Devil’s Lake

Book Reviews

Bhanu Kapil: Schizophrene

“The human mind cannot remember or force itself to remember everything that happens. That would be asking it to go insane.”
—Javeel Alam, in “Remembering Partition”

That impossible insanity is the starting point in Schizophrene, the latest book of poems by Bhanu Kapil. Concerned with migration, memory, and madness, particularly within the context of the Partition of India, Schizophrene sets out its own project: to write an antidote to displacement and trauma. Here is how the book begins:

On the night I knew my book had failed, I threw it—in the form of a notebook, a hand-written final draft—into the garden of my house in Colorado.

“Maybe there’s another way to tell this quick, black tale,” the speaker offers a bit later. “Maybe I am not a writer.” But she is. Stylistically, Kapil’s writing is sensory, visionary, and nearly hallucinatory, reminiscent in its most synesthetic moments of Anne Carson. Set loosely in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities, the landscape includes “an indigo house leaking its color onto the grid like a cloud,” and “the wallpaper, which is velvet and cream with a bumpy motif of paisley swirls as per the era.” It wouldn’t be enough to say that Schizophrene is imagistic, although certainly colors, shapes, grids, and bodies all recur throughout. Schizophrene is concerned with the act of seeing, and how we narrate and make sense of that act within the context of trauma: “The bands of orange and gold light the little boat made were imperceptible to anyone but me. No, that’s never true in a communal space.” Perhaps, at least in this Partition story, writing is capable of healing to the extent that it pays attention to the visual—to what we see and have seen, but also, importantly, to what we cannot or will not see, as gestured to by a page in the book that is nothing but a solid black rectangle.

That question of truth and perception in communal space is one that runs throughout Schizophrene. The poems speak to the experience of living in a place (either a geographic or psychological place) that does not make sense to you and, conversely, to which you do not make sense: “All my life, I’ve been trying to adhere to the surface of your city, your three grey rectangles split into four parts: a red dot, the axis rotated seventy-six degrees, and so on.” Trying is the operative word. Trying, even if the violence is systemic, perpetuated through racism and violence, “Because,” Schizophrene suggests, “it is psychotic not to know where you are in national space.” After a stanza about schizophrenic narratives, Kapil writes, “I need a new pen.” Taken as non sequitur, the line acts as a rupture, violence against continuity, a symptom of fragmented reality. Taken metaphorically, we understand that the speaker wants a new way to write, a new tool. That this pen, this avowal is not enough.
If all of that sounds heavy, that’s because it is. But one of the miracles of Schizophrene is how it also manages to feel light, generous, and even beautiful. Spatially, the text floats in an abundance of white space. If it is about psychosis, it is also an attempt to heal. In the book’s notes, Kapil writes that in her research, she discovered that schizophrenics respond just as well to repeated light touch as to anti-psychotic meditation, and as such, “In making a book that barely said anything, I hoped to offer: this quality of touch.” What is the possibility for poetry to enact an embodied healing for (dis)embodied pain? For a book about the reverberations of Partition, Schizophrene also contains flickers of something incredibly tender: “You are like a textured swatch. I am preternaturally still, my fingers stroking the fur of the wall behind my thighs.” Kapil lays out the possibility for a kind of transformative ghost erotics, that is, how to feel the presence of absence and be healed by it (“what if the ghost is empty because it’s making a space for you?”).

In one of the most moving moments, Kapil writes, “I cannot make a map of healing and so this is a map of what happened in a particular country on a particular day.” But what if the attempt at the map could itself be the map? I believe Schizophrene succeeds because of its acknowledgements of its own failure, not despite. For Hélène Cixous, "Writing is the delicate, difficult and dangerous means of succeeding in avowing the unavowable." The map is where we articulate the impossibility of what we write, and then we write anyway. Schizophrene is Kapil writing anyway. It is not just experimental; it is an experiment, enacts an experiment, direly, tenderly, intrinsically.

Bhanu Kapil
Nightboat Books, 2011