I came to Bhanu Kapil’s collection How to Wash a Heart after it had won the T.S. Eliot Prize. I had not seen her reading it, but have now done my homework. I have watched her talk about her work in the brief video done prior to the night of the award. I have watched the longer video with Andrew McMillan’s enthusiastic briefing following the book’s choice by the Poetry Book Society, in which she joins from Cambridge via Zoom, talks about the work and reads an extract from it. These were both helpful in their different ways, but neither helped me with the title.
At the end of the book Bhanu Kapil adds “A Note on the Title”, in which she explains that it goes back to “an installation, performance, poetry reading or ritual” that she created with her sister, Rohini Kapil, as part of the Kathy Acker exhibit at the ICA in London in 2019. So I extended my homework by hunting out the ICA website blurb about the event and read a passage by Bhanu Kapil explaining her intention:
“ If Acker wrote the ‘wild heart’, then that’s what I want to do. I want to wash a heart. I want to make visible what is never visible: the insides of the body without end. Or perhaps my performance can happen at lunch-time, and perhaps we can exit the curation through its anus. I don’t know what that means. One thing I can say is that, this June, in the ICA, I will be (almost precisely) the age that Kathy Acker was when she died. I want to write a sentence that shakes. I want there to be blood in the line, and on the floor beneath it. “
Call me over-literal, but my problem with the title was what it meant – I had even gone back to my recent reading of Maylis de Kerangal’s wonderful novel about a heart transplant in order to see whether a heart was “washed” in the process. (It isn’t – I’ll spare you the details.) I learnt from the ICA’s website too that “the performance of identity” remained integral to Kathy Acker’s work. But the meaning of the phrase in the ICA blurb remained as elusive as in the book’s title. How can you “wash a heart”, I thought, with increasing obsessiveness. But wanting to make visible what is never visible – yes, that resonates.
In the same note, Bhanu Kapil goes on to say:
“In writing these new poems, I diverged – almost instantly – from the memory of the performance. Instead, as soon as I sat down to write, I heard an unexpected voice.
“This is the voice of this book: an immigrant guest in the home of their citizen-host.”
The book comprises forty pages of untitled poems of about twenty lines apiece. Four blank pages divide the ensemble into sections – again untitled. The shape of the poems is distinctive and uniform – narrow columns aligned against the lefthand margin, a capital letter at the start of each line. Here is a sample, taken from the last (and arguably most coherent) section:
"The host's gleaming hair Responds beautifully to the shampoo She has set out for me To share. What's mine is yours, She says with a sweet Smile. I don't want you taking her out Without asking me First, she continues, Holding her daughter tight Against her side."
Talking about this book, Bhanu Kapil says that she is exploring the themes of migration, host and guest. She wanted to create something “linear and brutal” and see what happens when all the lushness one associates with poetry is discarded.
This may explain the absence of rhyme and metaphor, but is a deceptive statement in that there is lushness in the juxtaposition of images and statements: the gleaming hair, the sweet smile, the daughter clutched to her side, and the statements “What’s mine is yours” and “I don’t want you taking her out without asking me first”. Already limits are being placed on what is “mine” and what is “yours”. There is considerable art, too, in the strange line-breaks, that often have little rational purpose, but which seem to be reinforced by the capital letter that follows: “a sweet/Smile” and “Without asking me/First”. In practice, these fulfil a largely visual function, since when Bhanu Kapil is reading herself, she frequently ignores them. Arguably, the disruption of the syntax mirrors the disruption of the immigrant’s life, and the fragmentation of perception. Andrew McMillan argues that the use of a capital at the beginning of each line encourages us to look at each line as a separate unit as well as part of a sentence. I buy this in some instances, but there are too many instances of the fragmented line having so little weight it doesn’t bear lengthy consideration on its own:
"I want to be split Into two parts Or a thousand pieces. I want you to touch My cervix. I want my dress Shredded And my life Too."
The relationship between guest and host is explored with great subtlety – both sides are performing a part, where there are hidden strains and conflicts:
"When what you perform At the threshold Is at odds With what happens When the front door is closed, Then you are burning The toast And you are letting the butter Fester."
The passages I have quoted are all taken from the last section. The earlier sections are less accesssible. On the second page the poem begins:
"I don't want to beautify our collective trauma. Your sexual brilliance resided, I sometimes thought, In your ability to say, No matter the external circumstances: 'I am here.' From this place you gave only this many Desiccated fucks About the future."
This leaves a reader guessing on several counts: does the “our” in the first line include the “you” of “your” in the second? is the “collective trauma” what the immigrant has been through or what the guest and host are both going through now? what is “sexual brilliance” and how is this illustrated by saying “I am here”? Is the “you” the person who appears as a host elsewhere?
The obscurity of these passages does not detract from the overall power of the theme that Bhanu Kapil tackles: how, at a micro level, a guest in the house of a foreign host has to co-operate in order to achieve a modus vivendi, thus abandoning – or repressing – their own personality and culture; and, on a national level, how an immigrant has to compromise in order to fit in with the society of the country they find themselves thrown into by force of circumstance. As people become displaced with increasing frequency as a result of war, climate change, repression or the other reasons that drive people to flee from their homes, these questions are crucial. Bhanu Kapil makes it clear that in the final analysis power resides with the host:
"I clock the look That passes between you. You and the officer From the Department Of Repatriation. And understand This is your revenge."
Bhanu Kapil has said that she wanted to write a short book, which could be read at a sitting. Its slightness in terms of length does not detract from the importance of the theme.
Where does this leave the question of the title? I came to the conclusion that the situation is very similar to that which arises when you begin a poem that then, in the course of writing, diverges into a path that is not what you foresaw but in which the true identity of the poem is discovered. It is common experience among poets that, in these circumstances, the opening lines have to be deleted, since they are at odds with the poem as it has developed. The ICA performance that bequeathed its title to the book derived from Kathy Acker’s preoccupations and Bhanu Kapil’s interaction with them. As she herself admits, this book diverged almost instantly from the memory of the performance. The title needs to go. Phew. That feels better.
Bhanu Kapil’s “How to Wash a Heart” is published by Liverpool University Press. The novel referred to by Maylis de Kerangal is titled “Réparer les Vivants” in the French original. A translation into English titled “Mend the Living” is published by MacLehose Press.