Thursday, December 13, 2012

BAN by BHANU KAPIL

JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Engages

BAN by Bhanu Kapil
(manuscript in progress, with excerpts blogged on Bhanu Kapil’s blog and made available elsewhere online)

Not the Novel, Not-Not the Novel: On Bhanu Kapil’s BAN
John Bloomberg-Rissman


“Bhanu Kapil is the author of four full-length works of prose and poetry: The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space of monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), and Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011).  This summer, she is teaching a workshop at the intersection of performance and the novel at Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program.  During the year, she teaches full-time at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, and part-time for Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.  She also maintains a part-time practice as an integrative bodyworker, focusing on Ayurvedic treatments.  Born in the UK to Indian parents, Bhanu, ‘dreams of turning into a female Michael Ondaatje, writing proper novels in her garage, which has been converted into a solar-heated hut.  If that doesn’t work out, she will continue to write anti-colonial literatures and pioneer new spa treatments. Currently, she is working on a paste of chickpea flour, turmeric and rose petals that is guaranteed to brighten even the most winter-bound skin.’”

(Roland Saifi, “Unfold is the wrong word: An Interview with Bhanu Kapil”, at http://htmlgiant.com/author-spotlight/unfold-is-the-wrong-word-an-interview-with-bhanu-kapil/ HTMLGIANT, 18 April 2012)


For the past three years or so Kapil has been beating her whole self against something called BAN. It is, apparently, a novel, perhaps a “proper novel”, perhaps the novel that will turn her “into a female Michael Ondaatje”, though her readers also know that “novel” is a polysemous term in her hands. It is my contention here that:

1. She has already written it, or at least a version of it, which I will call BAN1.

2. It is only a novel in the very most polysemous sense. [I will not make much of this contention here. I will only say that it is as much epic as novel, as much autobiography as epic, as much a work of postcolonial and cultural studies as autobiography, and probably more trans-genre, and certainly more trans-media, than any of these things]

3. The text that best illuminates BAN for me is Maurice Blanchot’s “The Instant of My Death”.

4. The only importance of what I have to say here, for me at least, is that BAN1 not be lost sight of in the struggle to achieve BAN2, because BAN1 is an extraordinarily profound and moving work. I have another reason, too, which I will save til the end.

*

As best I can tell, some of the major incidents that Kapil is trying to tie together in BAN are a race riot, the death (which is somehow concurrent with the riot) of a young girl, Ban, on a London sidewalk and a second death, which occurs years later, also to Ban, when she is 37, the same age Ana Mendieta was at her death.

But in some ways this is not a book of incidents. It is a book of dislocations, of losses of culture and identity, I should say cultures and identities. Kapil has describes this as an anti-colonial book (Schizophrene, p.71). Not being a colonial except in the most general Jewish-disaporic sense, I can’t be sure what this means, an anti-colonial book, nor do I want to impose meaning on it. I will just note that Kapil was born in India, raised in England, and now resides in the US. I sense that none of that is irrelevant.

In (a poem-essay, or precursor: NOTES for a novel: Ban en Banlieues) (I take Ban en Banlieues as some sort of mix / version / alternate title of BAN), she has other “names” for it, or for the character Ban (which I admit I can’t always distinguish):“A pseudonym, a stupid fragment … A fragment with its sticky edges rotating in a wet, dark space … A schizophrenic sentence … **** a door you can’t go back through …”

Elsewhere in her writing one can find many other attempts at definitions. Since I am no longer Melville’s sub-sub I have no obligation to compile all of them. I will just note that they can all be found in BAN1.

But I do want you to make note of what I’ve excerpted from (a poem essay, or precursor …). I do want you to please make note of them. 

*

because I want to put the x in animal, which has gender weight but which I actually visualize as the xxo that ends a letter, the duplicate, tactile kiss — or, as in x marks the spot: predation.  How do sentences attract? What kills them? What splits them open, releasing their contents into a field?  The pale blue oval of a river?  I’ve been reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet as a way to begin writing on the “metabiology” of diaspora, for a class I’m teaching this semester at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, far away, I think, from the place that you are reading this.  I don’t know.  Hi.  Haraway: “The corpse is not the body.”  Plus: “The world is not finished.”  She writes about the ashes of her father, a Denver sportswriter, as “consigned” to the earth; her faith in the “making and unmaking” of bodies that release their material signs into the streaming of everything else that is dead and living.  As an abiogenetic model, I understand it completely — and it makes me understand why I’ve killed Ban, the figure I am writing to in a new project, off.  I kill her off because you need something dead. …

I said goodnight to my friend and wrote this sentence, a sentence I recorded, I guess, in my notebook: “he cut off her nose and she ran screaming back into the forest to her brother.”  It’s a sentence from the Ramayana, retold by a refugee.  I thought about how a refugee might re-tell a fairytale of the place where they were from.  How certain sentences might function as accounts of violence, the images transplanted to a different scene, which is circuitry.

It allows the death to keep moving.  
           
(Bhanu Kapil, “Animaux”, at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2010/01/animaux/ Jan 14 010 Poetry Foundation)

What does that mean: “It allows the death to keep moving”? Especially when it follows the recounting of a story in which there is violence but no death, at least not in the story as told: “he cut off her nose and she ran screaming back into the forest to her brother”? A death keeps moving but there is no death. I will use the Wikipedia version, because it is the most concise:

The widowed Surpanakha spent her time between Lanka and the forests of Southern India, visiting her Asura, forest-dwelling relatives, from time to time. According to the Valmiki Ramayana, during one such visit, she met the exiled Rama, the young Prince of Ayodhya, and was immediately smitten by his youthful good looks. Rama, however, spurned her advances, telling her that he was devoted to his wife, Sita, and that he would never take another wife. Rama then slyly suggested that she approach his younger brother, Lakshmana, with her proposition. Lakshmana reacted in a similar manner, deriding Surpanakha and telling her that she was not what he desired in a wife. Realizing eventually that the brothers were making fun of her, the humiliated and jealous Surpanakha attacked Sita but was thwarted by Lakshmana, who cut off her nose and sent her back to Lanka.

The death that keeps moving, then, is Surpanakha’s, who, clearly, does not die (she is sent back to Lanka). There are a few important elements that are left out of this version, that are important, that help link Kapil’s association of this incident with the death that does not die. First, there is the fact that Surpanakha is singled out by the brothers for her “ethnicity” (they recognize that underneath the human appearance she has assumed she is foreign / not human and therefore consider her grotesque and well beyond ugly). Second, it is at least in part because of this that they choose to cruelly torment her by making fun of her and cutting off her nose.

Now let me compare this incident from the Ramayana to Kapil’s “Writing/not-writing: th[a][e] Diasporic Self: Notes Towards a Race Riot Scene”:

In April 1979, I was ten years old. I am writing about the day I was caught, by a gang of boys, coming home from school: a fact from which the novel [BAN – JBR] derives.  Like cells taken from the body; now pulsing in the dish.

Interestingly, and tellingly, I think, Kapil, given this terrifying incident from 1979, casts herself as Surpanakha when linking the Ramayana incident with the death that does not die. She is the foreigner / the ugly / the inhuman / the insulted/ the mocked / the shamed. I have no way of knowing the race(s) of the boys that will torment her. I will risk a wager here: since they are associated with the race riot in her bodysoulmind complex, they are effectively white. I will risk another: that the death that does not die is at least in part her loss of Englishness (which almost rhymes with innocence), something she will carry around with herself for the rest of her life. “**** a door you can’t go back through …” This is one way to understand the meaning of “a death that does not die”.

I suppose there are many ways to approach this question. But, given my own personal frames of reference, I am immediately, apparently without volition, drawn to “The Instant of My Death” by Maurice Blanchot:

I remember a young man - a man still young - prevented from dying by death itself - and perhaps the error of injustice.
The Allies had succeeded in getting a foothold on French soil. The Germans, already vanquished, were struggling in vain with useless ferocity.
In a large house (the Château, it was called), someone knocked at the door rather timidly. I know that the young man came to open the door to guests who were presumably asking for help.
This time, a howl: “Everyone outside.”
A Nazi lieutenant, in shamefully normal French, made the oldest people exit first, and then two young women.
“Outside, outside.” This time, he was howling. The young man, however, did not try to flee but advanced slowly, in an almost priestly manner. The lieutenant shook him, showed him the casings, bullets; there had obviously been fighting; the soil was a war soil.
The lieutenant choked in a bizarre language. And putting the casings, the bullets, a grenade under the nose of the man already less young (one ages quickly), he distinctly shouted: “This is what you have come to.”
The Nazi placed his men in a row in order to hit, according to the rules, the human target. The young man said, “At least have my family go inside.” So it was: the aunt (ninety-four years old); his mother, younger; his sister and his sister-in-law; a long, slow procession, silent, as if everything had already been done.
I know - do I know it - that the one at whom the Germans were already aiming, awaiting but the final order, experienced then a feeling of extraordinary lightness, a sort of beatitude (nothing happy, however) - sovereign elation? The encounter of death with death?
In his place, I will not try to analyze. He was perhaps suddenly invincible. Dead -- immortal. Perhaps ecstasy. Rather the feeling of compassion for suffering humanity, the happiness of not being immortal or eternal. Henceforth, he was bound to death by a surreptitious friendship.
At that instant, an abrupt return to the world, the considerable noise of a nearby battle exploded. Comrades from the maquis wanted to bring help to one they knew to be in danger. The lieutenant moved away to assess the situation. The Germans stayed in order, prepared to remain thus in an immobility that arrested time.
Then one of them approached and said in a firm voice, “We’re not Germans, Russians,” and, with a sort of laugh, “Vlassov army,” and made a sign for him to disappear.
I think he moved away, still with the feeling of lightness, until he found himself in a distant forest, named the “Bois des bruyères,” where he remained sheltered by trees he knew well. In the dense forest suddenly, after how much time, he discovered a sense of the real. Everywhere fires, a continuous succession of fires; all the farms were burning. A little later, he learned that three young men, sons of farmers - truly strangers to all combat, whose only fault was their youth - had been slaughtered.
Even the bloated horses, on the road, in the fields, attested to a war that had gone on. In reality, how much time had elapsed? When the lieutenant returned and became aware the young chatelaine had disappeared, why did anger, rage, not prompt him to burn down the Château (immobile and majestic)? Because it was the Château. On the facade was inscribed, like an indestructible reminder, the date 1807. Was he cultivated enough to know this was the famous year of Jena, when Napoleon, on his small gray horse, passed under the windows of Hegel, who recognized in him the “spirit of the world,” as he wrote to a friend? Lie and truth: for as Hegel wrote to another friend, the French pillaged and ransacked his home. But Hegel knew how to distinguish the empirical and the essential. Everything was searched, however. Some money was taken; in a separate room, "the high chamber," the lieutenant found papers and a sort of thick manuscript - which perhaps contained war plans. Finally he left. Everything was burning, except the Château. The Seigneurs had been spared.
No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.
This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.
There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if death outside of him could only henceforth collide with death in him. “I am alive. No, you are dead.”

---------------

Later, having returned to Paris, he met Malraux, who said that he had been taken prisoner (without being recognized) and that he had succeeded in escaping, losing a manuscript in the process. “It was only reflections on art, easy to reconstitute, whereas a manuscript would not be." With Paulhan, he made inquiries which could only remain in vain.

What does it matter. All that remains is the feeling of lightness that is death itself or, to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance.

(tr. Elizabeth Rottenberg)

“It allows the death to keep moving”, then, held always in abeyance in some perpetual “future anterior” … something that has already happened that has yet to come, that will never come … constantly receding …

The death keeps moving because one is still alive.

But it’s a little more complicated in that, because also:

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond. I know, I imagine that this unanalyzable feeling changed what there remained for him of existence. As if death outside of him could only henceforth collide with death in him. “I am alive. No, you are dead.”

What if the I and the you in that last sentence are one? Or, rather, one split? Alive AND dead? Into say, someone who can die twice yet not quite die even once? At, say 10, and again, say, at 37? Into Ban … and Ban?

[Note: In BAN1 there is little about the second death/non-death, at 37]

“I am alive. No, you are dead.” Alive and not alive.  


*

There are at least two metaphors Kapil has used to describe her compositional process. One is that of finding the nodes and connecting them. There are a number of nodes mentioned in Schizophrene. The other (contradictory? paradoxical?) metaphor is that of the orbital. From her interview with Saifi: “Looping the city, Ban is an orbital of smoke.” From another interview, this one with Stephanie Luczajko, at http://www.tingemagazine.org/an-interview-with-bhanu-kapi/ Tinge 2: “… Schizophrene began as a mesh — essays, poems, questions, talks in class at Naropa, notebook entries, early attempts at a longer work — in the late 1990s, even as I was beginning a similar orbital process with humanimal …”

What is an orbital? A ring road. And the towns and suburbs that line it. And the culture that forms there (J G Ballard’s Kingdom Come is a recent novel that focuses on that culture, in which, in his version at least, race is not least on that culture’s agenda). Circling and circling the center but never approaching …

So there’s a complex geometry in play in the struggle to create BAN2. Nodes, orbitals …  All of which scare me. Because they imply, to me, at least, a map that is other than the territory. A map that leaves things out.  

*

So what is BAN? As Kapil tells Saifi:

The re-loop, the degradation.  The neomort‘s address [cry.]  My “neomort” is an Indian girl.  To write her, I theorize vectors rather than — trying to understand her, I suppose.  This not trying feels closer to life.  To indifference.  To what it’s actually like: to circulate.  To be/never be.  I am not trying to speak in some kind of code; this is my subject matter.  I can’t seem to have a subject matter without these other kinds of preceding actions and thoughts: the “pre” — as I called it, when I was thinking through the monster.  For the neomort (the girl) (the Ban): all I seem capable of writing is the line that diasppears.  A girl walking home in the first minutes of a race riot, before it might even be called that — the sound of breaking glass as equidistant, as happening/coming (simultaneously) from the street and her home.  The violence is, in this very faint sound of breaking glass, understood (felt) by the body — as racial, sexual, social: at once.  In a literature, how do you write a traumatic narrative without coding for aftermath: the act of narration itself?  I want a literature that is not made from literature.  At the same time, what is this text that loops, inexorably, through ivy/asphalt/glass/girl combinations?  Abraded as it goes?  (Friction.) (Concordance.)  I think, too, of the challenge (in/for a literature) of reproducing (writing): the doppler effect of curved, passing sound that has no fixed source.  In a literature, what would happen to the girl?  Would it be a choice: to walk home (into what?) or away from home, towards the riot proper?  I think, in order to create a movement, there would have to be a choice that I represented somehow, as a writer: I would have to choose a direction and track that, as a narrative activity.  Instead, when I stay with the girl — writing her body in the tiniest increments of its failure to “orient”:  I understand that she is collapsing.  To her knees; then to her side.  It has taken me two years of writing this newest book to understand that my character is committing suicide; that is: exerting “sovereignty” over herself.  At the beginning of this writing, when she “stopped,” I thought about her physical ambivalence as the “choice” she was making; but as her body settled on the asphalt and she turned her face to the ivy, I saw tiny mirrors positioned there — like a Robert Smithson installation.  The London street a tiny jungle: dark green, silver and shimmering a bit, from the gold/brown tights she was wearing under her skirt.  In order to write a girl who stops walking and lies down on a street in the opening scene of a riot that is a real riot — an historical riot — I had to stop trying to make a literature out of what I was doing.  This is why, perhaps, theory works better from here on out, as a way to speak about suicide/the body/performance: this other physical space or activity that’s happening inside the larger scene.  The event of the riot, for example, decays around the body of the girl lying on the street, and at points I am more interested in the rain falling upon her.  In the loose genetics of what makes this street real, the freezing cold, vibrating weather sweeping through South-east England at 4 p.m. on an April afternoon is very painful.  There is a mixture of imaginary and true things happening in the text.  The sensory panel, or circuitry, wires across them: so that sometimes the girl opens her eyes, and sometimes she is dead; sometimes there is a historical day and sometimes there is a street scene reduced to its symbolic elements.  The vector is obliterated.  Everything is so fast, so slow, so wet.  Is this theory?  I want to document the forces a body comes to bear or withstand, not through the articulation of those forces but, rather, their impressions.  This is why a raindrop indents the concrete with atomic intensity.  This is why the dark green, glossy leaves of the ivy are so green: multiple kinds of green: as night falls on the “skirt.”  The outskirts of London: les banlieues.


Ban is a mixture of dog shit and bitumen (ash) scraped off the soles of running shoes: Puma, Reebok, Adidas.  Looping the city, Ban is an orbital of smoke.  To summarize, she is the parts of something re-mixed as air: integral, rigid air, circa 1972-1979.  She’s a girl. A black girl in an era when, in solidarity, Caribbean and Asian Brits self-defined as black.  A black (brown) girl encountered in the earliest hour of a race riot, or what will become one by nightfall.  April 23rd, 1979: by morning, anti-racism campaigner, Blair Peach, will be dead.  It is, in this sense, a real day; though Ban is unreal.  She’s both dead and never-living: the part, that is, of life that is never given: an existence.  What, for example, is born in England, but is never, not even on a cloudy day, English?  Under what conditions is a birth not recognized as a birth?  Answer: Ban.  And from Agamben’s Homo Sacer, the accompanying concern of sovereignty and sacrifice: the capacity for a banished person to be murdered.  To step beyond the boundary of the city, in medieval Europe, was to stop living, a marker of which was murder: how can a person be killed when they are “already dead”?  And from Ban: “banlieues.” (The former hunting grounds of King Henry VIII.  Earth-mounds.  Oaks split into several parts by a late-century lightning storm.)  These suburbs are, in places, leafy and industrial; the Nestle factory spools a milky, lilac effluent into the Grand Union canal that runs between Hayes and Southall.  Ban is ten.  Ban is nine.  Ban in eight.  Ban is a girl walking home from school just as a protest starts to escalate; the National Front have decided to hold their annual meeting in the council hall of a neighborhood with an almost entirely immigrant — Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Bangladeshi community.  Pausing at the corner of Lansbury Drive and the Uxbridge Road, she hears something: the far-off sound of breaking glass.  Is it coming from her home or is it coming from the street’s distant clamor?  Faced with these two sources of a sound she instinctively links to violence, the potential of violent acts, Ban lies down.  At first, she’s frozen, then folds to the ground.  This is syntax.  From Agamben, I derive the new idea that by doing so, she is exerting sovereignty over herself: she is sacrificing herself.  Is she?  Ban lies down on the sidewalk next to the ivy.  I narrate that, and this writing is the bulk of my activity between September 2010 and February 2012.  I narrate a person’s decision to lie down forever on the ground, in the rain, in England.  As even more time passes, as the image or instinct to form this image desiccates, as Ban herself becomes a kind of particulate matter, I place tiny mirrors in the ivy behind her body.  I think about the cyclical and artificial light that falls upon her in turns.  Or perhaps the mirrors deflect evil.  Perhaps they protect her from a horde of boys in laced-up Doc Martens, or perhaps they illuminate — in strings of weak light — the part of the scene when these boys, finally, arrive.  I don’t know.  This is the part of Ban — a novel of the race riot — my first formal attempt at an anti-colonial literature — that still continues.  In March, I am going to London, to lie down in the place I am from, where this work is set: on the street I am from.  In the rain.  Next to the ivy.  As I did, for Schizophrene, on the border of Pakistan and India: the two Punjabs.  Nobody sees someone do this.  I want to feel it in my body — the root cause.

I don’t want a word of this left out. But (I think, recklessly and irresponsibly and without warrant) that there’s more to BAN than this. She goes on to note (and before I quote I want to make clear that I could have structured this essay around Kapil’s blog posts, or any of a number of her other publications, there’s nothing unique about this interview, it’s just – in its way – representative:

I spend half my time staring at a mobile butcher’s block. The three wire cages are filled with notebooks and on the chopping board are the books I think will help me resolve the problems I am working on. On top of that is an A4 sized moleskine that sits without a word in it. I thought it would be a substitute for a computer. I was meant to write a first draft during Winter break, but did not.  Should have stuck to a spiral bound college ruled jobby. And so dear Rowland, for all my big talk about theory, I am obsessed with the desire to write a work of literature. I behave like a failed novelist on a regular basis. I recriminate myself for not having come up with a form: for example. I re-read the first three pages of every Sebald novel in my house. I force myself to read Cassandra by Christa Wolf but give up by nightfall.  I get my mother to knit me a blue and white sweater with a unicorn on the back, and Clarice Lispector’s “exploding star” positioned on the stomach.  All of this is performance. When what I really want is to burst out of my own skin.  There is no such thing as skin. 

All this, every word in every notebook, every sketch, the blue and white sweater, every detail in every blog post, is part of BAN. Because during this time of struggling with it, everything is. It constitutes what I call BAN1. What is my “sanction” for this? In part, it’s something Kapil herself has written, which I have quoted above: BAN is “A fragment with its sticky edges rotating in a wet, dark space.” As I read it BAN (BAN1, at least), with its sticky edges, is something to which everything, in the strictest sense, in Kapil’s life accretes.

*

Here’s some more accretion. This is from Kapil’s “Notes for Ban: an infantile bank”, at http://www.everyday-genius.com/2010/07/bhanu-kapil.html Everyday Genius (a text which reappears in (a poem-essay, or precursor: NOTES for a novel: Ban en Banlieues)):

1.

Or diptych. A presentation, pre-soaked. Quiet. It's so quiet before a book begins.

So quiet that when my nervous system hurts, so does the sentence, because that's all we have: each other. The sentence and I. We cope.

Met Andrew W. at Coda and after we’d settled down with our millet scones and tea, we made a pact to meet in Colorado, or virtually, a year from now, with novels. Novels set in the UK and that we have not written yet. Why? Some ideas: “Lazy.” “Time.” Andrew makes a list and when we part, I tuck it in my bag, which rips where the arm of it, the strap, meets the red cloth of the torso. Who wants to pay through the nose for new accommodations? Not I.

This is a bank for sentences. All the tellers are out to lunch. Customers purge on Newsweek and cappuccino in a central lobby designed so poorly that sometimes, before the agent returns, they leave. Some places, like the sloping bar-stool seats McDonalds pioneered in the late 1980s, eject you from your childhood position.

Anything but talk about Ban. I would talk about pedophilia before I talked about Ban. Her left leg or arm. As a child, I lay down on the bed like a sentence not written yet. Out came a pen. Out came paper. I have a memory of the paper slipping under my hips, for example.

To historicize a somatics is to have a memory of public events that supersedes, perhaps, the grid of touch. Flowers, electricity, and even herbs. I place them in a vase. I flip the switch. A foreign body is a frequency. It’s a body flaring with violet light when you look away from the sheet and its matching pillow. These are notes, so I don’t have to go there. I don’t have to lie down with you. And I don’t.

Just as I never write.

Just as I prevent myself from writing at all costs.

Just as I do not love.

Just as I substitute fiction for prose, and prose for the sentences that, like animals.

Like schizophrenics.

Like wolves.

Emit light. Perceptible to the ones who also. Lie down on the ground. Lie down on the ground like that.

I think of a person I loved between the years 2004 and 2007, which were not years. They were hours. “Little hours”" as Andrew called them in Coda, a word that bears repeating. I think of how I lay down on the ground for him, thinking he would come, with coffee, and a blanket, but how, when morning came, I had frozen into a new position.

On a bank, where the stems transplant themselves upon our skin. Because we're dead. We lay down on the riverbank and never got up again. Our [*******] turned into red flowers that flared then rotted away, in the banal image of the body’s reproductive system appearing outside it, as a gent. The yellow stamen that stabilized the parts of the page that looked boring, when we glanced down at the page, just lying there, with its legs open.

2.

A book of time, for time and because of it.

A book for recovery from an illness. A book that repeats a sentence until that sentence recuperates its power to attract, or touch, other sentences.

A book as much poetry as it is a forbidden or unfunded area of research. The first thing to go when the bank fails. When the bank manager books his vacation to Costa Rica and blanks it out. His commitment. The strength of the British pound. An attendant menagerie of quotients, HR tips, and downtown rent.

I think of Roualt, who burned his paintings “due to criticism.” I think of Barbara, who went to the Art Institute of Chicago sixty years ago. She’s eighty, I think. Her husband has dementia. He’s an alcoholic, in fact, and we’re meeting about that. We’re meeting in a room. Barbara and I annoy the group when we veer off into conversations about art. Barbara says: “I painted rocks at the Art Institute.” She says: “Sometimes I can’t draw but I get some nice lines.” I invite her to my house and somehow she drives from Fort Collins, shaking like a leaf on its stem. It’s Barbara who tells me about Roualt, and about her marriage, which dominated this other part of life. Its feathers. Feral moments so valuable you never share them with anyone else.

Like finances.

Like the writings of Melanie Klein. They are a deep orange with a cream border and though I don't open the book, I keep it next to me as I write.

I go to the cafe to write, but am boxed in by two women close to my age. A bit younger or older. I can’t tell. The first one says: “He makes me feel like I’m smart and uber-attractive. Sure, I’m thirty-seven but I look like I’m thirty, don’t I? I have to show my ID every time I buy alcohol.” And then: “Here’s what you'll see. About twenty per cent of the females will be uber-pregnant. The thighs, lard ass.” In time, I understand that they are discussing an up-coming high school reunion. “They'll be pregnant,” says the second woman, “and fat. Unattractively fat.”

Perhaps, I think, I’ll set the bulk of my book in Haberdasher's Aske’s School for Girls.

Perhaps Ban will be dark, but also crystalline, like a high-school vampire. Like blending something in a pan.

The paper that lines the pan.

For cookies.

“I hate cookies almost as much as I hate white people.”

Says Ban, to begin.

To write a sentence with content more volatile that what contains it.

So that the page is shiny, wet and hard.

So that sentences are indents not records; the soulful presence of a vibrant man or girl rather than persistence.

Their capacity to touch you in the present time.

I could quote and quote and quote. All of this is BAN1.

*

OK. So why do I think all this goes in, besides the fact that I love it and don’t want to lose it? Why do I believe in BAN1? Cards on the table. My ultimate wager: BECAUSE Ban DIDN’T DIE. Ban was reprieved, exactly as was the unnamed narrator in the Blanchot. Both times, at 9 and 37. Remember above, where I wrote, of the mobile death, held always in abeyance in some perpetual future anterior of sorts … something that has already happened that has yet to come, that will never come … constantly receding … When that’s what happens to death, that’s what happens to life.

So how do I KNOW Ban didn’t die? First, because some things Kapil has written allows me the “liberty” of identifying Ban with Bhanu Kapil: that Ban is “[a] pseudonym, a stupid fragment …” and “But Ban is also Bhanu: an early nickname” (this latter from “Writing/not-writing: th[a][e] Diasporic Self: Notes Towards a Race Riot Scene”). If you prefer, I will substitute the word “know” with the word “believe”, but my belief is strong. I base it on Ban being a pseudonym and only a “stupid fragment” of Kapil herself.

And my evidence? Two recent blog posts. In the first, Ban, in the form of Bhanu Kapil and her 9-year-old niece (one for each death / not death???), completes the circle, lies on the sidewalk just where Ban did. The important section from the first post:

… The neighborhood itself was unrecognizable, ruined, as if emptied out then poured with concrete -- so that only the outlines and heights of the tower blocks, social housing and terraces were the same; the hairdresser was the same and had the old London number above the door, hand-written on the peeling white paint.  A strange mustard-colored pile of sand outside a car parts shop resembled the sawdust on the floor of the butcher's shop that it once was.  The wool shop and the fruit shop and the pharmacy were -- gone.  I walked through the walls into the ender-night of the wool shop, to recall its bales of scarlet hay.

Trash everywhere, the alleys that I flew down, my skirt catching on blackberry bushes -- blocked off and monitored with CCTV.

But there was my school.

There was the wall a gang of boys caught me against as a child.  They chased me and pinned me down.

There was the lunar, pale blue sky pouring over the red rooftops and chimneys like milk.

There was the pavement between the school and the street and there was the ivy tumbling down upon it.

I lay down my coat.  My niece lay down.  I lay down.  We took it in turns and then, with my cousin’s mobile phone, I took a photograph of the ivy with some pale cream shapes that my nephew made in school last week propped in it, as a stand in for mirrors.

I looked up at the sky.  We all did -- there was an insanely beautiful, short-circuiting rainbow directly above us, inside or upon the only bit of cloud in the sky.  Everyone agreed they had not seen such a phenomenon before.

There it is.  I did it.  I went back to the place I am from and repeated the simple activity that has dominated my life as a writer [emphasis mine – JBR]  What does it denote?  Should a writer try to understand the psychic location of passive actions?  Should a writer analyze a scene so exhaustively that the resolution of the book occurs beyond it?  No, probably the writer should not.  The writer should write.  But perhaps I needed to come here first. 

(“Ender-night: Ban”, at http://jackkerouacispunjabi.blogspot.com/2012/10/ender-night-ban.html Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi?)

“There it is. I did it. I went back to the place …”

Second: and ultimately, for my story of Kapil’s story, the post called “We”. Again, I will quote only the portion that I need:

“I crossed so many rivers I was numb to them.”  Willa Cather.

In the garden we drank green tea with mint in it.

A prediction is valuable only when it comes to be.

In the end, it wasn’t numbness -- it was the opposite of that; it was the beginning of being able to feel [again, my emphasis – JBR].

We climbed the wall, then decided to walk along it - though in places it was ten feet above the ground, tilted and cracked.  When the wind picked up, my friend screamed and I clung to the branches of a horse chestnut tree, screaming back.  We jumped off the wall and laughed and laughed, trembling and over-heated in our winter coats, leggings, boots and scarves.  My friend said: “That's enough forest for today.  Let's go and get some bread.”

We ate the bread like cats, dipping it in warm milk.

No.  We ate the bread like dogs, quickly, and with butter.

The wall they climbed belonged to the Sun King. Admittedly, not the King who colonized her life. Not the English King, not Rama. Yet a king nonetheless, and one of immense power and reach. An imperialist colonizing king, who can, perhaps, stand for all imperialist colonizing kings. For the rioters, for the gang of boys.

“In the end, it wasn’t numbness -- it was the opposite of that; it was the beginning of being able to feel … When the wind picked up, my friend screamed and I clung to the branches of a horse chestnut tree, screaming back …

[I think of the equally triumphant Tom Pickard poem, “High on the Walls”, here:

            strange to be higher
than a bird, to watch
them eat

when startled (the only
defence to be above)
take flight, and land
at my feet]
           
*****

John Bloomberg-Rissman is just past the halfway point of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch pasting stuff to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press). In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he is in the midst of two collaborations (one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick) has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. His is learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).


1 comment:

  1. THANKYOU John. This is amazing: a way to know what has taken shape before it has taken shape. Thank you for your effort in making an enquiry and in linking my work to Blanchot -- I once taught a class around his work in the Summer Writing Program at Naropa. I think what I love the most about him is his use of a failed grid. So -- I finished Ban, in my own way, in the last week ago and sent it off; I don't know if it will seem like a book state to the person reading it. But, that was my problem: how to electrocute her, in a way -- with the pink lightning -- to push along her: incarnation. To get her to die and thus flow off. I got the nutrients to wash off, all the blood and hair and ivy; but she is still there, like the stains leaves make at the end of Fall in countries where it rains. England. I didn't make the connection about the sun-king, but you're right; it echoed the boundary made by King Henry VIII -- and had boars in it. The French forest. The suburban forest. Anyway, thank you. I don't know what I made with Ban -- but you and your wide were correct that 37 brought death-bringing energy -- and that 9 did -- and that I am and am not Ban. Since completing, I have been attenuated to the realism of the justice process connected to the person who did die that day -- Blair Peach. There is something not quite ethical about the death in my novel, which is never a novel. Currently, I am reading Coetzee's Disgrace. That's a novel. I will stop writing now.

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