Bhanu Kapil’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection is a phenomenal dissection of a clash of cultures and multi-varied senses of identity
Originally Published: Liverpool University Press, 2020
Poetry obsessives will recognise How to Wash a Heart as the winner of the 2021 T. S. Eliot Prize. They’ll also recognise that poetry criticism is often laced with a sort of authoritarian, imposed worth. The idea that T. S. Eliot’s work itself is the high watermark of poetic substance is problematic at best. But in this case, Bhanu Kapil’s latest collection really *IS* that good.
In an interview with Liverpool University Press, Kapil said:
‘The culture of detention and family separations on the U.S.- Mexico border, repatriation protocols in the U.K., and the aggression towards minority populations in contemporary India are the water of this book…’
In that light, the dangerously homogenising term ‘immigrant experience’, the dynamic between guests and hosts and multitudinous senses of ‘belonging’ slot together seamlessly. Though they may not have been the collection’s original impetus in terms of imagery, they’re bought to life with beautiful urgency.
Identity, Surrealism and Poetic Perfection
The lack of ownership here, it’s possible to read, is reflected by the fact that all the poems are untitled. But the notion of reclaiming a life and identity is central too.
Throughout the collection, conversations between heart and head, culture and personality, Westernisation and assimilation all mirror the confusion. There’s a deep sense of a wholesome figure throughout, though its spirit is fraught with fractures. It’s a beautifully refreshing, watery and translucent assertion of self and home.
Kapil’s real magic is capturing a resonant moment in the simplest of phrases. See, for example, how a comment like ‘when you left’ denotes her exposure to new cultures and environments that are openly hostile. Or how ‘on the windowsill’ repeatedly illustrates that sense of being on the inside looking out, or vice versa.
Anxiety, paranoia and the predatory nature of colonialism are constant mines of thought and are encapsulated by surreally perfect phrases: ‘Am I your queen?’, or ‘Psychosis creams the air giving it a peculiar richness and depth.’ Those anxiety attacks are sometimes brilliantly conjoined with surrealist humour too, such as:
‘When was the last time you saw a werewolf? It’s extraordinary how afraid I am all the time.’
Where Does the West Really Stand?
She also checkmates the western approach to immigration and ‘otherness’ in genuinely novel ways. With well-balanced anger she references the wilful ignorance of questions about her life that completely disregard her Indian heritage; ‘I want to hear what happened afterwards not before’.
She hands the disingenuous western sense of altruism back to us on the plate – we may act as if we’re doing immigrants a kindness or favour, but when that altruism is fake, the receiver sees right through it.
A short version of this review would read simply that this is one of those collections that makes you feel loose-limbed and liquid with how beautiful it is. It unremittingly deserves all its plaudits, but the platitudes of winning a prize don’t go deep enough in mining its cultural worth. It’s a phenomenal piece of work.
You can Purchase How To Wash a Heart here.