How to Wash a Heart 
by Bhanu Kapil.
Pavilion, 52 pp., £9.99, March 2020, 978 1 78962 168 6
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In January​ 2009, Bhanu Kapil went to the India-Pakistan border and lay down. After pressing her body into the earth, she began to build an outline around the imprint, paying attention to everything she sensed – she intended her notes to form the basis of an epic poem on the ‘transgenerational effects’ of Partition. A year later, she threw the notebook into her snowy garden in Colorado in disgust. Noticing it lying there soggy and half-frozen the next spring, she picked it up and began to unpeel the pages. From the partly legible remains came Schizophrene (2011), a prose sequence that probes the buried connections between her parents’ stories about 1947, the racist abuse her family encountered in 1970s Southall, and the schizophrenia disproportionately experienced by the area’s migrants. Migration is a self-splitting, one note observes; it’s ‘psychotic to live in a different country for ever’. In 2012, Kapil returned to the UK and lay down near the house in Lansbury Drive, Hayes, where she grew up. From pavement level, she could sense the weird electric green of a neighbour’s ivy, the bitumen skies and the pervasive tang of pollution from the M25, under construction throughout her childhood. In 2014, she lay down again, naked and surrounded by a cordon of fellow protesters, on the service road in Delhi where Jyoti Singh Pandey – Nirbhaya, as she was called in the press – was thrown from a bus in 2012 by the men who had raped her. Both actions were recorded in Ban en Banlieue (2015), a book on ‘auto-sacrifice’ assembled by chance selection from dozens of self-documenting notebooks that Kapil put on a butcher’s block; the rest were thrown away. Many entries are notes-to-self about the right way to tell the story of Ban, a girl who hears breaking glass – the beginning of the Southall race riots – and lies down, unsure whether the sound is coming from the street or her own house. But that story goes no further: the selections made by ‘bibliomancy’ instead accumulate glimpses of various bodily violations, from memories of childhood slaps to pollution on the tarmac to Blair Peach, killed by the police in Southall, and book-ends them with lists of performances and literary debts. The banlieues surround the centre, but here the centre is missing. Neither Schizophrene nor Ban en Banlieue are poems of emotion recollected in tranquillity: they are documentations of sensations, performances and rituals that reach back to an ungraspable disaster, and are reassembled in ways that extend the forgetting and the random cruelty of the disaster to the present. ‘Is this poetry? No,’ Kapil told an interviewer in 2011. ‘It’s what abrades the body as it’s being written or lived.’

How to Wash a Heart looks much more conventional. It is a slim volume of twenty-line poems addressing the wealthy liberal woman who has taken the speaker, an artist whose immigration status is precarious, into her house. The guest’s relief and thanks are soon mingled with desire and fear:

Perhaps I can write here again.
A ‘fleeting sense of possibility’. – K.
Keywords: Hospitality, stars, jasmine.
You made a space for me in your home, for my books and clothes, and I’ll
Never forget that.
When your adopted daughter, an ‘Asian refugee’
As you described her,
Came in with her coffee and perched on the end
Of my cot, I felt so happy.
And less like a hoax.

The tension between the extending sentences and the short lines contains the mounting tension between host and guest. That full stop making a one-word line from ‘Privacy’ sounds defiant as well as decisive. ‘You made a space for me’ is a renewed burst of gratitude, but slicing the sentence up after ‘I’ll’ produces a single line within the guest’s speech that internalises the host’s unspoken command: ‘Never forget that.’ The clause ‘As you described her’ sounds innocuous said out loud, but set in its own line, the accent falls on ‘you’, and we notice that the adopted child is still, somehow, the refugee she once was. The host treats the guest like her teenage daughter, buying her underwear and deodorant, and reminding her with every intimate gift of her dependence:

My spiritual power was quickly depleted
By living with you.
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.
My identity as a writer was precarious
During the time
I lived with you.
Once, you locked me in.
An accident.

‘Spiritual power’ and ‘identity as a writer’ are workshop clichés that reveal to what extent the stay is robbing the guest of any power to name herself. The poetic energy here doesn’t lie in the vocabulary but in the controlled fear that stalks those line breaks, interrupting each sentence as if the guest is choosing her words carefully, aware that someone may be listening behind the open door. As you read, you can’t help dreading the aggression hidden in the next unmarked phrase, a dread that reproduces the migrant’s sense of unlocatable threat: the feeling that every siren dopplering down the street is potentially calling for you. After the daughter and the guest go to a café and exchange confidences about the controlling mother, the knock on the bedroom door is inevitable:

There’s a hand on my fire.
There’s a break in the scream.
The scream is mine.
My scream is at hand.
It knocks on the land
… And in these last moments,
I clock the look
That passes between you.
You and the officer
From the Department
Of Repatriation.
And understand.
This is your revenge.

The scrambled re-combinations of ‘hand on my arm’ and ‘knock on the door’ deftly synchronise the guest’s current experiences with abrupt memories of burned houses and screaming people back in another lost homeland.

But the guest-host tensions in How to Wash a Heart go much deeper than its surface plot. The book has its origin in a ritual Kapil and her sister performed at a celebration of Kathy Acker at the ICA. The initial idea had been to take six frozen pig hearts and wash them as they melted, as if to make tactile the phrase that their racist neighbour had once screamed, ‘you bleeding animal’, a phrase that haunts both Ban and Schizophrene. But this rapidly became too disgusting to be workable, so she turned to a ritual called Good Blood, adapted from the Brazilian artist Lygia Pape. Kapil had used the ritual in diversity and inclusion training sessions at the private liberal arts colleges where she taught in America. The audience were given little hearts of red ice, which gradually melted in their hands during the performance. In Pape’s ritual, two people hold the hearts, and the person whose heart melts first has the ‘good blood’, although the blood is from someone else’s frozen heart. But the awkwardness of pouring a kettle over a freezer box mid-performance to try to dislodge the hearts brought a new thought: ‘What became clear to me as I worked with the title,’ Kapil said, ‘was that the very thing that makes poetry so great – the intensity of an image or the way it repeats – is not so great when it comes to your actual life. The evening ended with a question: What receives the blood?’

How to Wash a Heart sounds like a therapy manual, but it began as the artist’s question to herself: what will I do with this bloody mess? And placing her hearts in other people’s palms again reminded her that she had felt like the guest, not the leader, at those diversity sessions: prized less for what she said than for her presence, which made the white faculty feel better. The colleges were zones of ‘conditional hospitality’, a phrase of Derrida’s that Kapil came across in Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included. ‘People of colour in white organisations are treated as guests, temporary residents in someone else’s home,’ Ahmed goes on. ‘People of colour are welcomed on condition they return that hospitality by integrating into a common organisational culture, or by “being” diverse, and allowing institutions to celebrate their diversity.’ But the guest will always be the guest, and the institution will never have to change its make-up. Underneath the host-guest plotline is the prickly relation that the writer of colour has with kindly white colleagues unaware of their own predatorial instincts:

The milk in your eyes
Scared me.
In that moment I understood that you were a wolf
Capable of devouring
My internal organs
If I exposed them to view.
Sure enough, the image of a heart
Carved from the body
In the next poem you wrote.

The poem is also doing some hosting of its own here. A heart lying in the snow interspersed with shots of a wolf pack loping alongside is one of the hypnotic, inexplicable sequences in Claire Denis’s L’Intrus (2004), a film Kapil alludes to in a ‘note on the title’. L’Intrus begins as the story of a moody-looking tough guy (Michel Subor) who receives a heart transplant. But as he lies in the permanent twilight of hospital time, images of illegal border crossings and abandoned children accumulate mysteriously, and you are not sure whether this is what happens after he gets his life back, or whether he is dying and these are visual traces of his criminal past that have come adrift while his body is rejecting the heart. All you know is that you are consciously rearranging the menacing, intrusive images around a backstory that may be your own invention, as your mind struggles to make sense of what it is seeing, or as if you had suddenly burst into a stranger’s life. Denis took her title from Jean-Luc Nancy’s meditation on his own heart transplant, ‘The Intruder’. Nancy wonders at the extensive technology and the many drugs necessary for him to continue as ‘himself’:

The strangeness, on the one hand, of this grafted heart, which the organism identifies and attacks as being a stranger, and, on the other hand, the strangeness of the state in which medication renders the graftee in order to protect him. It lowers the graftee’s immunity, so that he can tolerate the stranger. It thereby makes him a stranger to himself.

If your heart is not your own, you are both the needy host and the intrusive guest. Nancy’s medical condition becomes a philosophical parable of the relation to the self as one of induced hospitality, not an easy affirmation of natural identity. It could also be a description of the way survivors of violence are forced to host traumatic memories that are theirs and that are also uncontainable – this is partly what concerns Kapil in the quoted passage about milk. In Ban en Banlieue milk is a recurrent image of pollution, not human kindness, as it leaks from the Nestlé factory in Hayes into the Grand Union Canal. The ‘wolf’ recalls the story of the wolf children of Bengal and their failure to adapt to human society; this then became the figure for the schizophrenic mind and the immigrant in Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children (2009) and in Schizophrene. The ‘internal organs’ spilling out are Nirbhaya’s in Ban and, before that, the atrocity Kapil’s mother glimpsed through the hole in the side of a cart as her family fled during Partition. How to Wash a Heart tells a story about the ‘inclusive, complex, molecular’ chemistry of temporary host-guest bonds. But it produces that reality effect by hosting a series of unwelcome images that Kapil the artist can’t expel.

Like all of Kapil’s books, How to Wash a Heart asks how artists can work when their inner landscape is so fraught, and the link ‘between creativity/And survival/Can’t easily/Be discerned’. Midway through, the voice ponders where that leaves her:

Is a poet
An imperial dissident, or just
An outline
Of pale blue chalk?

‘Imperial dissident’ is Priyamvada Gopal’s term for the white British opponents of colonialism who were prepared to learn from African and Asian resistance movements, rather than see themselves as bestowing liberation. The ‘pale blue chalk’ refers to a female Buddha outline created in Kapil’s Colorado garden by her friend Sharon Carlisle. Both Carlisle and Kapil were inspired by the artist Ana Mendieta (1948-85), who was uprooted as a child from Cuba after Castro came to power and sent to Iowa: she developed a new form of body sculpture by pressing herself into mud or making outlines of herself with ash, sand or flowers. She often spoke of her work as a ‘total identification with nature’, and once told an interviewer that in retrospect her work reflected the uprooted person’s need to make her mark on the land again. But the photographs of her lying half buried in mud or among tree roots irresistibly recall scenes of atrocity, the outlines of murder victims. Kapil is both dissident and artist, of course: an agitator who won’t allow self-congratulation in through the back door, and the female artist using her body as a lightning conductor to pick up the violence latent in a place, or in her audience.

Or there’s another option. ‘I am a failed Asian housewife who is as yet to write a British novel,’ she said in an essay from 2020, ‘Notes on Arrival’, a statement so untrue in its truthfulness that it reminds me of what Marianne Moore used to say to her delighted audiences: ‘I’m called a poet because there’s nowhere else to put me.’ Like Moore, Kapil’s poems coalesce brilliantly and unpredictably from accidents and keep the feeling of vulnerability. ‘It’s so strange to read from a book,’ she said at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival last year. ‘I think of poetry, or writing, or the thing we call the work, it’s never the same thing as the book; it briefly crystallises in the book.’ The lying-down performances, the protests and the notebooks were not preludes to the poems but continuous means of artistic survival; the poems were only one of the unpredictable forms this took. Moore’s success as a performer was an accident: despite winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1952, she had to go out and read on the burgeoning poetry circuit to earn money, after spending the best part of the previous decade nursing her sick mother. Kapil, too, has confessed that she chose Pavilion, an imprint of Liverpool University Press, for How to Wash a Heart because she needed to secure continued care for her own mother, and a British publisher would re-establish her profile in the eyes of UK Immigration. In a happy accident, this made the book eligible for the T.S. Eliot Prize, which it won last year. It also shows how much the migrant artist must always depend on the approval of the host.

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