‘How To Wash a Heart’ Bhanu Kapil
Liverpool University Press
ISBN: 978-1-789-62168-6 £9.99 (hardback)
In an intense, wide-ranging exploration of relations between host and guest, this collection – Kapil’s first to be published in the UK – presents within itself a kind of analogue for that relationship. There are elements it’s easy to settle into – the regularity of the poems (all 20 to 23 lines) and the sections (all of eight pages); the mostly end-stopped lines which, taken individually, present clear, declarative thoughts. And yet, any notions of comfort are constantly undercut by tensions both in the narrative and in the sense at the level of individual lines and sentences.
To shed, briefly, my critical invisibility, one of the greatest tensions for me as a white, non-migrant reader was calibrating my own response and alignment. There are times – when the guest invites someone into her bedroom at night or leaves a wet towel on the bannister – that I felt myself sharing the host’s exasperation that the guest dares to have her own life. And yet (that phrase again), this is a host who reads the guest’s diary, frowns on friendship between the guest and her adopted daughter (‘an “Asian refugee”’) and ultimately [spoiler alert] betrays the guest. The negotiation of rights and responsibilities between host and guest / privileged and non-privileged / normative and ‘other’ is the central point here and it is (depending on one’s perspective) refreshing, disturbing or both that the viewpoint is the one less commonly afforded a voice.
There is a strong sense from the beginning that the guest is in an impossible position. The second page begins with the assertion, ‘I don’t want to beautify our collective trauma’ only for this to be modified within half a page –
‘As a guest, I trained myself
Our collective trauma.’
Victimhood and gratitude are performative: there is an expectation placed on the recipient of hospitality, though its opacity makes it difficult (or impossible) to negotiate:
‘it’s exhausting to be a guest
In somebody else’s house
…because ‘host logic / Is variable’.
While the relationship is established almost immediately, the guest’s backstory emerges more slowly and in a more piecemeal fashion. In the first section, we learn only that she comes ‘from a country / All lime-pink on the soggy map’ and have to wait until the second section before an impressionistic personal history begins to emerge. However, even where the tone of these pieces begins in nostalgia, there is almost invariably an undermining note of violence. A reminiscence about a grandfather fermenting sweet yoghurt in the roots of a mango tree ends with the suggestion that those roots ‘once concealed / A kill’, while a story of a mother cooking okra is overwhelmed by a visceral sense of shame. Then, following a poem in which the narrator’s home explodes, the hardships and humiliations of the migrant experience begin:
‘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.’
The host, however, attempts to draw a line under the guest’s past, ending the third section’s first poem with, ‘I want to hear about what happened afterwards / Not before’. Sure enough, this is a section that contextualises the guest in her new reality. Days are counted off as she adapts to the host’s household and art (‘Was I your art?’). A visit from a cousin brings a shared reminiscence (about boring poetry) and ‘reminds me / Who I really am’ but the lessons learnt resolve to:
‘The wealth and property
Of my host
Require constant surveillance.’
The final two sections complete the arc of what I had not realised on first reading is a heavily, if sometimes obliquely, narrative-driven work. In the fourth section, she ponders her own creativity, asking,
‘Is a poet
An imperial dissident, or just
Of pale blue chalk?’
‘How do you live when the link
Can’t easily Be discerned?’
The fifth section accelerates through the breakdown in the façade of friendly relations, leading to the final betrayal.
The fourth section contains the second of two poems that begin by repeating the collection’s title (though the collection’s first poem could be seen as running on from the title). There’s an additional ‘How to wash a heart’ poem in the ‘Note on the Title’ section at the end. While the function of the title in the main batch of poetry remains mysterious, this note locates its origin in a film, in which ‘A heart appears in the air next to the body or bunched up on a T-shirt in the snow, in the film with Béatrice Dalle on the sleigh.’
This has clearly been an obsessive image for Kapil (urbandictionary.com has a 2008 definition of ‘Heart’ referencing this film from a contributor styled ‘Bhanu: A Failed Novelist’) but most significantly, it fed into 2019 performance of the same name. Again, though, the concept is elusive as Kapil notes, “In writing these new poems I diverged – almost instantly – from the memory of the performance.” Instead, a voice – that of the guest – took over: fictional but drawing on Kapil’s experiences of the limits of inclusivity in the ‘“mostly white” spaces’ of American academia. In this context, does the written work’s title have independent meaning (the uprootedness of the heart as in the Dalle-inspired image?) or does it simply sit under an umbrella title? This is one of the frustrations of the piece – that none but the few who saw the ICA performance will be able to trace links between the two.
‘How to Wash a Heart’ is uncomfortable and unclassifiable. However, as people seek, in these times, to calibrate and align in the light of Black Lives Matter, and as they perhaps feel trapped in the disrupted and unwelcoming space of their own COVID-besieged homes, it feels like an urgent and essential work.