Thursday, April 23, 2009

Poem Excerpt: Bhanu Kapil

Bhanu KapilThis past winter quarter, I taught excerpts from Bhanu Kapil's narrative Incubation: A Space for Monsters (Leon Works, 2006--also a former J's Theater Book of the Month pick), as part of my unit on transhumanism/posthumanism, a topic my colleague Alex Weheliye had first hipped me to some years ago, but which it took me, in my usual fashion, a while to assemble in my head. (Tisa B., the Afro-futurists, and others also pointed the way forward.) I'm not sure how much the students got from our conversation about the book, which I felt was a bit rushed given the time constraints--in my ideal class we would have many, many weeks to luxuriate in reading and discussing any text or film or performance we were exploring--but in rereading it, I was struck again by what a remarkable little intervention it is. At its heart are a series of complex and artful algorithms connecting the immigrant Other to the alien/cyborg, based on her own experiences but also reconstructed as a lattice of interlinking and interanimating images, metaphors and metonyms, and structured as a chain of linked narratives. It is an incubatory space, not just for monsters, but for thinking itself. Here're two passages that work as an excerpt and give a sense, in distilled form, of what she achieves in this book. Enjoy!


I was a monster but the surgeon said no. You have your mother's eyes. My mother, smiling euphorically, smoothed the aluminum foil over the pillow and went to sleep, dreaming of mechanical sheep flying through a sky of tungsten. Copper and tulle. This thing she pushed off. This "but in the air." This "but the air changes your body." It was me. We communicated in silence. Then I left: a descent. Soft craziness. Drifts of freeable matter. I was three months old but I did it, I rolled out of bed. I rolled out the door and I rolled through London in the deep of night until I reached the river. There, in the Thames, was a black swan with an orange nub on his beak. I think he had wings. I rolled into the water and bobbed there a few moments, like an olive or a rose or a dog, until he saw me and came over to where Iwas with great force. By my neck he took me in his beak and put me on his back. Then the ocean. How small we are, in this image, my mother, Mr. Swan, and I. There is an incredible sense of openness: a luminous intensity in which darkness has a part. When it rained, hours into our long journey to America, I saw citron-yellow flashes in the sky. I reached my little hand out as if taking the light in, through the palm, then touched the long neck of the black swan, feeling his muscles contract then relax as he moved further out into the environment. "Hungry. Want naan. Want chole. Want dudhoo. (Yeast-free bread, chickpea curry, and milk.) Are we there yet?" I have a cousin in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As children in India, we washed our feet each morning beneath a pump. At night, when the electricity went out, our grandmother poured oil into little earthenware cups then slipped in wicks of cotton and lit them and we washed like that, illuminated.

Shimmery from my sea voyage, will I be recognized to my cousin? Or will she scream, slam the door in my face, and resume her life as a citizen, a computer programmer, though she is younger than me and pregnant with her second child, or so I heard?

Copyright © Bhanu Kapil, from Incubation: A Space for Monsters, Brooklyn: Leon Works, 2006. All rights reserved.

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