Laynie Browne

The Poet's Novel

A conversation with Bhanu Kapil

Laynie Browne: Is there such a thing as the poet’s novel?

Bhanu Kapil: The poet’s brain changes, perhaps in mid-life.  Perhaps the poet moves from one part of the country to another.  The poet turns to the sentence as the place where questions of magnetism, gravity and light — the forces that bind a person to the earth and then release them, abruptly — might most fully be worked out.  Why?  On a scrap of paper, I draw three overlapping rough arcs.  These are sentences.  These are vectors, complicated — in this preliminary sketch —by refraction and shame: the reality of what happens — does happen — has happened — at the limit of a nation state.  Sometimes, as I’ve thought about elsewhere, a person doesn't get to cross.  A person sees their body reflected, perhaps, in the gelation membrane that extends above and just beyond the border like an invisible dome. To exit you rupture.  What the novel-shaped space lets the poet do (perhaps) is work out what happens both before and afterwards: the approach to that multi-valent perimeter [the shredded plastic on the floor.]

Incubation: 'A Space for Monsters' by Bhanu Kapil

When I think of Incubation A Space for Monsters, I think of the form of the list, and how Kapil has transplanted this form so common to poetry into the form of the novel. 

We think through lists, live them, annotate and move through time non-sequentially as we insert our prerogatives into lists. With each iteration on a list, as we enact it, who do we become?

“The secret pleasure of refusing to live like a normal person in a dress/with a sex drive and fingers/dreamy yet stabilized in the café of languages” [1].

Incubation A Space for Monsters, is a book akin to movement as a form of identity. The movement is many-directional. A character, Laloo, is literally moving. She is in transit via hitchhiking, which means in a sense that she has no idea which direction she will move.  Her body is spliced, part “monster” part “baby” part “cyborg” part “dream.”  She is moving in the direction of female identity, an identity between borders, between safety and risk, between any fixed notion of intimacy and the question — how to be a person intact?

Martín Adán's 'The Cardboard House'

Martín Adán’s The Cardboard House — this text is exactly what I imagine when I ponder the question, what is a “poet’s novel?” It could be called a novel. It could also be called a suite of prose poems. The language is both precise and conjuring.  

“The sun: a rare, hard, golden, lanky coleopteran.” [1]

Coleoptera, or beetle, from Greek, meaning “sheath” and “wing”  sums up nicely an aesthetic approach I am trying to locate within the larger realm of the form. Poet’s novels are somehow sleek, narrowed, compressed, with a density akin to poetry, and also with the possibility of flight often more difficult to locate in prose. Prose fiction can be beholden to plots, turns, developments which must unfold.  Not so with poet’s novels which defy categorization and move with the freedom of verse.  In The Cardboard House, sun is a character, as is the afternoon, sky, boyhood, sea, cities, etc.

 I knew I was well ensconced in this fluid concise text when I read:

Discussing the poet's novel with Dan Beachy-Quick

image from W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn

Laynie Browne: Is there such a thing as a “poet’s novel”?  If so, how would you characterize the form?

Dan Beachy-Quick: I do think there is such a thing, though I don’t think it’s any one thing. The simplest answer would be a novel that a poet writes, but I think we all feel that such a measurement fails. I suppose in my thinking I consider a “poet’s novel” one that bears a certain kind of relation to itself, a relation that parallels a poem’s relation to itself. Such a novel may or may not have a stake in plot, but such narrative drive feels to me an accident of a deeper investigation, one which can only be conducted by the novel being written. Such a book asks a question that can only be asked within the world it creates, as Melville must include within Moby-Dick that information, that encyclopedia, that makes a whaler of any reader of the book.

H.D.'s 'HERmione'


“A person should think before they call a place Slyvannia” [1]

This sentence from H.D.’s HERrmione stays with me.  Her prose can twirl, as Her Gart, her “heroine” is lost in a landscape she desperately tries to discern. Her “Oread”  is here before considering the sea. Her Gart twirls in search of herself.  So what makes this a “poet’s novel” beyond the fact that it has been written by a poet?