women in the waiting room
By Kirun Kapur
Black Lawrence Press, 2020
$16.95, Purchase at Bookshop.org
Reviewed by Sarah Shapiro
I’ve always lived in my body, yet I have not always paid attention to it. Kirun Kapur’s women in the waiting room, a book of both personal and documentary poetics, calls for women’s bodies to be heard as places of trauma, silence, song, and normalized magic. In this book, Kapur offers her own voice and also that of other women—overheard, attended, and mythic. As she writes in the poem “Hotline:”
If you can hear me you are the counselor
if you’re making these words in your mind
you’re the caller too
The traumatized body is one that has been through an ordeal—sexual assault, kidnapping, or surgery, to name a few she addresses in the book—so severe that some amount of disconnect occurs between the brain, body, and soul. Due to the incomplete, fragmentary, and individual nature of the disconnect, the experience is extremely difficult to pin down:
I couldn’t enter this room I’ve entered hundreds of times before
one me lives there
in that room still
the other me
just peeks in just occasionally
old me is dead
No single example of a life after such an event can stand in for the whole. The reader engages with the “traumatized body” because in multiplicity it stands as the universal body, which is treated socially, historically, and medically, as a shamed body:
I broke my back.
No, says the brain.
The tree’s trunk hacked
women in the waiting room shows the reader a way to begin to understand how a body can be both its own home and split from itself, how one might fathom the fallout from acute mental and physical suffering. In these vivid poems, we travel across the world, through time, and into the language of myth and fairy tale, yet we are always anchored to a woman’s body. And that body lives many lives–animal, goddess, and elemental. Soul inhabits the body of this book, reminding the reader that the sum of our parts are more together than taken apart.
Friend, refuse to be a refugee from your body.
Laxmi was reborn as Sita; Mary carried God as man.
Did they ever want to flee their human body?
Reading the opening poem, “On Looking at Myself in the Mirror, Or, Re-Reading Valmiki’s Ramayana” for the first time, the lyric language works to ease the reader into the knotty subjects of sexual assault and bodily injury:
Every girl steals away
with a demon at some point—
all her alphabets, ankle bells
all her braids—
She will meet herself in the third person…
Each image symbolizes a theme encountered over the course of the book, and the careful symbolism reverberates well beyond the poem itself. “Every girl” speaks to the flat language of fairy tale, inviting the reader to closely relate; the “demon” evokes myth and religion; and “alphabets, ankle bells / all her braids” gestures to all that might wrap the body and the importance of a women-centered social world. The most resonant moment, “she will meet herself in the third person,” enacts the splitting of self, soul, and body; before and after, old and new; hinging on the trauma.
“Women in the Waiting Room” the titular poem, revolves around the lives of two childhood friends as they manage their experiences, centering on the medical ordeal of the speaker’s friend. Particularly poignant is the layered discussion of voice and silence:
Here, the body seems to rule, and yet
you fix your voice, speaking to your daughter
on the phone, you tell your mother half the truth.
Here, halfway through the book, the reader has already encountered depictions of gaslighting, violence, shattered memories, and the loneliness of and in speaking your truth. From this vantage point, the friends examine how and when to use your voice to deal with a medicalized body in a clinical setting.
Silencing of pain and information functions here as an act of protection, yet separating the bodily experience from the voice is also a violation. True to the complex emotional landscape of this book, silence and voice not only come into question with doctors, classmates, or hotline counselors, but also with mothers and daughters. Already knowing that a woman’s voice can be threatened and disregarded, the speaker recognizes the messiness that medicalized bodies experience:
Still, there are some things I can’t say
in a body that’s been opened and reopened,
dressed and undressed by strangers
In the final poem of women in the waiting room, “Let Me Be As a River,” the speaker describes being a body in motion, a powerful body, one which exposes without curiosity and has a “willingness to bear anything;” one which is acted upon and used, is beautiful, angry, and full. This body endures–alive, hard, and unapologetic: “The river can’t hold everything that needs to be washed / downstream.” (Parvati at Her Bath, 75). Here, at the end of a deeply nuanced book of embodied physical, psychological, and social experiences, the river works as a razor-sharp reminder to pay attention to the messy, forceful, beauty of one’s living, acting body.
The Broadsided Poem:
“The Blade,” words by Kirun Kapur, art by Moustafa Jacoub. Published November 17, 2015.
Questions from Broadsided Press; Three Answers from Kirun Kapur
Bsided: in “The Blade,” the speaker’s pain is the pain of the land, understood through the place where humans and nature meet in imagery. Can you talk a bit about the shifting sand of ‘body’ in your work?
KK: For me, the body and the poem are inextricable. The very first thing a poem does is choreograph our breath. It directs the rise and fall of our chests; it moves our mouths, our tongues; we feel the energy of the words somewhere in our bodies, even if we’re reading silently (but please don’t read only silently!). I don’t think a poet can get away from the body, no matter how abstract or cerebral their subject. A poem creates a moment of incarnation.
Bsided: There are many goddesses, gods, monsters, and ancients who crop up across women in the waiting room, how did invoking them help you contend with traumas, body and soul?
KK: I’m fascinated by the stories we return to, the ones we tell over and over across centuries: myths, epics, scriptures, fables–foundational narratives of all kinds. They embody what has remained truest and most unsolvable about being human and they contain that ancient impulse to ensure the survival of the tribe by preserving its stories. Culture changes drastically over time…and yet it doesn’t. Goddesses and monsters are wonderful vessels for exploring the contradictory and inexplicable elements of human experience that transcend time—including traumas to body and soul. Trauma is always present tense, but we’re never as alone with it as we think. The ancients can be good, even essential, company.
We often harbor the idea that trauma and violence are rare, that they take place far from us, in other countries or communities. People often tell me that things were different in the past, that the levels of violence in our society are somehow a product of the modern age. The ancient stories tell us that none of this is true. They confirm what contemporary survivors and statistics tell us, if only we’d listen: that trauma touches us all; that it takes place in our families and communities all the time; that we have been perpetrating and surviving the same kinds of violence, especially gender-based violence, for eons. The experience of Christine Blasey Ford is deeply connected to the story of Sita. To know ourselves and change ourselves we have to acknowledge that.
Bsided: You do a beautiful job both harnessing and playing with poetic forms, from the four ghazals to the series of fragmentary “Hotline” poems, can you talk about your process of settling on form for content? Or content for form?
KK: Thank you. I loved experimenting with form in this collection. One of the things I wanted to explore in women in the waiting room was the tension between speech and silence. Form became one of the ways that tension took shape on the page. We often struggle to speak, especially in the face of grief or trauma. Silence can feel like a force we have to overcome—even break. However, equally, silence can be incredibly protective and nurturing. It can be the space out of which creativity comes and in which healing takes place. I believe the imagination needs silence to do its most profound work.
A poem, of course, is an act of speech, but silence plays such a crucial role in poems, too—the breath we draw before we speak the very first word, the abyss of white space at the end of a line, the mysterious pause of the caesura. I think my instinct to honor both speech and silence lead me to the forms in the book. I simply kept experimenting until forms emerged that held brokenness and wholeness, sound and quiet, in balance. When you open the book, you’ll see that—on one page there are tidy stanzas, on the next an explosion of words in white space. I hope the combination of forms forges new, expressive shapes for what feels impossible to say and to hear. I hope, ultimately, silence and speech come together in song.
Bsided: women in the waiting room is carefully ordered to slowly unfurl many types of discrete and overlapping traumas perpetrated on women’s bodies. These traumas seep into one another and across the book building towards a constellation. Was this part of your intent with ordering? What was your thinking for those choices?
KK: Ordering poems into a book is a process of trial and error for me. I look for a rhythm, variety, and surprise, experimenting with different arrangements until all the poems snap into sharper focus. In women in the waiting room, the ordering felt especially important. There are many voices and experiences in the book. I wanted these voices to speak to each other—however private their pain—creating echoes, connecting across time and space, building (as you say!) into a unity, a chorus.
Sarah Shapiro’s chapbooks the bullshit cosmos (ignitionpress 2019) and being called normal (tall-lighthouse press 2021) work to bridge the gap between those who struggle to read and those who read with ease. In addition to writing towards a (dys)abilities poetics, Sarah spends more and more time thinking about the deep ecology of her neighborhood.