Poetry in ruins
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil and The Devastation by Melissa Buzzeo were published by the same press, Nightboat Books, on the same day in 2015. How do these two works speak to one another?
Taken together both pieces gleefully frazzle and implode a number of genres: novel, poem, historical fiction, autobiography, performance text, theory. The works situate readers in psychogeographical outskirts, landscapes that wish to enact a language turned away from violent erasures and silencings. Who does literature serve? Or, more pointedly, how does literature fail the body, its traumas, and its healings? Can this failure be transformed into sites of potency and critique?
Kapil set out to write a historical novel, one whose context would be a race riot that occurred in an immigrant suburb of London during the seventies. This novel would center on Ban, a young brown girl walking home in the beginnings of a protest. When she hears glass breaking (a sound of violence) she responds by lying down. And then? The novel does not continue as one would expect, for Ban refuses to be legibly written:
Ban was gone. She continued on without me […] Ban looped — an orbital of dog shit, soot, bitumen, and diesel oil — around the city […] The more time passed, the less and less was Ban. Something that could be written down.
In the space of historical fiction what would happen to this brown girl? What would the novel ask of her, of her body, of her representation?
Ban demands “a literature not made of literature,” while Buzzeo admits the need “to resist the cataloging which saves nothing which petrifies everything.” If you read a novel not made of literature, what does it become? Suspect, fugitive, waste? Merriam-Webster lists two definitions for petrification. The first is to frighten someone so thoroughly they are unable to move or think. The second is the change of organic matter into stony concretion, whereby its original substance is replaced by mineral deposits. I find both of these meanings useful when meditating on the limits of literature. It is tempting and disturbing to see this process in writing. Is this the result of literature, to frighten (language, ideas, subjectivities) into stony concretion, so that what previously was (is) becomes overdetermined by forms that can drown and maim the original contents and motivations?
Kapil’s work brings to mind Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts.” Hartman delves into the wreck of the archive in order to find experiences of the Middle Passage from black women slaves. What she finds instead are stories “not about them but rather about the violence, excess, mendacity, and reason” that “transformed them into commodities and corpses.” Hartman warns of repeating the violence in the attempt to “place” or represent what has been lost and/or silenced. Rather than continuing the story to its (assumed) predicted conclusion (death), Kapil does not finish the sentence. Ban refuses to be trapped in a grammar of violence. She’d rather lie down. In the space of a novel that cannot be written, Kapil presents us with notes, errors, performance gestures, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s licking dead tongue, blog entries, earthen silhouette offerings, a butcher block, remembrances for bodies left to die. How to memorialize a young Indian girl who, when walking home from the cinema, was caught by several men, raped, and abandoned in the street?
I thought about those 40 minutes and compared them to the fictive — 12 hours — that Ban lay on the ground. What was in the work — as an image — had appeared beyond it — as a scene. I thought about the crowd that gathered to watch as — [Jyoti Singh Pandey] — the Fearless One — as they called her, afterwards — began to die; a black rope and other materials extended from her body towards them — according to witness accounts. Does the body of the witness discharge something too? At that moment I stopped writing Ban.
[...] And there I lay down on the ground.
[...] And this was the part of the project that could not be completed in the same place that the project was held. (25)
The epithet ‘the Fearless One’ masks more than it reveals. The phrase cannot capture the black rope, the extending materials, the psychic rupture. The epithet triggers memories of her dying, of the violence done to her. The body of the girl is swallowed by the event. What traumas are left unsaid? Ban collects what in a traditional novel would be disposable, diminished, hidden. Some sections are never shown: Kapil relates her decision to delete a series of stories exploring Ban’s childhood. The force of the book is not what is told or witnessed or recorded. The writing strives to be a presence, one that seeks to conjure what lives on despite a foreclosure. Ban shifts from a fictive girl to a composite of historical invocation and “intense autobiography” — she cannot adhere to the forms of character. By lying down, she signals a syntax of resistance, one that treats the sentence as an extension of what bodies leave behind. Kapil’s prose discharges, suspends, absorbs, breaks, regenerates, exhausts. The page is not an end to a means but a participant; it resembles the ground(s) where Ban lies and where Kapil traces her body outline rituals. Her exercises seek to discover how to remember a site of trauma without replicating the original violence.
In her preface subtitled “For a Work Undone,” Buzzeo reveals that her book began with an intention to write as a way to heal from loss. Instead she found her text swallowed up by pain:
As devastation often does, it became all loss and as such what to do with a language smaller and smaller, a meaning more and more totalitarian? What to do with a book enacting itself? (7)
Buzzeo rewrites her text in order to unwrite the overwhelming loss. Language cannot hold her original intention — it instead overdetermines the importance of loss as an event. How to exist despite, in spite, ahead of language? Buzzeo refuses the smallness, opting instead to write a text where the gestural replaces the linguistic. The Devastation explores life following an incident only named. The reader is presented with this recurring image: two lovers at the bottom of the ocean floor, the decaying remains of a disaster that emptied the waters, drained all pronouns, left only the language of reaching and pulling. In another work the devastation — the loss — would subsume the remains, mistaking silence for nothing. Here, the text is what’s left behind; that which no longer exists (as you would think) returns to communicate its forms. Buzzeo uses an abbreviated syntax that takes on the properties of water — it releases, floods without warning, trembles with moments of stagnancy, reflects a pulsing rhythm. The book’s movements enact an accumulation of what cannot be uttered aloud, of what stays silent but potent.
You start with a page: one that has been torn out of your mouth
You fold it in half: you stay.
Beside what drained
Beside what parted
Beside what had yet to be (21)
The text performs poetry as a sea wreck, as the erotic touch of the form(less), as a language unsaying itself. It does so to describe the ways in which language can constrict us into narrowing paths and spaces. What if that which connects us is washed away, evaporated, forgotten? Or, what if it is not forgotten but petrified until its meanings and/or possibilities become overwritten, expendable, removed from context?
How does one say of the Devastation
When it no longer is
That I made the bed with the book
That I had to unmake the bed to remove the book
To remake the self (51)
To say the devastation is to privilege its meanings over the remains, the wastes, the illegible. The bed, the floor, the basin can be variously understood as the page, the aftermaths, a charnel ground, a charged land, poetry in ruins. As in Ban, The Devastation occurs in the outskirts, in a space where nothing exists except the absence of. The image of a sea creature reaching beyond the limits of self signals a desire to reach beyond our totalitarian notions and representations of self and experience.
How to counter the fallibility of the novel, that which peddles a single story, a violence, a petrification? If you begin a book about healing but it ends up being all loss, where did the original intention go? Where did healing lie? And if healing lies down, does that mean healing is resisting what loss brings forth?
The sea creature and Ban are kindred spirits. In refusing the structures of the novel, the works enact the ways in which literature can erase certain subjectivities. Both spend most of their time lying down in the attempt to discern what lives on despite being silenced or “abbreviated.” In “End-Notes,” Kapil notes how their works are in relation:
Melissa brought forth the discourse of waste material, abandonment, the “person left for dead” who — perversely — does not die. How to make (from this) (from these things): a form. A charnel: ground. (88)
In her preface, Buzzeo also mentions writing from “the charnel ground.” The term refers to an area where the formally living are left to decompose. In a similar way for both books, writing itself becomes a friction that yearns to break down the forms of the novel. Literature cannot hold their intentions; Buzzeo must unsay her text while Kapil’s materials urge her to set them on fire. The page does not behave as it should; it morphs to a site of trauma, recuperation, activation, and failure. The sea creature and Ban, two forms who should not count, thwart our efforts to “read” them. They refuse to be trapped in our meanings. What we are left with are volatile sentences, remnants seeking to:
Emit light. Perceptible to ones who also. Lie down on the ground. Lie down on the ground like that. (62)