Reviewed by Anu Mahadev
Bhanu Kapil is no stranger to the world of immigration, fragmentation, the resulting experiences in a new land, the concept of a land left behind – neither place can be called home, or perhaps both can. Exile and diaspora is not entirely a new concept as far as Asian-American literature is concerned. But Kapil’s book of poems Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011) explores and maps the crucial connections between migration, racism, trauma and uniquely, mental instability, particularly the severe disorder and disease, schizophrenia. Schizophrenia, which literally means “To split the mind”, is defined in the Oxford American dictionary as a breakdown in relation between thought, emotion and behavior, that leads to a sense of mental fragmentation. The collection reads like a jumbled spate of thoughts and emotions as they come attacking, ravaging the brain. There is not much formatting, and visually the white spaces come alive to form an image that is in fact ultimately, broken. Rather than talk us through the disease, Kapil prefers that we approach feeling the experience – there is no start and no finish to this – as an infinite textured narrative that can be condensed into a chilling sensation. There is no extolling the virtues of either the event or the disease, it is simply a matter-of-fact stating of the facts, interwoven with the past, the present, perhaps the future distilled into seemingly simple questions. Simple queries that linger and float around in the brain long after every single word and white space has been read, absorbed and processed.
The premise of the book is the partition of British India into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan in 1947, the most traumatic event in the history of the Indian subcontinent. This essentially traded British rule for civil, ethnic and religious conflict and led to years of homelessness, riots and war. It was probably the largest ever – recorded mass exodus of the last millennium. Kapil analyses this situation and states that merely drawing a line between two places does not create separation – and that trauma, and its after effects cannot be confined to a singular time and place. She portrays how the shock of violence resurfaces at later, unexpected dates. She achieves this effect by refusing to add any definitive division between sections and creates great intensity in the fragments and generous white space. Like the surrealists, with the use of white/black space an text, Kapil experiments with hybridizations of prose, poetry, typeset, the shape of text which is rather unshaped in traditional or received ways of arranging sounds, lines, phrasings etc. Two potent subjects – mental illness and a schism, which without her skillful handling, could have become overtly sluggish – instead flow rapidly, but in no specific direction. The reader must figure out where to go, without a beginning or an end, to swim against the tide of the barrage of thoughts.
The book begins with a book being tossed out into the snow, an airplane, a ship, a suitcase, a ferry – all signifying departures. The title section (Section I) maps this complex web of departures and flight paths and weaves it with the mind of a schizophrenic, not following any consecutive order in the thought process, rather allowing it to wander. The pages are scattered with fragments of these thoughts and events, and after a few pages the reader begins to see how the fragments each take a life of their own and run with them. The perpetual leaving, constant departure, nonexistence of home, all signify a permanent splintering. Kapil sees what we cannot – a flux where the body always is – the resulting narrative, ‘a schizophrenic narrative’, that ‘cannot process the dynamic elements of an image.’ She wants to arrive – ‘these notes are directed towards the region I wanted to perceive but could not.’ Kapil mentions that after her inability to complete an epic about the partition, when she realized ‘her book had failed’ , she threw the handwritten final draft of it into her snowy garden in Colorado in 2007. She let it be there for the entire winter and then retrieved it months later – a damaged notebook, and began to write from its fragments. This act, in itself speaks volumes about her work. Her poems become poems of retrieval, and how she bridges the gap between what was and what will be becomes the center focus of Schizophrene.
She asks, ‘What kind of a person goes home? (19)’ , with the sad secret knowledge that home is in fact located simultaneously in several physical addresses as well as in ancestral memory, and that it requires commute time, crossing an international date line, and remembering what cannot be explained. The avoidance she mentions —the fear of re-connecting, arriving/returning and writing—are symbolized in the failure, the release, the throwing of the book into the dark garden. This particular moment becomes a crucial part of the book – it is re-examined several times though the course of the narrative. Touch, then, becomes a big part of this fragmented narrative. She writes in the Quick notes at the end of the book, ‘From cross-cultural psychiatry, I learned that light touch, regularly and impersonally repeated, in the exchange of devotional objects, was as healing, for non-white subjects (schizophrenics) as antipsychotic medication. In making a book that barely said anything, I hoped to offer: this quality of touch. (71)’ The book thus functions as a repository of touches, that heal and restore. ‘Schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly many times’, she states.
The work is also about the act of writing itself, as a method to healing. The writing process weaves through trauma that is inherited and experienced, while the writer moves across continents. The act of writing is a kind of meditation in itself, on how to write through pain, displacement and psychosis, leading to stability. The author confronts her own history through her writing, discards what she writes, only to be haunted by the questions that linger and then proceeds to reveal the answers, accepting violence and loss through the images left to her, thus creating her own personal record for a historical event. Her diction is strong yet supple, bringing out the truth in her experiences. Her range and control for the multiple textures that senses can bring forth is illustrated when she writes, ‘They’re walking into that, the darkness pouring into their mouths when they reach the hills’, or when she says, ‘I went to Vimhans in New Delhi, poking holes with my umbrella in the shimmering air’, she uses surrealism to effortlessly describe the varied textures in the atmosphere that make up the poem.
Kapil seamlessly threads together contrasting images of violence with physical textures such that they become one with each other to create this complete image that neither sums up nor preaches, but rather just presents it unapologetically. ‘There are perhaps eleven faces pressed to the blood-speckled window, banging on the glass with their foreheads. Being white, with the delicate skin that accompanies race, they bruise easily. They are looking at the unfolding scene with a boo and a hiss and a You fucking Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding animal. Later, they make a low roar when we, the two of us, back away from the table until our spines are pressed flat against the wallpaper, which is velvet and cream with a bumpy motif of paisley swirls as per the era.’ The gist of this very powerful book is that though it may be repetitive it is not redundant by any means. The short prose vignettes coupled with white spaces, are methodical, staid and well-defined.
The subject of schizophrenia must have been fascinating to the poet, given that she is often drawn to the ‘others’, the ones that don’t quite fit in – the outsider, the immigrant, the ones that don’t belong. While immigrants and border-crossers are very visible, tangible personalities, the ones with a mental disorder are not – the root cause lies within memory and history, and the lasting effects on the subject. Here again, the split within the brain (or the heart), becomes relevant – as it is comparable to the subject she examines closely – the partition (or split). The penultimate section, ‘Partition’ begins with ‘My mother’s mother put a hand over my mother’s mouth, but my mother saw, peeking between the slats of the cart, row after row of women tied to the border trees. “Their stomachs were cut out”, said my mother. This story, which really wasn’t a story but an image, was repeated to me at many bedtimes of my own childhood.// Sometimes I think it was not an image at all but a way of conveying information.’ It is interesting that the mother chooses to cover the mouth, and not the eyes! The scene is no doubt shocking, but it’s almost as if the gesture signifies that she can look but she cannot speak of what she has seen. Perhaps it was to keep the child from screaming. To inherit and bear witness and retell the story to a generation that wasn’t alive to see the horrors that actually took place, is a fine opportunity to delve further into yet another dimension and this enhances the meditative effect of the poem.
The partition therefore serves as a strong connector between all these different facets of that era to the current generation. These images bear the weight of the responsibility of being conveyed in a manner that is simple neither in its telling nor its significance, of connecting countries, generations, memories, experiences, yet being fluid and malleable and elusive as a border would be. Kapil probes further, rejecting the usual methods of storytelling by saying, ‘But this is to individuate a common sorrow in the time extending from August 1947 to the present era, which is already past.Folds generate density on a contour map but for what? A map is a kind of short term memory : the genealogy of a historical time versus the chronology of geographical form. No. I need a different way to make this decision.’
Love, loss and the ties that bind us – these are some of the things NJ based poet Anu Mahadev writes about. There are the occasional travels and other life experiences tossed in for flavor, but she makes her voice heard through her glorious imagery and metaphor-infused language. Poetry as a medium of expression liberates her and lets her choose who she wants to be on every page, as a musical storyteller.