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“So sonic intensity is tantamount to submerged embodied historiography.”

By Bhanu Kapil


: (Th.Donov. on Fr. Moten): “Translate to color.”  In the comment stream.  And looped up, like a baby.  Though if I had another baby, which would depend, quite frankly, upon meeting  a competent and ecstatic South-Asian medical professional in the next thirty days: I might put it down (the baby not a suitor) on a sheepskin rug to roll around a bit.  More than I did.

Though perhaps I’ll begin there, when I could not write. Nursing, I’d glance up at the window to the woods that pressed close around our house.  That Spring, the trees shed a thick gold powder from their thin cones.  I’d track this drift.  Once, I looked up and the whole pane was filled with a blur of wings, thirty or more  birds vibrating against the glass.  Migrating finches.  A solid color.  Yellow.

I guess, tonight, eight years later, I’ve just got these two things, which are less than notes, and if I can, as I write, I’ll convert them to questions.  For you:

1.a. Transgenerationally, what happens to the marks on a body, the marks a body received in the time or era that preceded this one?  I’ve been thinking about that silver color; how a pooling scar is in some sense genetic.  Becomes the quality of the body that passes between bodies.  Its ambience.

b. Poetry, like brainspotting/eye movement technologies, releases — in one version of a North American genre — an embedded stream of images.  These images leave the body in a session, in a sequence: which is neither witnessed nor reorganized in speech.  Stories, for example, are not repeated to another person who then recounts them, to make sure.  Make sure of what?

2.a. Color is/as a race mark.  I think of a country* as red, and diaspora as: well, perhaps you see it in your own mind at the instant I do.  That oil spill.  That wine stain.  That ink.  The acrylic paint tilting out of its container. Tracking color to its most distal fleck, questions of surveillance, carnal lithography or — love : arrived.  Not love.  Something else.  Similarly, I saw that saturation was a precursor to vibration: a red “dot,” which was not a dot, it was a body: breaking up.

b. I studied, from the psychiatric research of Dinesh Bhugra and Kamaldeep Bhui, on migration and mental illness, the strict, unexpected relationship between consistent, low-level racism (its tonal qualities, an almost imperceptible eye-roll when the Asian or Caribbean [origin] person/[British person] walks [walked] into the store) and psychosis. I tried to write an account.  My account failed.  Instead, I began to consider color, and the image, too, in a different way.  The long poem as a place, for example, to reverse the shards of ochre clay so that they re-formed an urn.


“I want a book that heals as much as it separates.” — Cixous.

But the book breaks, as it always does, because it can’t be written.  What might a healing narrative look like?  And does this complicate an experimental aim, the desire to leave a place and never return?

Comments (23)

  • On January 28, 2010 at 2:46 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:


    I should first note– since you hide it here with admirable modesty and self-effacement– that you explore these questions in your books, such as in some devastating and deep sections of Humanimal, just so people know to look into it.

    I have my own anecdote though, which I’m not sure will be particularly relevant or useful, but it comes to mind. As a child I saw on TV Zambia a movie called “Black Widow” or something like that, about a woman–the black widow–who turned into a spider at night and murdered people. Or something like that. It really frightened me, not for any scary parts, which had all been edited out by the censors at TVZ, but because of the ending, because although the villainness had been killed, she had given birth to a child, now fast growing up, who carried a birthmark shaped like a spider in the exact same part of its neck. That was the last shot of the movie. I too had a kind of birthmark/pimple on my belly, and I looked at it then. The next day, in the bath with my father, I looked at his belly and noticed that he had exactly the same pimple on the exact same spot on his belly. It was a little more haggard, and had a grey hair growing out of it, but there it was. That REALLY frightened me.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 9:07 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    1. Self-effacement, as has already been established in another comment stream, is some kind of up-market exfoliating facial cleanser that typically gets confiscated in Customs!

    2. I’m sorry, but I have been secretly holding a Harriet contest for best comment. This TV Zambia/mutant progeny/the dad’s “grey hair” extending from an identical mark anecdote is the winner, hands down. Please expect your prize — a copy of M. NourbeSe Philip’s ZONG! (if you don’t already have it) — to be mailed to you promptly. I will contact you in due course for your whereabouts.

    3. Define: whereabouts.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 9:30 am Peter Greene wrote:

    @Bhanu: I think you’re starting to trip me out. Breaker, breaker tripped.

    On the question of country and colour, I think we are lichens. At least, I saw this once. But I see things sometimes.

    Listen, what you said…damn. It was too interesting to carry down the page to here in my cracked little waterstealer of a brain.. I’ll just say what I can remember thinking as I read it, which was that madness is a doorway leading everywhere, and behind that door the politics of colour and creed often lie waiting. When manic, I can enter the minds of others, including poison minds that become you.

    Bhanu, thank you. I think this is the first time I have been really excited by a living poet. I didn’t think I felt that, but then I do.

    Thank you, thank you.


  • On January 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Peter, I’m glad something opened in you: and this is the unasked-for-advice portion of the comment stream!: could I direct your attention to The Shining Tribe Tarot by Rachel Pollack, who is a writer of speculative fiction, and my colleague at Goddard College in Vermont, where I got to know this “other” work she does. She has one card with this indigo door sort of hovering in space, and I think you would love it. You can buy the deck in a shop, but if you contact her, she also has hand-painted/screen-printed art decks, which are stunning. The colors are incredibly vibrant. I think you would love them. — BK

  • On January 28, 2010 at 1:37 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Bhanu: You may direct indeed. I’ll check it out – unlikely I’ll buy a deck (not a shopper), and highly disturbing that you should bring up the door.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 1:53 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Bhanu: re indigo (but in the anteroom and through the door the light has fallen all on the ground and the switch does not work even though the light is on: been having these dreams…too long to relate on a comment board or perhaps i cannot). About a place on the other side that isn’t, where form is determined only by external (attentions?) and one can be less than the outline of a hat or a face like a line drawing, of corridors that go around sharp angles without light for an unlength of time, can’t manage it but I’ll publish some of my poems that have tried eventually I suppose. But anyway the door there was rather um synchronous, and as i speak my closest friend is reading your piece as we chat on Skype and he is understanding/leading me to understand that you may be a very pure poet, and not speak the same sort of language as many do. BTW, he doesn’t think he likes poetry but really enjoyed your piece, which i suggested to him after he told me the story of being left alone as a small child on a blanket covered with monarch butterflies (not a solid colour) and the terrible fear and stillness they brought him and thank you again. Very much.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 3:55 pm pam lu wrote:


    An incredibly timely post for me as a reader, as I just this morning finished Humanimal on the subway, with my ears plugged with foam to protect against the tympan-smashing roar of transit. Like one of your earlier commenters, I also found it difficult to cross the line of that initial wolf-murder rupture, though I am very relieved I did, and I see now that the entire text is a kind of pre-chronicle, for the child who has yet to be, and also a visceral-elegiac post-chronicle, for the feral wolf-child who did not get to be. Anyway, definitely second Vivek’s recommendation to readers to see this book for further explorations of the questions you bring up here.

    A question that kept popping up for me during my reading: How many generations does it take to heal? Two, three, twenty? By writing through a rupture, can one hope to get across it? There is so much at stake in the risk of this failure, yet one cannot afford not to take this risk. Like experiment, healing does in a sense mean leaving a place never to return, but only after being in that place comprehensively, absorbing and processing the site of damage. The earliest stories that I can remember being told to me were war stories. From around the same time period as your paradigmatic rupture, the 1940s. The world really was torn apart in many places in the middle of that packed century. So instead of fairytales or mythology when I was four or five, there was my mother, breathlessly narrating air raid sirens and falling bombs, makeshift shelters, hunger, chaos, and blood, more blood, and amputated limbs, because my grandfather was the local surgeon and was therefore called upon to perform triage in the aftermath of these sky-to-earth events. For the rest of his life, he could not tolerate the color red because it triggered so many traumatic memories of carnage; we were always being instructed to “de-red” various holiday cakes and pastries by peeling off the layer of dough that would invariably be stamped with a word in crimson.

    Anyway, my mother was trying to heal by passing these narratives on to me as a child who was the same age she was when she actually experienced those events. I was traumatized by these stories, which I now understand as a necessity for the larger healing. To know. Retroactively.

    I look at these narratives from the vantage point of my comfortable, relatively privileged, life, and in many ways I feel stymied. I am on the outside of that history, even as I share its skin and the cumulative effects of its associated low-level stressors. Technology and biology cannot be separated from the social and economic. I go to work everyday at a high-tech firm embedded in a bland California suburb. Many of the employees at this firm, as well as many new residents of this suburb, are recent immigrants from my “home” country and yours. Capitalism and skilled labor. Technology & education as a means of escaping tough situations, crossing borders, “transcending” cultural and racial prejudices. In the presence of my co-workers, I am, without a doubt, a US American, even as I eavesdrop on their noontime conversations. The bland suburb is an American oasis, an empty slate erased of all historical markers. It gave my parents a quiet place to rest and somewhat recover from the trauma of their early years, but it also turned the rupture into an invisible haunting, utterly incongruous with the facade of scrubbed sidewalks and sterile strip malls. A blocked flow, in the midst of global crossing. In an effort to hold together such alienated, intergenerational, geographical extremes, on top of all the other daily stressors, a mind might well go mad. But fortunately there is discourse, and the gift of discursive writing that reawakens flow. Apologies for the length of this. Thank you for the stochastic clarity of your controlled insanity.

  • On January 28, 2010 at 4:20 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Bhanu: To respond more directly to your post (which affected me strongly, as did your response, differently)

    The scars are sometimes our faces. It is amazing the way pain (and other things whose marks are not so deeply incised) forms the same way upon the faces of mother and child. It is also amazing the way an adopted child will so often look, in their childhood and adulthood, like photographs of unrelated family members. It is a continuity of culture and also a curse.

    I think a healing narrative is sometimes a silence, sometimes shouted or spoken very loudly, sometimes whispered, but never muttered or murmured. I agree/don’t agree with Pam Lu about passing the pain to the children. My (now ex) wife’s mother stopped the pain, did not pass it on, and raised a girl who was strong and had freedom from the long curses of their family. How she did it, I’ll never know – sometimes those you think weak are really very strong indeed, just busy. My mother told the pain on, and nearly destroyed me and my sister in the process. However, there are strengths gained from pain and blank spots sometimes from its absence. When does history become too painful to be told? When does pain become a choice instead of a wound? I think there is a time for silence, but it is a silence of remembering. Why should our children know our pain? Can they not find their own? Is ours better than theirs, more frightening and instructive?

    I see diaspora and racism, when I touch/use your colour metaphor as herbs steeping, long strands of colour flaring out from a packet and contaminating/purifying/colouring/scenting/flavouring/becoming a new thing with the floating wet carcass of another old, cooling in it. As lichens, I see red and green colonies meeting and sometimes turning yellow, in very slow small circles. We recount them to make sure of their number and type, as they grow so slowly that we can look at them this way. Of course they change, but the story we carry away from this abstractive process is like a piece of music, written down the same and sounding a little different now and then.

    Sorry your earlier post drove me to incoherence. I was needing to drop by there to pick up a few things anyway though.

    @Pam: Controlled, yes, but I don’t know about the stochastic. Then again, I think often we have purpose, and others do not always.


  • On January 28, 2010 at 4:25 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Pam: To clarify re stochastic: I found a line in Bhanu’s work here that stuck right through my head like an arrow in the eye, and then she, in a few words, let some light in through that eye. It CAN’T be random. I won’t let it.


  • On January 28, 2010 at 4:30 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Bhanu: A final note: the monarchs of our childhood all died frozen one night in a black nighted valley in Mexico.

  • On January 29, 2010 at 8:38 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:


    What you have written above — I still don’t have words. In fact, have woken up before dawn, while my son is still sleeping, imagining that I might try to meet what you have written here. It is indescribably moving to read your words. The fairytale. The “de-red.” The bed-time story. How the (literally) “non-being” of those narratives, their transmission, that “re” — underlies the experience of writing, of forming narrative in this next part of life. What I am writing in this brief note does not begin to approximate the experience of reading your words.

    On Tuesday, this past Tuesday, before leaving the house, I saw your chapbook from Corollary Press, “The Private Listener,” poking out of my bookshelf. I took it to class: “Literature of Exile and Diaspora.” It wasn’t what we were looking at that day, and in fact, it is another course, a class on narrative, where we will be studying your work: but when I got to Naropa, I put it on the table between us (the students and I), and we conducted the class around it. I didn’t say anything about it, I don’t think. I just wanted your writing in the room. The blue cover. Letterpress. I do not know you. I have admired your writing for a long time. I am trying to say: thank you.


  • On January 29, 2010 at 8:41 am Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Peter, thank you, too, for the intersections you describe above. The questions of silence and consciousness — its alterity — that you bring forward. As I write, the pre-dawn indigo light has flooded the garden, and the snow has started to hurt. I mean, to sparkle!

  • On January 29, 2010 at 12:41 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Pam Lu: Dug up and read your Plasian war chronicle – AWESOME. What a pleasure. I’ll never look at my hip-bone the same. Harriet here has proved a rich mine for my little self so far. I’m not sure the deal’s been equitable so far – I think I’ve run up some moderator hours raving and twitching. Perhaps one day I can contribute something back. I’d even brush my face for readings.

    @Bhanu: Popped by Rachel Pollack’s site – the site didn’t display/work too well on my machine, but I did find and enjoy a small fairy tale. I wanted to ask Rachel, and perhaps will if I get up the nerve to pester her contact number, if she liked T.J. Bass – the magic wand in her story put me in mind of the stick-AI-wand in his Half Past Human.

    @Bhanu: Aw, naw, thank you. This conversation has been…important for me. I begin to realize that I might be able to speak without


  • On January 29, 2010 at 3:29 pm pam lu wrote:


    Glad you enjoyed the Plasian chronicles!

    That’s beautiful what you said about a healing narrative never being muttered or murmured. Your ex-wife’s mother sounds like a remarkable person. Everyone should have somebody like that in their life. I’m thinking about pain as a choice vs. a wound (an important distinction!), and about the silence of remembering. As opposed to the silence of willed amnesia, which never seems to work in my experience and in fact has the potential to do harm, b/c the things that you think can be forgotten by forgetting them yourself will still continue to haunt, even if unspoken, will be transmitted in some fashion to others in the generation to come. Somebody will eventually have to take care of it. Sounds like your ex’s mother was able to do the healing in herself and make choices about what to pass on to her children & when, balancing self-revelation with protection, and that’s such a powerful gift to be given from a parent or parent-type figure.

    What you said–“sometimes those you think weak are really very strong indeed, just busy”–reminds me of Kierkegaard’s characterization of the knight of faith, as opposed to the knight of resignation, in one of the early sections of Fear and Trembling. Do you know it? He’s concerned theologically with Protestant Christianity, which is not my spiritual affiliation, but I think his allegories speak to everyone, to the question of how to persevere in the face of suffering.

    You’re right re: stochastic. I was just getting carried away with my technological rhetoric. What I meant is that Bhanu’s writing only appears to be random on the surface, when it is really informed by a deeply felt reason and understanding beneath. Poetry in spirit, if prose in form (but that’s a different story).

    This whole conversation is feeling very deep. Whoa. Thank you.

  • On January 29, 2010 at 3:37 pm pam lu wrote:


    Without your gift of the opened door (actually it’s more like your writing goes flying through the house, opening all doors & windows at once, and is it really inside or outside the house, does this even make a difference?), I would not have been able to make these connections between my feelings and ideas. I know I’m not the only one. Very honored and humbled to hear your account about your Tuesday class.

  • On January 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm Peter Greene wrote:

    @Pam: “As opposed to the silence of willed amnesia, which never seems to work in my experience and in fact has the potential to do harm” – oh, yes, yes, o sad yes, yes.

    Re: Ex-in-law: She is indeed most remarkable. Anything I could say about her would be tainted by the very bad relationship we had – we are both very ill n our different ways, and those ways combined like the sort of chemicals you are warned not to combine as your nose will disintegrate and the walls melt.

    Thank you both for this time and talk. It’s been really kind of big for me.

    @Pam: I had to look up ‘stochastic’. I thought you should know. Your re-explanation was perfect, and I am given to hesitantly agree with it (as I am unfamiliar with most of Bhanu’s work so far).

    @Bhanu: The strangest thing, the butterflies, the memory of that day (apparently there is a photo, also, in his mother’s possession, of the monarch-covered blanket avec terrified babe – they had perhaps mistaken it for a normal landing medium, although strange things happen around that baby now man by the basketload), sorry for digress, the memory of that day was rolled to the surface of his mind by a documentary about the death of the monarchs watched at a friend’s house – Sarah’s house- which was not the intended documentary they had settled down to watch – the computer at her house would not play any others that they searched up, and so they shrugged and watched – anyway, it’s odd the way the butterflies came, just the night before the morning your bright yellow wings appeared beating against the window just as the videophone rang and delivered the man speaking of butterflies to the same screen before me the wings were (upon?inside?behind?).

    Man, this is too heavy (adopts well-earned Freak Brothers tone). You two chicks are outta sight.

    Oh, dear. That was meant as a flippant comment designed to go with my appalling hippie fur-head, and it brought to mind another image from long ago, in a terrifying vision period outdoors, in which I entered and was for a moment all at the same time several small yellow birds scuffling about together in the warm brown loose deep rustling leaves below a barren hedge-bush and the yellow spiky soft touch and smell of their feathers as they touched softly and quickly against one another rushing back and forth, most of all the dry smell of them through each other’s beaks and the soft, spiky yellow yellow fur-feathers of them touching, and having all the things we have spoken of meet and end with that lovely memory is really better than I could have expected.


  • On January 31, 2010 at 12:21 pm john wrote:

    What an extraordinary conversation to happen upon — the post and everybody’s comments. Thank you.

    How will I pass my scars onto my children? I had never considered the question before, not so literally. Prominent facial scar from childhood injury — I’m sure now that I will pass its legacy on in some way or another and had, somewhat to my astonishment, never realized it before. So, thank you.

    Bhanu, I do happen to know an ecstatic and presumably competent medical professional of South Asian descent (American child of immigrants), but she’s married. Best wishes!

  • On January 31, 2010 at 3:02 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    I am glad that you stumbled upon us talking like this, John. Perhaps one part of what you ask here will not be known, in some sense, for many years. I feel as if there is someone we could ask about the scar, but I am not sure who. A person who thinks, but through the body. Though, I teach at Naropa University, where somatic psychotherapy was pioneered in this country — or evolved. Maybe I’ll ask someone and report back. Thank you for writing — and, well, maybe I’ll run a want ad. It’s not that I need someone to deliver a baby per se. But to have one with. That’s separate!!!!

  • On January 31, 2010 at 3:45 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Passing on scars and healing… my great-grandfather, son of the Mayor of San Francisco, died suddenly in 1889 at twenty-seven of spinal meningitis, leaving a young widow and three-year-old daughter. My great-grandmother, whom I vaguely remember across sixty-plus years with love and awe, must have had a broken picker, because she married an alcoholic doctor who molested her daughter. My grandmother coverted to fervent Catholicism, and married a charming later mountain-climber whose father owned the largest whorehouse on the Barbary Coast (shh!). Their first child, my mother, rebelled against their conservative California Catholic Republicanism, learned to smoke, became a Communist, and married a Jewish theatrical press agent from New York, who wasn’t, it turns out, my father after all. Another story. By the time I was born my parents hated each other. My mother fought her way out of that marriage and found true love with her second husband, who encouraged my poetry. I ran through poetry-loving women as fast as I could for many years and had a child with one of them, Alta, a notable feminist poet of the first wave. I kept showing up as a dad and I’ve worked on some stuff since. My daughter, now forty, has made a solid, sunny, constructive marriage, now in its fourteenth year. What share of these scars, what share of this healing, does my granddaughter, almost two, stand to inherit?

  • On January 31, 2010 at 7:38 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    Thank you for sharing these notes, John. They are remarkable things to share, and I will keep them in my heart. There is something here about love that feels important, and perhaps I return to Cristina Perri Rossi’s idea that perhaps the cycle only breaks when we fall in love with a person of the place we have come to, which feels like a geographical statement but also a psychic one. I don’t know. Your daughter’s capacity to love, and to sustain her marriage, her love relation, seems very hopeful indeed. I am not expressing this well; as with the responses above, I am very moved and hope to return to these questions in another space.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 5:26 pm john wrote:

    “It’s not that I need someone to deliver a baby per se” — Bhanu, I know! That’s why I mentioned my friend’s marital status. Best wishes with the search!

    And thanks for your reply. As for my scar and disfigurement (how melodramatic to say it! but it’s true — the left side of my mouth barely moves), I imagine that their legacy will be narrative and emotional — and, I’m still surprised that I hadn’t realized how much we become our children’s stories.

    I’ve been commenting on Harriet for years and have never met anybody in person (except once, 28 years ago, one former blogger who would have no reason to remember me), and so have retained an imagined anonymity — a facelessness! Since I’ve blown my facelessness, here’s a pic my older son took 4+ years ago (when he was 2; I love this picture; also a discussion of the class-politics of missing teeth [I’m missing several]):

    I think about body-thinking a lot, Bhanu; with a toddler at home now, communication is physical! And tons of knowledge resides outside of language — f’rinstance, this touch-typing!

    Thanks again.

  • On February 2, 2010 at 11:38 pm Bhanu Kapil wrote:

    I know — as soon as I replied last time, I realized that you knew that but then I couldn’t figure out how to delete my comment and get the joke, delayed! Thank you, John, for what you write/make perceptible here. The mouth. The body as it is. The face. I have never quite had a conversation with other writers, beyond my own domain (basically, my friend Melissa and my students and the wild animals I encounter upon my travels to cities), about the body in this way. Thank you for trusting us with this. And — I have a lot of clothes my son has outgrown. Would you like me to send them to you?! Bhanu

  • On February 3, 2010 at 11:24 am john wrote:

    It’s funny, I never mind talking about my face when people ask, and people ask surprisingly infrequently; it was a shocking occurrence when my face changed, but over the years it gradually transformed into something like no big deal, simply and complexly a part of who I am, for good as well as bad. I know nobody asked here, but your post stirred the deeps of my lack of self-knowledge. I am grateful for your kind replies to my unsolicited revelations.

    And we’re all set on clothes, with 2 families in our circle with 4-year-old boys who give us hand-me-downs — but thanks! And besides, you still have 3-and-a-half weeks to meet your medical professional, so you never know!

    Thanks again.

Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, January 28th, 2010 by Bhanu Kapil.