Bhanu Kapil, poet and performance artist, recently won the TS Eliot prize for How to Wash a Heart. Kapil, born in Britain to Indian parents, recently returned to the UK after years in North America. She explains, in her afterword, how the work was triggered by a news item about a “couple in California who had offered a room in their home to a person with a precarious visa status”. Kapil was unsettled by the photograph of the citizen host in the newspaper, observing “taut muscles around her mouth as she smiled”. She felt “something I could not put words to when I read her ornate way of describing the hospitality she was offering”.
Finding the necessary words became Kapil’s project. In her earlier work, she has written about trauma in the south Asian diaspora. Here, trauma is amplified by displacement. There is a deliberately uncomfortable sense of breaking a taboo in being critical of hospitality, of seeing its – in this instance – self-serving complexity and nouveau colonialism. This is an extended song about “host-guest chemistry”, about mutinous dependence. By implication, it establishes that real hospitality should not be merely about food and shelter, let alone about a host’s self-congratulation. It should be about creating the conditions in which a guest can feel free.
The language Kapil uses is unstable: you never know where you are with it – any more than the guest knows how to situate herself – and this defines the work’s uncomfortable atmosphere, swivelling between compliance and resistance. There is a poem that begins by describing the “host’s gleaming hair” that “responds beautifully to the shampoo / She has set out for us. / What’s mine is yours, / She says with a sweet smile.” So far, so glossy. But sweetness sours when the guest is banned from going out with the host’s adopted Filipino daughter. And the poem then slides into obscenity (the host’s thoughts, it would seem):
I can smell your vagina.
Are you wearing your genitals
As a brooch?
You might reasonably object that much of this writing is too perfunctory to be poetry, only that objection quickly starts to be frivolously beside the point. For Kapil’s memorable protest depends upon her ability to overturn poetic expectation. She is never conventional, although sometimes she lulls us into a false sense of security. An apparently nostalgic set piece begins: “My grandfather fermented the yoghurt / With rose petals / And sugar then buried it/In the roots of a mango tree.” But one would be unwise to relax, for the mango tree “once concealed a kill”. Elsewhere, she describes the guest taking flight from her home country in a taxi:
My secret is this:
Though we lost all our possessions,
A strange relief
To see my home explode in the rearview mirror.
And where does the heart come in? The collection began as an event at the ICA in 2019 – an artistic collaboration with Kapil’s sister, Rohini, involving red ice cubes thrown out into the Mall to melt. But which heart needs washing? I’d like to vote for the host’s, although it is revealing to read (in the afterword) about a cardiologist who educates about the way a heart registers trauma. One cavil: Kapil’s use of pronouns is maddeningly unclear – the “you” too often guesswork. But an assertive beauty surfaces from turmoil. After the host’s “Make a list of what you need / And I will get it, you ungrateful cow”, the guest responds: “This is what I need: / The light and the heat and the yesterday / Of my work.” That “yesterday” sings for its supper.
• How to Wash a Heart by Bhanu Kapil is published by Liverpool University Press (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
This host-guest chemistry
Is inclusive, complex, molecular,
Does the host envelop
The guest or does the guest
Attract diminished forms
Of love, like the love
A parent has for a child
And January, when the child
Is at its most
Are these questions enough
Your desire for art
That comes from a foreign
What are the limits
Of this welcome?
After all, I don’t feel anything