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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

Cover of How to Wash a Heart
Hal CoaseLike this?
Bhanu Kapil, How to Wash a Heart (Pavilion Poetry)
Host-logic is magic. It is a magical logic. It is not, therefore, strictly logical, though it may magically take the shape of logic. It can hide its paternalism, its paranoia and obstinacy, its maddening need to be liked and to be like, in the turn of a phrase or a smile or the offer of warmth. Calypso in The Odyssey (Emily Wilson’s translation): ‘I have made plans for you as I would do / for my own self, if I were in your place’. The power of host-logic as magical thinking: everything depends upon that ‘I’, and everything is conditional – ‘would’, ‘if I were’. Host-logic bewitches. How does it do this? At what cost? Who pays?

When you found my Diary / And read from it / Aloud. / Was this the moment / I became / An alien form?

A kind of spell. The two subjects of Kapil’s book perform and endure the ritual of hospitality. The host, reading aloud, wants to change the guest. The guest, in fact, has already been subjected to change. There is the horror of recognising this, followed by the horror of failing to isolate the moment when it happened. The moment cannot be found. As in ‘titration’, the process of violent change is gradual, iterating across imperceptible degrees (still, it is violent):

I press the plush white towel / To my cheek. / This is titration: / A few moments to feel like / A complete human being.

In trauma theory, titration is a slowing down. The process of exposing a person to small amounts of trauma-related distress, moment by moment, to avoid devastation and to build resilience. In chemical analysis, titration is a steady speeding up. The process of adding a known quantity of one substance to another, drop by drop, provoking a controlled and measurable reaction. Kapil puts the ‘host-guest chemistry’ under a microscope, slowing it down and speeding it up (offering, to my mind, a revision of the ‘microaggression’: understood here as an act that, like a microscope, makes aggression perceptible, enlarges it, brings it closer, rather than – something more remissible – ‘a small aggression’).

The poems crack, dissociate and recombine these two components, host and guest. Another element is ‘like’. The host and the guest react to this word, fizz and flare up around it. It is a word that, host-like, tries to assimilate. The opening lines:

Like this? / It’s inky-early outside and I’m wearing my knitted scarf, like / John Betjeman, poet of the British past. / I like to go outside straight away and stand in the brisk air.

First, ‘like’ as preposition, which points us, guest-like, elsewhere: to the book’s title (‘Do you wash a heart like this?’), and to the British past. Then the welcome simplicity of ‘like’ as verb. Then, at the book’s centre, is the host-question, which demands that the guest’s experience make itself comparable, confrontable, similar: ‘What was it / Like?’ That moment of feeling ‘like’ (not knowing that you are) ‘a complete human being’. ‘Like’ in its oldest sense, from ga (with, together) -lik (body, form, same) – that which is with the body, that which conforms:

Yes, just like everyone else, / I had to deal / With the strong feelings / That moved through my body / Like sheets of rain

The language is mostly matter-of-fact, moving through a present, each phrase unwaveringly declarative or interrogative. Perhaps even the book’s structure is too tidy – five sequences, eight poems in each, of twenty or so lines. The kind of order a host will impose or a guest might fear imposing upon. Yet risk and threat are always present in the variable line breaks, an unsteadiness that evidences with every turn the ferocity of this struggle to account for oneself, to conform and to resist. Julia Kristeva, in Strangers to Ourselves: ‘The ear is receptive to conflicts only if the body loses its footing. A certain imbalance is necessary, a swaying over some abyss, for a conflict to be heard’. In Kapil’s hands, the lyric is one way to reproduce this imbalance.

Then there is the collection’s final poem and its final line, which does not sway. The hostile environment (that is, of the host, the other, the enemy) in twenty-two lines. The whole fantasy of forgetting differences, of imposing permanence, of recognising the foreigner only as what you think you already know, implodes. ‘The land gives way’. The honesty and economy of the preceding poems is somehow tested against the hard precision of these final moments in which the voice, an immigrant guest in the home of their citizen host, sees ‘the look’ and understands. The spell of the host-logic is broken. The urgent need for this demystification is obvious. The fact that it’s demonstrated or, even, enacted here with such patience, lightness and care, across forty poems and four blank pages, is almost miraculous. 

This review is taken from PN Review 259, Volume 47 Number 5, May - June 2021.

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