Schizophrene by Bahnu Kapil Review


by Bhanu Kapil

Nightboat Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-984459865
Pages: 73
Reviewed by: Sabrina Dalla Valle


“If anything touched her sari, if one of her children brushed
against her thigh, she felt a peristaltic reflex. She felt she
was swallowing them too.”

Bhanu Kapil demonstrates how the sense of touch leads us to our first complex notion of boundary. As the poet Novalis says, “Touching is separation and connection both at once.” In some cases, this boundary is dissolved: physically, conceptually, and narratively. The A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia says, “Schizophrenia is a complex mental disorder that makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences, think logically, have normal emotional responses, and behave normally in social situations.” This experimental writer’s determined commitment to research psychological manifestations of immigration leads her to the connection between forced exile/relocation, schizophrenia, and the redemptive possibility of touch as a narrative device.

Cast from the dye of her own Punjabi family migration tragedy, she spares no details in observing how geographical boundaries of separation drive deep into the psyche transpiring not only as forms of fragmented awareness and emotional affect, but also into a new territory of narrative exposition.

One day per room. It’s raining […]
my mother saw, peeking between the slats of the cart,
row after row of women tied to the border trees. “Their
stomachs were cut out,” said my mother […]
This is something that happens in the second room, in
the city that the room belongs to, and it functions (the
information) as a grave.

Rather than calling the schizophrenic ‘pathological,’ Schizophrene uses this condition to change our relationship to space and time and reconceptualize the existing organized, rational design to discover something new.

Here are the tools: the passing of devotional objects back and forth between hands to give the schizophrenic a healing touch. What Kapil is interested in is not the objects, but the way pulsation and frequency of the invested movement opens up new narrative possibilities to talk about mental disorder. Bhanu Kapil says, “Schizophrenia is rhythmic, touching something lightly/ many times.” How might this be interpreted as a story, or in the author’s case, a biography of exile capable of testing all boundaries? She turns to hallucination as a device, explaining how it is an organization of acute matter, “the capacity of fragments to attract, occur, re-articulate or shake (descend): in play.” The book begins as fragments of a failed research project, phrases that survive a notebook buried under snow in winter, “…who asks what’s forbidden, what’s expected. In the/ annular zone. In the airport. On the earth.” This is a collection of seemingly fragmented sequences of impressions coming at the reader like hands stroking the taught surface of tabla drums, resonances arranged as musical tension– a fugue, perhaps– to overcome disassociation and integrate a torn sense of ‘belonging.’

Here are the notes: a charged trajectory of migration, tracks like scales inked on a score sheet for three voices–audible at once in their dissonance. Flashes of setting chase one another: “Delhi… focusing upon the freshly/ dyed black wool hanging from a line in the garden and/ dripping”; “a London suburb seen from above and recorded with/ dyes: an indigo house leaking its color into the grid like/ a cloud”; “[…] Colorado with its dark brown fields,/ a fresh snow sparkling and linear in its furrows. Its bee./ Its wolf.” Contested, they wrap around a center point of the ocean. Location, like nerves, becomes a grid of tension between the ‘exiled’ as schizophrenic subject and a trailing ghost–racism. In a seminal moment of domestic abuse, father beating mother’s head against the wall in a house of windows transparent to the world, she writes, “…You fucking/ Paki, what do you think you’re doing? This is England, you bleeding/ animal.”

Kapil embarks on a journey of the foreigner’s passage across sea with a disposition similar to Rilke’s during World War II articulated in his Duino Elegies: “Here… distances unending./ There… a gentle breathing./After that first home, this one seems windstruck and degenerate.” The exiled is caught living with ‘distances unending,’ a pulse of continuous displacement; s/he cannot return, because as Kapil says, “‘Reverse migration…’ [too] Is psychotic.” Both authors swallow the bitterness of isolation, and yet, by so doing¬–paradoxically find unification with everything that rejects their completion.

Speaking as an emigrant in an interview with Katherine Sanders, the author asks, “How do we get above the place where we are ‘caught living’.” She tells us this kind of out-of-body relocation exemplifies somatic bodywork, “mov[ing] between the body and the larger space or auditory environment around it.” This process is called titration and can also be applied to the use of language. As Kapil explains, it is like “Light, consistent or secular touch that remedies, in certain forms of exchange [like a pendual]: a disturbance. That discharges something from the nerves […] That moves between storytelling and sensation: the body, vibrating, above, in or next to the sea.” Titration is a chemistry term that describes a controlled reaction when two opposing chemicals are combined. When done so quickly, there is an explosion. However when mixed slowly over time, when titrated, the explosion is avoided and the oppositional fluids become complimentary. Narrative flashes, sensations, blank space: this is the textual laboratory where the tincture is made.

How is it possible to titrate the tension between exile and homeland and create a tincture of being so we are no longer caught living in a place, but may simply live? Location must be seen as fluid, moving through connective tissue, not as a still image of place. “Schizophrenic, what binds design? What makes the city/ touch itself everywhere at once, like an Asian city, like the/city you live in now? What makes the wall wet, the step/ wet, the sky wet?” How might one touch so as to arouse a sense of life, a return of pleasure? In order to overcome the schizophrenic’s propensity for anhedonia– the inability to experience pleasure from usually pleasurable activities– Kapil turns to the world of non-living things.

One of the book chapters titled “Abiogenesis” investigates the scientific phenomenon whereby a certain arrangement of inorganic matter gives rise to create organic life. If chemical reactions from non-living things can create fundamental biochemicals, which are the building blocks of life, what are other possible similar relationships? “To flux, to squat: a conjunction of living and non-living/ matter. In a book without purpose–with a dead start./ But with the body displaying signs of early spring: pink bits/sensitive to being touched, like a Jain woman crossing the/street in her linen mask and with her pole.” There is no demarcation between non-living and living matter, just as there is no distinction between here and there.

In her earlier chapbook, Water-damage: a map of three black days, Kapil tells us, “It is psychotic to draw a line between two locations.” It is impossible to go from here to there, have complete separation between two positions. The work of hybrid authors is to create a ‘passage’ of mutation between ‘belonging’ and ‘being’ so that ‘being’ is good enough by itself. French literary theorist and immigrant writer Hélène Cixous describes this ‘passage’ as a form of movement awareness. “I realized there is no harm, only difficulties in living in the zone without belonging… I would stay passing… Je suis en passance.” The emigrant exists en passage, which can be read as ‘pas sage’ (a term that has several meanings in French, this one referring to ‘not well behaved’ or ‘naughty’), between interior and exterior. The passage provides transformation, but also transgression. It is expedient and uncensored. Cixous writes, “One must act fast. And no time to learn.” The emigrant writer shows by example how to “trim and edit this space of passage to ‘relaunch life’.” The only way to seal the rift is by dissolving the boundaries between presence and absence creating a new space ‘to be.’

Here is the house. It is the space Rilke writes of, “the nowhere minus the no:/ that innocent, unguarded/space which we could breathe,/ know endlessly, and never require.” The ephemeral where becomes a habitat without a shell– free from the tug of necessity. However, do not be misled; there are a certain number of life-accounts to settle before such a metaphysical experience is attained for the author and even the reader. Ever sophic, this book continues to echo the strivings of French literary theory, “The upwelling of philosophy attends to what we can’t see./ A light tent over the text. [blank space] Nevertheless, reading these words, I can’t have them in/ my house.” This hidden scaffold that completes meaning from the fragments is Derridean– “one is shaped by difference…the ‘self’ is constituted by its never- fully-to-be-recognized-ness”; we are the play of chance and necessity (Of Grammatology, xliv). At first, Kapil refuses to roll the dice in a climate of compulsion. “Is it a right thing or a mad thing not to/ want to re-connect, to avoid reading or writing because of/ what those will bring?” But there is another version of this metaphor reaching back to the Gospel of John, “The word became flesh and set its tents within us.” And this, I believe, is the final goal of Kapil’s literary project.

Her opening epigraph quoted from Adorno supports her project’s quest to discover a more complete, integral sense of belonging: “It is part of one’s morality not to be at home in one’s home.” In this detachment of the exiled – home is always a provisional space. Only after we are exiled from the house do we begin to have self-knowledge. The 12th century monk, Hugo of St Victor writes, “The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world, the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.” He has no need for place, nor event. In the second line of Schizophrene we are told, “Immigrant. Nothing happens. Immigrant.” How does a book that, in Kapil’s words, “barely says anything” gain importance? An immigrant man and his granddaughter walk through the public square, “They’re walking into that, the darkness pouring into/ their mouths when they reach the hills.”

What is the value of the fragment versus the continuous phrase? What is the grammar of fragments? Written as a quick note at the end, we are told, “Grammar is emotional.” It is a flexible template that must adapt to the changing frequencies of the internal against the external world. Spatial and tactile, it reflects the genuine nature of actual life engaged with dissonant layers, more meaningful than story that must tell itself to arrive somewhere. Again, Rilke seems to shed light, “We are, above all, eternal spectators/looking upon, never from,/ the place itself. We are the/essence of it. We construct it./It falls apart. We reconstruct it/and fall apart ourselves.”

While gnawing at the bones of critical theory and philosophy, Schizophrene is a description of pure creative thinking, a narrative without a directed conclusion – yet a direct connection to life through the experience of nerve frequencies and tissue connectivity. “‘If you touch it, its yours,’ says the butcher to the house/wife as she extends her hands towards the ham. In this way,/you are the velvet body of a boy or girl, the raised part of/the pattern.” This work is treacherous. The brutal truth of social vulnerability becomes identical with the author through touch; it is chewed, fragmented, dissolved and purified into a river of blood. And in this magical contagion, with her, we too swallow it knowing that “An economy is/ a system of apparently willing but actually involuntary/ exchanges. A family, for example, is really a shopfront, a/ glass plate open to the street.” But if the transparent boundary becomes fluid, then “1. Nobody is [emigrant].”


Bhanu Kapil has written four full-length prose/poetry works, THE VERTICAL INTERROGATION OF STRANGERS (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: A Space for Monsters (Leon Works, 2006), Humanimal: A Project for Children (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), and Schozphrene (Nightboat Books, 2011). Born in the UK to Indian parents, Bhanu lives in Colorado, where she teaches in The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.