In How To Wash A Heart, her first UK-published collection, Bhanu Kapil offers a timely and intimate exploration of hospitality, expressed through the story of a fictional relationship between an immigrant guest and a citizen host.
Wrapped up in this story are other stories: of the artist trying to create, the body’s inescapably visceral condition, the questing for authentic inclusion. As a British Indian who has recently returned to England after many years residing in North America, Kapil’s poetic investigation of the host-guest bond is nuanced and incisive, taking into consideration history, microaggressions, conditional love, and creative compromise.
The collection has a medley of inspirations, outlined in the ‘Note on the Title’ at the back of the book. One of these is a photograph in a newspaper of a couple in Berkeley, California ‘who had opened their home to a guest with a precarious visa status.’ What catches her attention is how they are smiling, how ‘the soft tissue contraction’ of the mouth muscles is ‘at odds (when visible) to a smile itself.’ For Kapil, the image connected to the oddness of the experience of being a guest in someone else’s home. As a guest, you are welcomed into the home and life of your host, while simultaneously welcoming the host into your own life; the open-endedness of this relationship is perfectly captured in the lines:
Like an intrusive mother, you
Cared for my needs
But also I never knew when you might open my door, leaving it open
When you left.
The posture of didacticism presented in the collection’s ‘How To’ title belies the volatility at its core, with the first line a question, ‘Like this?’, undercutting any sense of authority. Indeed, this is a book full of questions, some of which are logical ‘Am I safe with you?’; others which appear suddenly and apparently randomly:
Help me to repair
What is broken and immortal
Is that the bin?
Their randomness seems to suggest the absurdity of the particular type of loneliness that comes from being a long-term guest in someone else’s home. This question also seems to portray the speaker engaging in self-interruption, which later becomes an attempt (conscious or unconscious) at self-erasure:
My fingerprints bloom
On the cream colored
Visually, the poems take up the top half of the page and are roughly the same length, the white remainder of the page becoming a space of projection for the reader, and evoking the feeling of time passing. The structure of the collection is mathematically pleasing, with five sections of eight poems, the central eight being a sequence based around the concept of eight days moving in progression. This linear pattern provides a formal counterpoint to the entanglements experienced by guest and host in the story of the collection.
In the first section, the guest addresses the host: ‘You made a space for me in your home, for my books and clothes, and I’ll / Never forget that.’ The guest’s complex feelings – of gratitude mingled with indebtedness – pulse throughout the collection, and the host is allowed to create anxieties that are apparently easily forgiven: ‘Once you locked me in. / An accident.’
In section two, there is a callback to the immigrant guest’s parents and grandparents. In the tradition of post-colonial immigrant literature, there are the classic tropes of food and its preparation:
My grandfather fermented the yoghurt
With rose petals
And sugar then buried it
In the roots of a mango tree.
But even this beautiful memory contains ‘A kill.’ By the seventh poem in this section, however, memories have become ‘unreachable’, the speaker asking ‘How long have I been / Gone?’ and simply stating ‘I rarely think of the bright brown eyes / Of my childhood friends.’
In section three, in which the host asks ‘Tell me about your long journey’, each poem is a day, and we see the way in which the guest is asked to re-form her complex non-linear experiences into a narrative progression that logicises her experiences for the host. The host asks ‘What was it / Like?’ The guest’s response, a story beginning with snakes and poets on riverbanks, doesn’t satisfy the host who specifies ‘I want to hear what happens afterwards / Not before.’ Here, the exploration of hospitality enters a no man’s land where the negotiation is over narrative control.
The fourth section opens with the painful assertion:
The art of crisis
Is that you no longer
Think of home
As a place of social respite.
The host’s home has now become a source of stress and discomfort. Coupled with a recollection that encapsulates the loss of beautiful, valuable, and sentimental possessions (‘They tossed the garnet necklace / My mother gave me / When I was ten’), this section builds to a central concern of the immigrant who is also an artist:
How do you live when the link
In the final sequence, there is a matter-of-fact attempt at reconciling with the idea of hospitality:
[…] the guest-host chemistry
Is inclusive, complex, molecular,
But, as we near the end of the collection, the stakes are raised. In a situation where the guest’s very ‘survival’ is threatened, is friendship possible?
How To Wash A Heart deftly weaves together ideas of spatial boundaries, nationhood, the human body, and art. The book is at its most powerful when these themes come together, speaking to the concerns of the artist who is seen as Other:
As your guest, I trained myself
Our collective trauma.
In this emotionally-complex, lyrically-innovative, and thematically-rich collection, hospitality becomes a way of exploring the classical literary themes of arrival and departure, forcing them into a space where the question of belonging is perennially unanswered.
Devina Shah read English and Modern Languages at Oxford University. She is the founder of Quince Magazine, a new online literary and visual arts journal featuring the work of emerging, established, and marginalised writers and artists from around the world. www.quincemag.com
Buy How To Wash A Heart by Bhanu Kapil from Pavilion (Liverpool University Press).