to be a human being in a given world?’ Structurally, the poems in How to Wash a Heart unfold like vertebrae: into a long, slick spine. Every page holds a column of short lines that contribute to a chronological narrative. As we continue our witness of the immigrant guest, we increasingly inhabit their body. It is each reader’s approach to the page that decides whether this is an act that sees or violates.
There are also several moments where the language shatters any sense of linearity or continuity, creating tensions (limits, ruptures) within the collection’s elongated and uniform shape. These poems are often fading remembrance or dream; they are the veil between reality and imagination. To me, these movements are the most compelling aspect of the collection outside of the wider narrative:
I was born feet-first beneath a Lebanon cedar
At 10:23 a.m.
On a November morning
So long ago
That many people who were alive that day,
Flinching from a sudden rain,
No longer walk upon the earth.
These passages remind me of Sun Yung Shin’s articulation of the migrant experience in Unbearable Splendor, where Shin plies apart the vertical and the horizontal and assumes (or un-assumes) all quadrants of time: ‘To many immigrants, exiles, and pseudo-exiles back becomes a manifold; space and time—an asymmetrical nonevent.’ Kapil echoes this sentiment, this disorientation of linearity:
The linearity required of immigrants
And so, it feels jarring, painful – violent – when, at one point, the host interrupts the speaker’s recollection of their (perhaps imagined, perhaps asymmetrical) past, reminding us of Spivak’s pivotal question: can the subaltern speak? I reassess each one-worded line of the collection, thinking of how sounds are stopped, punctuated, clipped, taut. How many unsaid memories, desires, dreams, tastes, heartbeats exist in the space from one short line to the next?
No, you said.
I want to hear what happened afterwards
‘I want’, says the host, expecting something culturally translatable, a foreignness within the limits of their own understanding. Kapil explores this want in separate, but twinning, images of feeding/feasting, of taking, of appropriating. First, literal consumption:
In that moment, I understood that you were a wolf
Capable of devouring
My internal organs
If I exposed them to view.
Then an element of exoticisation – the white public, the fixating white gaze, governing the stranger’s body as an object:
On the third day, you invited
Half your neighborhood
To glimpse the red leaf
You had placed
Like a thing of beauty
In the pudding basin
Of tap water by the door.
Was I your art?
In Tongues, Chandra Frank explores questions of gratitude and governability: ‘The economy of gratitude is an affluent one; the migrant must forever be thankful for the opportunity to reside in the “land of possibility.”’ Despite being surveilled, silenced, and consumed, despite their fear – ‘It’s extraordinary how afraid I am / All the time’ – the immigrant guest must be grateful. To be grateful is a mode of survival. The guest must never forget this, lest they be viewed as unassimilable, ungovernable.
Bhanu Kapil’s illustration of the host-guest relationship is haunting, and the collection’s raw, understated tone draws attention to the harmful systematic and clinical processes of immigration. And still, it is important to note that neither the past nor the present are framed exclusively through a lens of longing or wistfulness. At one point, the speaker is even glad to see their previous home explode behind them, further forcing us away from any binary interpretation. Thus, while How to Wash a Heart unravels the tautness of a painful relationship, Kapil also leaves us with glimpses of the possibility of recuperation, like on the penultimate page:
I want to wake up
In the arms of the person
And drink coffee with them
On a balcony
That opens up to a forest
Where the moss
In the pouring rain.
Alycia Pirmohamed is the author of the chapbooks Hinge (ignitionpress, 2020) and Faces that Fled the Wind (BOAAT Press, 2019), and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Her other awards include the 92/Y Discovery Poetry Contest, the CBC Poetry Prize, the Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest, and the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in publications internationally, including The Paris Review Daily, Guernica Magazine, Poetry London, The Poetry Review, Best Canadian Poetry, and others. She can be found on Twitter @a_pirmohamed.