On being prone
Violence and vulnerability in Bhanu Kapil's 'Ban en Banlieue'
The first image of a rape that I saw was Peter Paul Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. I was paging through my father’s art history books. I had just learned to read and even before I encountered the word r-a-p-e, I knew there was something wrong with it. Something ugly. Being brought up, as many of us were, on the Western canon of Greek myths, I understood that rape had something to do with love. When a god loved a mortal too much, the result was rape. But this painting did not show rape; it portrayed the epigraph to rape. This was a scene of kidnapping, set in a pastoral landscape and attended by a cherub and two well-fed horses. The rapists appeared impatient, even slightly annoyed, as they endeavored to hoist the sprawling, noncooperative sisters onto their horses.
This painting depicted what I understood to be part of the bad sex of war — the enslavement and exchange of women, which, for Roman heroes, was business as usual, or perhaps even romance as usual. It was the fashion, I learned, of ancient men to love this way; it was the policy of well-groomed soldiers. In these stories, rape was always connected to desire. It was portrayed as an excess of love, the extremity of love, the consequence for one who is desired too much.
Peter Paul Rubens, Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus, 1618.
As we see in the final scene of Shakespeare’s most unpopular play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the “gentlemen,” Proteus, threatens Sylvia, the woman he supposedly loves, with rape:
I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,
And love you ’gainst the nature of love — force ye.
Love you ’gainst the nature of love. The word he chooses to describe the act is still “love.”
The language of love and the language of violence are conflated in our stories and myths, just as the images of desire and abduction are in Rubens’s painting — or, for that matter, in the now infamously predatory lyrics of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” From Rubens to Robin Thicke, this is how we learn rape culture. This is how we perpetuate it.
Sifting through the oeuvre of illustrated Western myths, I encounter the same amorous hunter figure violently pursuing women, who, when caught, turn into trees or river reeds or flowers that bleed human blood. Their metamorphosis is irreversible. The hunter, retaining his original form, breaks off a branch or fashions a panpipe as a souvenir.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1625.
I am reminded of what the poet Eileen Myles says about Ovid:
I have always hated Ovid because it is just rape. I hate reading myths. I liked them when I was a kid because I didn’t know what sex I was. And I hate History. Iceland is essentially populated by the descendants of raped women. Probably all of us are, right.
When I first read this passage I misread Myles’s admission as, “I liked them [myths] when I was a kid because I didn’t know what sex was.” Now returning to this passage, I see my mistake. “I liked them because I didn’t know what sex I was.” This speaks not to the act itself but to the gap that opens up between different subject positions and their perspectives on sexual violence — between those who relate to the pursuer (hero, god), reading the myth as a metaphor for the transformative nature of desire, and those who empathize with the pursued, who, through an act of violence, is transformed into an object. Myles’s last line, too, speaks to how deeply embedded gendered violence is within our history, the history of exploit, invasion, and colonial expansion, and how dangerous it is to treat the “unsayable experience” of rape with silence. As Sabine Sielke shows us in Reading Rape, discussions about rape are most often discussions of something else entirely: power, money, social change, difference, and identity. As Sielke argues, “narratives of sexual violence ponder not an alien and uncontrollable part of human nature but the power dynamics of a particular culture.” Thus to silence discourses surrounding sexual violence is to mask the ways in which women’s bodies continue to be a transfer point for power relations. It is to ignore how such stories reflect and refract our culture back to us.
This carriage, used to transport women in the “Exchange of the Princesses,” signals the ways in which women’s bodies were used as transfer points for power relations. I consider it the institutionalized version of Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. Image from the Carriage Museum, Lisbon, 2018.
How to unsilence these stories? How to expose this abuse of power? How to write about sexual violence without sensationalizing, reducing, or fetishizing it? As the poet and activist Dawn Lundy Martin asks, “how does one say it: ‘rape,’ and have it resonate with the deficit experience of rape?” Can language contain this “deficit experience”? Or does sexual violence vandalize genre, break it open at the seams? If this is the case, how do we interpret something that refuses interpretation, or give shape to an experience that, by definition, is incoherent?
These are some of the questions that the London-born, Colorado-based poet and performance artist Bhanu Kapil grapples with in Ban en Banlieue, her 2015 book on vulnerability and sexual violence. Returning throughout the narrative to the brutal rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey on a bus in South Delhi in 2011, Ban invites us to examine how one writes about the experience of sexual assault without perpetuating the trope, forever present and sensationalized in the news, of the sexualized and abandoned female body. Her project experiments with ways to write about the dehumanizing act of assault, its repercussions and aftermath, while remaining open or prone.
Following Kapil’s lead, this essay seeks to investigate a poetics as well as the politics of the “unsayable.” If as Dawn Lundy Martin suggests, “poetry often offers a new way of thinking about battered topics” — including silenced or silencing topics — what are some of these new ways or forms of examination? My inquiry does not, by any stretch, attempt to offer a conclusive score. It yields, as James Clifford writes, “glimpses of a specific path among others”; it is an attempt to situate and not to resolve the struggle between what can be said and what is unsayable.
The first section looks at different approaches to depicting sexual violence, focusing on Ana Mendieta’s influential performance work (Rape Scenes) and the poet Terri Witek’s poem-graphs from her recent book, The Rape Kit, which was written in response to her rapist’s request for parole. The second section seeks to outline a poetics of what I am calling “prone verse” in Ban en Banlieue, verse that is vulnerable, but whose vulnerability can be understood as a mobilization of an empathetic reading practice. The final section examines the role of the witness/reader, encountering texts that shape or are unshaped by violence. It examines what it means to be a prone reader, and to continue reading.
1. Has anyone seen a photograph of a rape?
I mine the text for an image that is not there. It is as if I expect it to appear, suddenly, shockingly, before me, like a photograph from Ana Mendieta’s performance piece Untitled (Rape Scene). A response to a brutal attack and murder of a nurse in Ohio (1972), Mendieta’s performance gives form to an act that takes place off page, off screen, unwitnessed. Mendieta recreated the forensics of the crime in her apartment. Leaving her front door ajar, she invited the male students in her cohort in for a viewing. They found her, in Kapil’s words, “like a person in an ancient pose … an L-shape over the counter: flat back, rump displayed to any passerby, blood dripping down the backs of [her] thighs.” Mendieta recalled that her audience “all sat down, and started talking about it. I didn’t move. I stayed in position about an hour. It really jolted them.” Her performance turned the viewer/reader into a witness.
What we, as readers, see in the news is the aftermath of the aftermath of sexual violence. The taped-off house in the suburbs. The wet parking lot. The shore of the Assiniboine river. The CCTV footage of a faceless man leaving the scene of the crime. We might read a description of the crime scene or the victim’s body and transpose these images onto the parking lot, the riverbed, or the suburban basement. This experience may “jolt” us, like it did Mendieta’s audience; yet, ultimately, these depictions of rape, the unsayable, “deficit experience,” are all records of its aftermath, of the space in which the attack took place.
Stories of rape, then, are stories of space, of spaces where an event is missing and where an event must be imagined. As Ariella Azoulay explains in The Civil Contract of Photography:
Rape is an event, like a murder, a traffic accident or an avalanche, to which there may not be any witnesses, but that can in principle be seen and shown. This is exactly how it’s spoken of — as a visible object. In fact, however, due to special rules of the new discourse on rape and due to the prohibition of showing rape in particular, rape’s visibility is nearer to that of an idea that cannot be grasped by means of the senses.
Yet this abstraction, ungraspable by the means of the senses, has the capacity to send surges of fear, tingling curiosity, shame, dread, excitement, and disgust through the reader’s body. The concept of rape is the visible object that exists just beyond the periphery yet is writ large in our imaginations. “What the mind feels is still, as the ancients imagined it, an inner space — like a theatre,” writes Susan Sontag; the images projected on its walls “haunt us.” They haunt us the way collective memory or shared trauma haunts a culture.
Rape, writes Eileen Myles, is “stealing the envelope of another … if you force your way into a message that is not intended for you, it’s a kind of suicide.” Myles suggests that this violence, the act of forcing someone to reveal a message “not intended for you,” signifies a form of annihilation for both aggressor and victim. The poet Terri Witek captures this stripped moment of force in the following poem, which also takes the shape of an envelope.
Terri Witek, “Interlude in which she tried to escape into a tree,” in The Rape Kit.
What takes place between the folds? A silence. A gap. A blank page. A pilfered message. Note the verb, tried. It calls attention to the disjuncture between the mythic, where Daphne turns into a laurel tree and elides her attacker, and the reality of sexual violence, where there is no escape and the space between the folds becomes a wiped record, an interval of time wherein your life does not belong to you.
2. Prone verse
In the wake of the #MeToo movement’s public exposure of the pervasive and systemic abuse of women, I have returned to Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue in order to think about her project as a methodology for writing about sexual violence: that is, for depicting trauma that is beyond ordinary speech. Ban is an extreme text, both formally and thematically; it occupies the boundaries between prose and verse, between performance and written text, between fiction and documentary. But at its core, Ban is a study of women and space: the ways in which women take up space, or are denied space, or are repeatedly turned into space through acts of violence. Ban is about the role that gendered, colonial, familial, and emotional violence plays in the formation of the female subject, and how the female subject comes to also be the prone subject. And yet, from within this place of vulnerability and abjection, the speaker voices her resilience: “I am a mixture of dead and living things,” she reminds us, “Almost but never quite dead” (82).
Ban, the speaker, writes about sexual violence as a “re-telling — in tiny movements” (7) that radiate violence. The prone body is ever present, in the image of the supplicant woman on the cover of the book, in the references to Ana Mendieta’s work, and in the book as physical object: the “page just lying there, with its legs open” (63). Ban’s formal and conceptual approach to the prone body, and the prone body of the text, reveals the ways in which violence turns the body into an extreme text, one that articulates the limits of agency, and, even, the limit of life. In this way, sexual violence participates in the “unmaking” of worlds, as Elaine Scarry puts it, the undoing of personhood, and the fracturing or even erasing of the self’s interior text.
“I wanted to write a book that was like lying down” (42), writes Kapil. But what does it mean to create a text that is like lying down? What does it mean to produce writing that is prone? On the one hand, to be prone is to be vulnerable. To be accident-prone. To be prone to falling in love or giving in to anger. It celebrates a submission of the body to the emotions and to the effects the emotions have on the body. Prone to blushing. Prone to selective muteness. Prone to weeping in public. But to be prone is also to be vulnerable to the abstractions of the world beyond the parameters of the body. It is to be defenseless or unsheltered. Prone verse is exposed verse.
In occupying space through an act of radical vulnerability, the prone body can stage a form of resistance. As Judith Butler has argued, these two extremities, resistance and vulnerability, are not necessarily in opposition with one another. For, Butler explains, “once we understand the way vulnerability enters into agency, our understanding of both terms can change, and the binary opposition between them become undone. I consider the undoing of this a feminist task.” Kapil takes up this feminist task in two ways: first, by splitting open form and drawing attention to the raw materials of her novel — how it is shaped or “unmade,” and how it resists form — and second, by creating a speaker who, like her subjects, operates from a space of vulnerability.
Though her lines are revelatory and self-assured, Ban continually questions her approach. She is ever conscious — even anxious — about genre. “I wanted to write a novel,” the speaker says, “and instead I wrote this,” a book made up of prefaces and footnotes, outtakes, “discharges,” erasures, and rehearsals, or, as Jenny Zhang puts it, a book “composed and collected of things that don’t count.” As Zhang observes, the acknowledgments page is given as much weight if not more than the actual text itself. The footnotes are measured with the same metric as the lines they expand upon. Thus the categories between poetry and research, between the product and the labor of writing, are collapsed. Even towards the end of the book we witness a mantra that questions the very impetus for project itself: “To begin. To never begin. To begin. To never begin. To begin. To never begin. To begin. To never begin. To begin …” (82). This is how the world of the text is “unmade” and remade simultaneously.
Ban is, then, the photonegative of a novel, an antinovel, a novel in outtakes, in failed beginnings. The instability and omissions inherent in the narrative structure signal, in the poet and essayist Kathleen Fraser’s words, the “fragments of a wholeness only guessed at.” In this way the book’s form emulates its content — it splinters under the weight of the unsayable, of the fragments of a trauma only guessed at. It spasms with, in Kapil’s words, “the violence that comes — from nowhere — from everywhere.” Moreover, its radical form prompts us to ask: is this how one writes about “things that don’t count”? Can this project’s formal experimentation offer a genre for writing and thinking about the ways in which violence designates which bodies “count” and which bodies “don’t count”?
Bhanu Kapil, Ban en Banlieue, New York: Nightboat Books, 2015.
3. A brown girl on the floor of the world
The prone bodies that feature most prominently in Ban en Banlieue are bodies that have undergone sexual violence: the sati bride who escapes her husband’s burning pyre, the child in the forest “dressed and set,” Nirbhaya, “The Fearless One,” and the young woman gang raped and tortured to death on a bus in New Delhi in 2012. Kapil returns to these bodies throughout the book, approaching them from the sidelines, moving horizontally, like her aspen-colored snake in the forest, sliding through the wilderness of memory “without thought, below thought” (42). This approach emulates the ways in which historical trauma, like personal trauma, can have lasting effects that refuse to be contained in a singular time and place. As a result, the traumatic event is at once enigmatic and overpresent, imitating the form that trauma and traumatic memory often take when the shock of violence is immediate and still enduring, when trauma is repressed and returned to at later, unexpected dates.
Vulnerability that emerges in resistance movements can effect change, Butler argues, through a “deliberate mobilization of bodily exposure.” Butler calls for a bodily resistance that does not disavow forms of vulnerability, but rather investigates a new conception of embodiment and sociality within fields of contemporary power. As we see in Mendieta’s silent film Rock Heart with Blood, the prone body marks out territory. She takes up the measure of the camera frame, occupying this space. This image reappears in different configurations in Ban en Banlieue: Bhanu Kapil lying down outside Pratt Institute, or the naked figure on the cover of the book occupying a backyard in Colorado, or even the image of the service road in South Delhi or Uxbridge Road in London. By linking the spaces where other “brown girls” were struck down, mutilated, assaulted, murdered, by lying down at these sites, Ban the speaker creates what she calls a “grid of touch” (62), making visible a lineage of female ghosts. To have a body is to be prone, Ban shows us, but to occupy a women’s body, a nonwhite body, is to be especially prone — prone to abuse, the denial of citizenship, to being banned, to abandonment. Just as the vulnerability of our body could be viewed as a shared common place to start to understand empathy, this “grid of touch” could be understood as a shared text, an empathy map that links Ban’s readers. The grid of touch functions as a correspondence that shrinks the distance between sender and receiver, prone subject and witness. As in Terri Witek’s “Interlude in which she tries to escape into a tree,” the grid of touch folds the reader into the text. In a sense, the book, itself, becomes a sensory grid: the fold of the page is a space of transformation, or metamorphosis, wherein we, readers, flash between spirit and tree, imagination and text.
Detail from Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne.
In her essay on war, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” Simone Weil reminds us that violence turns everyone subjected to it into a thing. A hero, a victim, a beast, a spectator. To write about violence, then, is to write about the role of the bystander as much as the spectacle of the event itself. It means to question what it means to be a spectator, or a reader of violent texts. As Sophie Anne Oliver observes, “by becoming conscious of the presence of our own bodies in the act of spectatorship we may be better equipped to resist the temptation to turn away from the traumatized body of the victim; instead, we are called upon to accept this body along with our own, as part of what it is to be human.”
Ban asks: when does the bystander become the witness?
When the act of violence occurs.
Ban asks, does the body of the witness discharge something too? (25)
Ban invites us to think about the act of witnessing by returning, once again, to a classical artwork. “This is a short talk about vectors,” she writes. “It’s about Brueghel’s Icarus. It’s about a girl walking home from school at the exact moment that her neighbor laces up his Doc Martens, tight” (37). This multipronged reference alludes to Brueghel’s famous painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” to W. H. Auden’s ekphrastic poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” named after the museum in Brussels in which the painting is held, and to the 1970s race riots in London, which Kapil experienced as a child. Both the painting and the poem signal how, in Auden’s words, “everything turns away / quite leisurely from disaster,” how we choose to avoid looking directly at the fallen child: the boy dropped from the sky, the girl who lies down during the opening minutes of a riot. These images, pressed beside each other, show how the work of such disparate artists, Ovid, Auden, Brueghel, and Ban, intersects through the “vectors” of textual, emotional, and cultural grids.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558.
All we see of Icarus is his two white legs disappearing into the ocean as “expensive delicate ships” sail “calmly on.” For the bystanders his death “was not an important failure,” at least not important enough to disrupt their commercial ventures. This speaks to the latent apathy, the ordinary cruelty, of bystanders. It recalls the Kitty Genovese case. Or the “piece of earth” during the London riots, “not wider or longer than a girl’s body prone upon it” (42). Or Jyoti Singh Pandey who lay “on the ground for forty minutes — twitching — making low sounds — then none at all — diminishing — before anyone called the police” (25). It recalls the fear every woman faces when she walks home along an empty street. Not the fear that she is alone but that she is not alone. And the fear that, should she sound the alarm, she will be ignored.
How do we get back from the place that violence takes us? Can we return from the closed space that trauma creates? Ban’s answer seems to be: no. To participate in violence is to enter “a door you can’t go back through” (70). There is no return. And yet, at the same time, as readers we are invited to return, to point our telescopes at a dying star, now dead, yet still radiating light. We return to the child in the wood, her body “emitting a solar heat, absorbed in the course of a lifetime but now discharging, pushing off” (40). We return to the suburb of London where, in 1979, the activist Blair Peach was struck down by police during the race riots. We return to the drowned woman in the Bay of Bengal, her charred body resurfacing throughout the book, sometimes on the backs of pink dolphins. We return to the Fearless One. (Do the bodies of her witnesses discharge something too?) Unnamed, abandoned, a “parallel self” (40), this prone figure makes legible the boundary between life and its aftermath. She is the aftermath, discharging life; she is the boundary, the creased page, almost but never quite dead.
Ban, the speaker, the writer, lies down. She entreats the reader to occupy that space with her, to turn reading into an act of lying down, into a lesson in sensitivity and witnessing.
Does the body of the reader discharge something too?
We, as reader-witnesses, must allow ourselves to become accountable to the text, to its formal extremity, and even to its violence. We must allow ourselves to become unsheltered. It is in this extreme act of vulnerability, Ban suggests, that we are most vigilant and thus most responsive. This is how an empathetic reading practice is formed. This is how we become prone readers.
8. Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973, is the documentation of an action that Ana Mendieta performed in her apartment in Iowa City, while she was a student at the University of Iowa. It was created in response to a brutal and highly publicized rape and murder of a nursing student, Sara Ann Otten, by another student in March 1973. Mendieta invited her fellow students to her apartment where, through a door left purposefully ajar, they found her in the position recorded in this photograph, which recreated the scene as reported in the press. Elizabeth Manchester, “Summary,” October 2009, Tate Modern website.
16. Jenny Zhang, “Reading Bhanu Kapil,” conversation with Amina Cain, Douglas A. Martin, Sofia Samatar, Kate Zambreno, and Jenny Zhang, The Believer, February 19, 2015.
18. Bhanu Kapil, “Kali’s Scream,” March 17, 2013.
19. Kapil/Ban documents the performances and memorials she undertakes for those who were murdered. For instance, in one of her performance pieces, she traces Jyoti Singh Pandey’s footsteps the night of her attack and lies down on the stretch of highway where she lay dying:
I walk — naked, barefoot, red — from the cinema in South Delhi where she watched the Life of Pi. Then caught a bus. To this spot. The anti-rape protestors make a circle around my body when I lie down. (16)
20. Andrea Quaid, “After Separation: The Poetry of India’s Partition,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 5, 2012.
28. Bhanu Kapil, “Kali’s Scream,” March 17, 2013.
29. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside her apartment building in Kew Gardens, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens. Following the attack, The New York Times published a report, claiming that thirty-eight witnesses saw or heard the attack, but did not call the police or come to her aid. The incident prompted inquiries into what became known as the bystander effect, or “Genovese syndrome.” It is now believed that the police were indeed summoned but did not respond because they believed it was a domestic dispute.