CUTBANK REVIEWS: Humanimal by Bhanu Kapil
by Bhanu Kapil
Kelsey Street Press, 2009
Review by Brandon Shimoda
You are beginning to look like other people. My heart sinks. It not only sounds like a death sentence, it is. What one was afraid to say, not what one did. It need and not be said. To look like other people is to have had one’s personhood erased, tamed into a normal pattern. What one looks like and how one looks. From the incitation of art to the vision of one who is earth makes it eternal. Assimilation, integration, acclimation, these, among the gestures of the never-ending age. And now I want to write. But not this. Something else. Maybe best to preserve the humanimal? Without whom there can be no art, no poetry.
I want to make a dark mirror out of writing. I have found myself stuck innumerable times in the story I am attempting, partly because the story itself is innumerable stories and I cannot make them cohere. I mean another story, again, not this one; this is a “review.” I am on the outer edge of something that is, Bhanu Kapil assures me in her writing, happening. On page 29 of Humanimal, Bhanu does something I think—it makes me think, or realize—is, though not the point, anyway, an important documentary moment: she lies on the ground beneath the music. She is in the company of French filmmakers; they are in Midnapure, West Bengal, India, making a documentary film on human-wolf relations, into which they have—or are—including Bhanu and her researching two young girls who, in the 1920s, Midnapure, were discovered living among a family of wolves. This is Humanimal. In this scene—inside and outside; page 29—the filmmakers have hired the local folkloric theater, a troupe funded by the state’s Marxist council, to re-enact the capture of a girl by a wolf. That’s fucking incredible. Anyway, though Bhanu is there, she is not in that moment needed, so she takes a rest behind the troupe’s drummers, beneath the music. When the “work” of the documentary takes a break, the documentary itself does not. And it is maybe the opposite of being critical to admit that a book—a work of art, in this case, as I take it, a documentary work of art—has the power, however modest or subliminal, to make one’s own work possible, but that is that: I read Bhanu Kapil’s writing and I am, to put it simply, re-minded of how to better approach my own. Her work opens up a space—a body (see below)—in which an order is tested and a rest is taken BEHIND THE MUSIC, so to speak, wherein any given inquiry—this one, necessarily—is a consequence of the heart and intuition. I’ll leave it to the mind to continue within what it is.
Am I wandering away from what I was meaning to write? I don’t know.
This is not a review of Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal.
The ostensible subject of Humanimal is the story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, 1920. Kamala and Amala were known to the world by the efforts of Reverend Joseph Singh, a missionary who, having heard of the girls, found and killed their wolf-mother, and brought them to his orphanage in Midnapure, West Bengal, India. I’m abridging. Singh’s work was documentary. He kept a diary of their reintegration. His orphanage was called Home. The story of Kamala and Amala was eventually disproved—this has been documented elsewhere—though I believe this makes Humanimal an even more significant documentary work, for Kamala and Amala DID exist, were either autistic or suffered an unspecified congenital defect—or so the counter-story, which we ought to have license to further disprove, goes—and were subjected to an elaborate narrative in which being raised by wolves offered for their defect a plausible explanation. Either Kamala and Amala were (1) abandoned by their biological (human) mother, left to die in the wilderness, rescued by a family of wolves, with whom they lived for a number of years before being rescued AGAIN by Reverend Singh and rehabilitated at his orphanage, or they were (2) abandoned by their biological (human) mother, left to die (whereabouts unknown), rescued by Reverend Singh, who proceeded to make a name for himself and his subjects by spinning an elaborate tale, that of “girls raised by wolves,” touching upon a number of deeply held beliefs and fears related to our status as vulnerable, transitional beings, as prone to defect, disorder, and madness, as to a life congruent with the most sedate and stable forms of human being. Either way, Kamala and Amala’s fates were ordered by the Reverend and became the indications and ornaments of his narrative, which was his MISSION. He was in the wrong business, perhaps. If he had been a writer or a filmmaker, would there not, perhaps, again, have been some allowance for the enactment or re-enactment—revision—of facts towards a more ecstatic truth? (Werner Herzog’s phrase). Though what would then be that truth? The girls were beings; was Singh not barbaric?
It is as important to recognize the Reverend as a force serving to normalize the content of a fluid, transitional character—to make the individual, for example, stand upright and speak the governing tongue, within the confines of a repressive institution, in this case HOME, how rich, thereby leaving some part of itself, to begin, back there in the wilderness—as it is to ensure that it is not the Reverend’s narrative that ultimately endures. All writing would die. It happens fast. Generations do. They are not preserved. They emerge, for the first time, or re-emerge, as reflected—often thought or imagined—in the dark mirror held before or above bodies scrutinized, naked, in the dirt. Bhanu’s family emerges in the form of her father, memories of: his skin, the skin on his feet, a map back, but to where? The memoir of your body, into which all life imprints itself, often falsely, as upon the scroll we suck on, drink, get drunk on, then dark again. I have to say we would, I think, be truly TERRIFIED if we were to measure the amount of time it would take for a HUMAN such as you or I to become, if the conditions were such, an ANIMAL. Terrified, I mean, because we’d find it does not take much time at all. 50,000 years first entered my mind. Then I thought: it only takes one generation for a family to lose its (so-to-speak) mother tongue. But then I thought: No, even less than a generation. It takes only a few hours to cross an ocean, a few minutes to cross a border between countries, a second to make up one’s mind, half of that to lose it. And it’s incremental. You watch your siblings one-by-one suckle the wolf-mother’s teat and you, starving, and with no one around to offer assistance or dissent, make a decision: I too will wrap my lips around the wolf-tit and drink. Or I will die. The foreign nation becomes the new nation while the old becomes the foreign, it happens in the span of a split-second decision, even if the scaffolding to lift one into the place of that split-second is thousands of years in the making. We become animals once we no longer have any decisions left to make. Let me slightly rephrase that: WE BECOME ANIMALS ONCE WE ARE STRIPPED OF THE LAST OF OUR CHOICES. I should maybe add: Especially if we do not realize this to be true, to be happening. Or does that make us miserably human? See: every presidential election.
A tenderness that mirrors that of the wolf-mother towards the girls: My whole body felt rigid but then, abruptly, I submitted to her touch. When I woke up, I was covered with a shawl and someone, Mahalai, had covered me with tiny, pink-orange blossoms from the pomegranate bush at the gate. Was there a gate?
Being raised by wolves is a fantasy. To those who have not been raised by wolves, that is. It comes first within a reprimand, like you are the worst if you have been. Then it begins to enter the subconscious as the center of an escape narrative: I wish I HAD BEEN raised by wolves. Do you think it is too late? And wolves! An unknown quantity, the fully acclimated Other; their language is their own and impenetrable, as is their system of behavior, of living, dying also. That is no different for any one or thing. I’m not sure who holds the power in the dynamic: humans or animals? Does a human become an animal if she crosses over into—penetrates—the world of the wolf? Is a human an animal if she does not? I cannot help but think the selection of humans from animals, or vice versa, is arbitrary. In other words, we are humans because we can adapt to animal life. Animals are animals because they cannot adapt to human life. We are the Reverend, after all; the animal, the Muselmann, those doomed to selection. Those are Primo Levi’s words, from The Drowned and the Saved.
Alphonso Lingis is given the first word in Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal. He say, They open up a body that is a lesion in the tissue of words and discourses and the network of powers. The body, at once and in an instant, a site, a wound, an unraveling atlas. Who are they? The body IS a lesion. Thousands re-entering a nation of which they are the evidence of barbaric and excessive defense, squandered and bewildered sex, obscure within a box, beneath a flag, no more known than when they were sent away or at the moment of expiration. Alphonso Lingis has the perfect surname, and Bhanu Kapil, who actually has the first word in Humanimal—dedicating the book to Thelonious Arjun Rider and Rohini Kapil—is the one who makes Lingis speak—or rather, re-speak what has already been spoken. I asked Bhanu once if she ever felt like the opposite gender or without gender completely, and she answered, In dreams, perhaps, when my lovers’ genders and races are transposed. In dreams, I sometimes have a female lover, or a lover who is not white, whereas in life, I consistently marry or employ white men. This is very telling! Immigrants, like cyborgs, need to be re-wired. I respond to Bhanu’s books in large part for the ways in which they reveal, in fact, the wiring of the immigrant, while in seamlessly parallel gestures, rewiring it.
What might she mean when she says that immigrants need to be rewired? And what is the relationship between an immigrant and a cyborg? Humanimal: A Project for Future Children, published in 2009 by Kelsey Street Press, who also published three books in particular important to me: Barbara Guest’s Forces of Imagination, Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag, and another of Bhanu’s, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.
After Lingis, Ida Rolf, whom Bhanu counts among the documentary artists important to her: I was changing a unique but very poorly operating girl to a normal pattern of a woman who could no longer look in the mirror and know that she was unique. I was afraid to say to her, “You are beginning to look like other people.” That was what I wanted to say, but I realized that that was the wrong thing to say.
I don’t know what this is or what I am trying to say. I am still reading Humanimal, maybe that is the thing: I can only respond in fragments, presently, composed of or catching the light of what is specifically written, taking place, in Bhanu’s text, though not that, or anywhere close, of which there is so much, so much color and hair, fertility, folds, sentences, paragraphs of pure flight, otherworldliness. I’m still in it; I’m a reader, a monster, a hybrid of my feelings, attempting to secure an edge with my lumbering, non-enumerative, half-baked response. The writing is phenomenal, literally, hymnal, precise, the colors are vivid, then lurid, then off the spectrum, budding, opening then drunk, invigorated. I sit in a room. The room includes my reading of the book, and hum, quietly, to myself, or go outside and see something green and momentarily vigorous. There is a space opened in the writing—in Humanimal as elsewhere—that is a reflection of Bhanu’s subjects—the subjects of her writing—in a way that implicates the reader in the life of the subject, makes the reader a potential subject, or a potential of the subject. To be blunt: I don’t want the “poetics” of immigration—here, or anywhere—but the poetry, the life: the shocks and ecosystems. By this I mean a kind of TRANS-EXISTENCE. I used the word “intuition” earlier (paragraph 2). It is a coming back to mind—a re-minding—of the way to be. It is a looking, listening. An immigrant is one who is removed, though also one who goes into. Humanimal might be poetry, I’m not sure, or if it matters. It calls itself a “project.” The immigrant is the embodiment of the essay, as the essay is the embodiment of poetry. The project meets itself in the sky, but for the cloud, which disperses everywhere, a concentration, how paradoxical, of belief and desire, all within the sustenance of making, of work. I am still a reader, anyway, writing …
Other readings of Humanimal include John Latta’s on his blog, Isola di Rifiuti (isola-di-rifiuti.blogspot.com/2009/10/bhanu-kapils-humanimal.html); by students of Eastern Michigan’s Creative Writing Program (cw.emuenglish.org/?tag=bhanu-kapil); Tom Beckett’s on Galatea Resurrects (galatearesurrection18.blogspot.com/2012/05/humanimal-by-bhanu-kapil.html); Anderson Reinkordt’s “song-review” in Octopus (octopusmagazine.com/Issue13/Reinkordt.htm); Christine Hume in American Book Review. I recommend especially Olivia Cronk’s in Bookslut (bookslut.com/features/2011_01_017007.php). I also recommend Agnes Varda’s film Ulysses (1982). I think of Varda’s film while thinking of Bhanu’s books—in addition to Humanimal and The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, Incubation, and most recently, Schizophrene. As Ulysses, they make no attempt—are not interested in—an encyclopedic rendering of their subjects, but a more intuitive, though no less immersive approach, entrusting the revelation of their natures with a humble, often fragmented, succession of questions, observations, and feelings: living, vulnerable, therefore incomplete. Each are bounded, yet function as poems, and each rely upon the primacy, as poems, of images. I substitute images for events, my humanimal prerogative. Images are events, perhaps the quintessence of emergence, happening—a “coming out” (in the Latin). Has this been elaborated elsewhere?
In Ulysses, the central obsession is itself an image: a photograph Varda took thirty years earlier. The film is ostensibly about this photograph, and Varda returning to it. She interviews the three subjects of the photograph—a child, a man, a dead goat. Thirty years later, of course, the child is a man, the man is an older man, and the dead goat is still a dead goat, though for the purposes of the film—in other words: the purposes of LIFE—Varda finds a living goat and, in one of my favorite moments, gives the photograph of the dead goat to the living goat. What do you think about this photograph, goat? The living goat eats the photograph, which is, to me, a perfect reading of the image, the perfect expression of WHAT DO YOU THINK. The interviews with all three subjects fail. They don’t remember, or they refuse. Well, maybe the goat possesses true memory. With Humanimal, Bhanu attempts to construct an image of Kamala and Amala from their story, which seems counter-intuitive, until you think maybe a face will emerge from the image, within the dark mirror, as an assured, sensuous color from a dream. Everywhere images are disappearing—from poems, for instance, precise, clear, disarmingly unique, anyway, as from stories, though I’m not sure how this reconciles with the emergence and disappearance of voices, and as differentiated from the narratives that enclose them, Reverend-style. From these stories, I constructed an image of the dying girl as larval: perennially white, damp and fluttering in the darkness of the room.
Was there a gate? Bhanu’s presence throughout is of a hyper-observant child standing on the lip of a volcano, with a retrospective relationship to the world at her back—the past—and an open, studious interest in the flames and fumes that rise from the volcano before her—the past also. One is the past in and of one’s life. The other is of life itself. Hers is a presence between two pasts, at the energy field between the past’s two versions, facing each other, mirrors between which a light might be concentrated, and balance. Hers then is the energy field. That is part of the experience—of the poet, the immigrant, one who goes back to test the veracity of the narratives. Really, the child-on-the-lip-of-a-volcano analogy is totally unnecessary. Humanimal, Interrogation, Incubation, Schizophrene: all states, transitional states, including within them transitional states.
Humanimal ends with a return as perfect and surprising as that of Clarice Lispector’s “strawberry season” in The Hour of the Star: As the plane descended to Denver, I took a dry leaf, a banana leaf with three raised seams, from its place in my book and crumpled it, crushed it really, onto my leg through my skirt. The gesture is mysterious, but we know it, we’ve been there, and anyway, I don’t doubt this is true. There is so much to respond to—a banana leaf crushed into a leg, to begin—it feels right to start with that and as apt a place as any to begin recording the recording. Maybe it’s not fair to say we want it all to be over before it has even begun, if we’re thinking ahead, not unrelated to the Book. Because we don’t. But we do live in multiple, often conflicting times and spaces at once, are often forced to. Under which conditions is the Humanimal more truly an exile? Home is an orphanage. With her biological mother? Abandoned in the wilderness? With her wolf-mother? Taken from her wolf-mother? At Home, the orphanage? In the pages of Singh’s diary? The cruelty of the scandal, of what the scandal wants. In the pages of Humanimal? Yeah, I went looking for photo evidence. I was almost to the gate. I was almost to the gate when a hand reached out and pulled me backwards by my hair, opening my mouth to an O.
Bhanu Kapil is the author of five books, most recently Schizophrene (Nightboat Books, 2011.) She has recently completed a manuscript: “Notes for a novel not yet written: Ban.” For three years, she has been incubating this work in performances, notebooks, installations and talks in England, India and the U.S. Bhanu teaches year-round in the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and also for the God[d]ard College MFA. She also maintains a part-time practice as a bodyworker, specializing in soft tissue work and Ayurvedic spa treatments. Born in England to Indian parents, she now lives in Colorado.
Brandon Shimoda is the author of four books, most recently O Bon (Litmus Press, 2011) and Portuguese (Tin House & Octopus Books, 2013), as well as numerous limited editions of collaborations, drawings, writings, and songs. He is working on a documentary book (re: wartime internment, glaciology, hell, picture brides, pictorial photography, dementia, the desert, etc.), and is co-editing, with poet Thom Donovan, a retrospective collection of writings by Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan (forthcoming from Nightboat Books). Born in California, he has lived most recently in Maine, Taiwan, Arizona, and here.