Women in the Waiting Room
by Kirun Kapur
Black Lawrence Press, 2020
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
The poems in Kirun Kapur’s second collection, Women in the Waiting Room, recount trauma inflicted on women by men, by gods, and by illnesses. The book like a “chest unzipped,” reveals itself in three sections: sections 1 and 3, mirror each other with their poetic forms and their mythologies; section 2, a 25-page poem-sequence and the title poem, narrates a friend’s battle with cancer. By expertly utilizing fragmentation, form, imagery, and mythology (both Christian and Hindu), Kapur creates a book of witness, an examination of an “inner world…made of women,” where “they filled her stomach, mouth, breath.”
Kapur opens the first section with women pulled apart by violence and exploitation. In “Girls, Girls, Girls,” disembodied “neon legs…kicked and kicked until they were a strain of light.” I was haunted by the “Steubenville Ghazal,” a recounting of the 2012 gang-rape of a young woman and her further victimization on social media. We see “a pic of a thigh,” then a “blank space,” erasing the woman’s humanity. Kapur’s choice of the ghazal, with its obsessive repetition, resonates both intellectually and physically. Kapur repeats a deep, humming “him” as the end word. When we reach the final couplet, which requires the poet’s name, we read, “My name is redacted, it no longer applies./I end every line writing him, him, him.” Kapur keeps us aware of her choices as the poet, and also poses the questions: What is the poet allowed to tell? And how should the poet tell? Kapur’s found poems, the “Hotline” poems, are fragments of calls to an assault crisis center; here, the women are voices, “No scars, birthmarks, clothes, jewelry.” We, like the counselor on the other end of the phone, may only “borrow sorrow.” Kapur reveals the violence in broken lines spread across the pages: “girl-body, washed up/in the canal, wrapped—” and “Police were saying/was she sure it was a broom handle?” When the counselor brings this as a poem to a workshop, a fellow poet asks,
a wooden handle do all that?
The poet suggests
make it a skillet. I’d believe
he killed her with a skillet, if you must.
Kapur underscores this intimacy of telling a story (or a secret or reporting a crime) by the use of the mouth as an image. In “The Annunciation,” Mary “will wake with the feel of a tongue, wet in her ear.” Kapur uses the mouth as a contrast to the dryness of a desert and the heat of the fire Sita was made to walk through, “salt tongue, my heartless bell.” Kapur writes “In the Rub’ al Khali,”
if our story orbits back
to when desert was
you put your mouth
to me like a jellyfish,
like a diesel kiss, like I am
a bottle of well water….”
Kapur sutures the first and third sections together with these myths, images, and especially poetic forms. In section 3, Sita re-emerges, pulling herself from the purification flames where, “I’m waiting for ten tongues of light to appear on the ceiling, telling it all over again.” The mouth appears throughout this account of the speaker’s back surgery and recovery; the condition, kyphosis, is intermingled with sound. In the poem “Kyphosis,” Kapur breaks down the etymology of the word, “A yoke. A plow. A word//for punishment in public: pillory.” Kapur describes her injury as both bone-deep and from the mouth,
I broke a little bone
a breath a breath
the body and the talk of the body—
By echoing images from the first section, Kirun transforms them. In “Red Lilies Ghazal”, Kapur resurrects the image of the wooden broom by conjuring Frida Kahlo’s back surgery, “Monkeys and blossoms, a long metal spine./In the void, Frida’s paintings befriended my mind.” The water in the first section of the book where “more than once a girl washed up,” reappears in the closing poem, “Let me Be a River.” The speaker, if not healed, asks to be used: “let me be dredged/when the leggy girls go missing….”
Kapur also returns to the ghazal and the “Hotline” poems. “Reincarnation Ghazal” has the fragmented appearance of a “Hotline” poem, but with the adherence to the rules of a ghazal. The poem reflects the speaker’s re-introduction to herself, with the word “body” as the refrain:
I have looked back to see my own body
unsure if it could really be my own body.
I count my breaths, careful slow,
Friend, refuse to be a refuge from your body.
Laxmi was reborn as Sita; Mary carried God as a man
Did they ever want to flee their human body?
As I was reading Women in the Waiting Room, I thought of Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room;” specifically, that moment when the young Elizabeth hears “an Oh! of pain” and begins “falling, falling,” unsure of who she was. Throughout Kapur’s book, the self is forever re-forming, asking “What I? Which She? Who’s writing this self?” Kapur’s challenge to herself and the reader is an uneasy balance of articulation, “so we might both rise ready/to wring out the story.”
The spine of the story, the middle section, is a witnessing-in-verse. The title poem of the book, “Women in the Waiting Room,” is a 25-page poem about a friend’s battle with cancer. The section opens in a waiting room where women enter to be pulled apart,
The hair goes. The breasts go. The ovaries. Gone
The uterus and fallopian tubes. This is the waiting room
of philosophers straightening lilac wraps, discerning
where the self resides without nipples or brows or two arms. . . .
This section echoes the brutality of the first and foreshadows the medical world of the third section. The speaker ponders the idea of words in the wake of a traumatized body. The voice becomes key to living, to surviving, even if the voice tells a lie:
Here, the body seems to rule, and yet
your fix your voice, speaking to your daughter
on the phone, you tell your mother half the truth.
Kapur introduces the concept of generational survival or generational healing, which stands in contrast to generational trauma. Both the speaker and the friend have families: children, mothers. Do the words we speak ultimately heal, even if the healing is for someone else?
Tonight, the silence grows until we break
its shape with words: fat deposit, swollen glands,
likely to be nothing. Then plan for surgeries,
new meds, a batter of scans. All calls in the night
are calls to live under the unsolvable dome.
I reposition the phone. We go on exchanging sounds.
I count your breaths, as I do my son’s.
The poet achieves an acceptance of the dual roles of listener and poet, “If you can hear me,” Kapur writes in a “Hotline” poem, “you are the counselor//if you’re making these words/you’re the caller too.” I will return many times to Women in the Waiting Room, not only for its surgical poignancy, but for its poetic mastery. Kirun Kapur’s collection of witness invites us in and implicates us, the readers, as witnesses to societal harms, disassociation and hard work of healing. With precision, Kirun Kapur pulls the reader through “A body of water. A body of knowledge. A body of evidence. A body of crime.”
Kirun Kapur's newest book, Women in the Waiting Room, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2020. Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil calls it “a must-read for these times and beyond.” Her first collection, Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist, was awarded the 2013 Antivenom Poetry Award and was a finalist for the Mass Book Prize, the Julie Suk Award and several other prizes. Described as a “stellar debut by a major new voice” (Andre Dubus III), it was published in 2015 by Elixir Press.
Jennifer Martelli is the author of My Tarantella (Bordighera Press), selected as a 2019 “Must Read” by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, awarded an Honorable Mention from the Italian-American Studies Association, and named as a finalist for the Housatonic Book Award. Her chapbook, After Bird, was the winner of the Grey Book Press open reading, 2016. Her poems have appeared in Verse Daily, Iron Horse Review (winner, Photo Finish contest), The Sycamore Review, and Poetry Magazine. Her prose and reviews have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Green Mountains Review, and Solstice Literary Magazine. Jennifer Martelli has twice received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council for her poetry. She is co-poetry editor for Mom Egg Review.