Women in the Waiting Room, Kirun Kapur’s unsettling second collection of poems, is bookended by the image of a dead girl in a body of water, an image that recurs half a dozen times throughout the collection. In one of the final poems, “Spring,” the image has become so deeply embedded in the speaker’s psyche that she begins to hallucinate it when she sees a cormorant surfacing after a dive for prey: “I could have sworn a girl with dark hair surfaced.” Indeed, the image of the dead or missing girl is a ubiquitous narrative trope, a plot point or abstract hinge on which the action hangs, and through which characters, usually male, resolve their own internal and external conflicts. This trope is as old as storytelling, with entire epics built around it, including the Ramayana, which Kapur references in the opening poem, “On Looking at Myself in the Mirror, Or, Re-Reading Valmiki’s Ramayana.” This self-portrait/persona poem assumes the voice of Sita, the heroine of the ancient Sanskrit epic whose abduction by the demon king Ravana launches the action. The first two lines of the poem, “Anyone can disappear / across the black water,” conflate the image of the dead/missing girl with the abduction of Sita, and therein lies the theme that will dominate the collection—specifically, gender-based violence and the desire to tell the survivor’s story, to identify and to name the body of the victim.
In the tradition of the poetry of witness, Kapur’s speaker investigates the damage from sexual assault and domestic abuse and listens to survivors’ stories, some of which she relates in a series of crisis “Hotline” poems scattered throughout the book. Fractured, disjointed, sprawling across the page, these poems are among the most effective and affecting in the collection, and the conversations they chronicle are heartbreaking in their detail and authenticity. In the first one, the dead “girl-body, washed up in the canal, wrapped— / the brand identified as Glad” is what the speaker admits she has “trained [her] mind to un-see,” but in recognizing herself in that “girl-body”—“5’2, 133, precisely / my own height and weight”—she is able to identify and empathize with the women she counsels, and thus the poem resists simply reproducing the violence described. In another “Hotline” poem, this act of empathy becomes a revelatory self-awareness, as the identities of caller and counselor merge: “If you can hear me you are the counselor / If you’re making these words in your mind / you’re the caller too.”
This empathetic awareness also guides the collection’s centerpiece and title poem, which introduces the book’s related themes of friendship between women, illness, and medical trauma, as the speaker finds herself in a similar role as in the “Hotline” poems, acting as both counselor and caretaker to her friend in cancer treatment. Here, in the literal and figurative waiting rooms, the speaker meditates on metaphysical questions about the nature of the soul:
In the darkness of the post-op cubicle,
the world is once again a pulsing, liquid place,
the womb, that first waiting room,
it seems reasonable to think about the soul.
What are its limits? What is it made of?
However, it is body parts, specifically gendered body parts, that dominate this long poem which comprises the entire second section of the collection, and “Here, the body seems to rule.” Yet even while “living on the body’s dismemberment,” the speaker acknowledges that “we have tried / to love these bodies,” and in moments of quiet pathos, tenderness, and intimacy, she tends to her friend’s broken body, while hinting at a past trauma from which the friend helped her recover.
Broken bodies are also one of the subjects of the third section, wherein Kapur’s speaker confronts her own bodily illness and pain. In “By Wind Is the Tree Cut Back,” that confrontation is presented as a conflict between mind and body, in which “pain is the strangest game.” Recalling Dickinson with its dashes, “blank,” and “gasp,” the ending of the poem resonates powerfully:
The woman will get up again
or in the blank—
she might stay.
Like Dickinson’s speaker, Kapur’s is also “afraid to own a Body,” for she has witnessed firsthand how easily it breaks. In the final of several ghazals in the collection, “Reincarnation Ghazal,” which takes the traditional ghazal form and explodes it across the page, the speaker considers control over the body within the arenas of politics and medicine: “Who has the right to oversee my body? / On TV, men smile, white, in fresh blue suits. / I fill the doctor’s forms regarding my own body.” Questioning whether the Virgin Mary, who “carried God as man” and is presented as a rape victim in “The Annunciation,” an earlier poem in the book, ever wished “to flee [her] human body,” the speaker wonders whether she too can ever be fully free in her own body, which is limited by not only physical pain but also patriarchal repression.
By the final poem, “Let Me Be as a River,” the speaker’s body is reborn—not as a human being but as a force of nature:
nothing but motion, muck
mouthed, mud hearted, brackish,
all dirty at the lip, with rise and fall
that exposes hull-gouging stones, no
curiosity about source, no knowledge
of destination, just willingness
to bear anything right to the end
What was once the watery grave of “the leggy girls” is now pure movement and flow, the music of the rising and falling tides now a stand-in for the speaker’s breath, and as she sings her fervent prayer, a mythical transformation takes place, a kind of reverse anthropomorphism in which she becomes the thing that both terrifies and fascinates her. Like the current, she has learned “to bear anything right to the end.” Here, as in the collection as a whole, the urgency of the voice and the timeliness (and timelessness) of its message demand that we, like the speaker in the “Hotline” poems, hold the line and listen.
Elizabeth Knapp grew up in Houston and has lived in Massachusetts, California, Michigan, and Maryland, with brief stints in London and Prague. She earned a BA from Amherst College, an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and a PhD from Western Michigan University. Her first book of poems, The Spite House, won the 2010 De Novo Poetry Prize and was published by C&R Press in 2011. Her second collection, Requiem with an Amulet in Its Beak, won the 2019 Jean Feldman Poetry Prize and was published by the Washington Writers’ Publishing House in 2019. Her other honors include the 2018 Robert H. Winner Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a 2017 Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award, and the 2015 Literal Latté Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best New Poets, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, and Quarterly West. An associate professor of English and Chair of the Department of English & Communications Arts at Hood College, she lives in Frederick, Maryland with her husband, the novelist Robert Eversz, and their two children.