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Jacket 21 — February 2003   |   # 21  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Jane Sprague reviews

The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers,
by Bhanu Kapil Rider

Kelsey St. Press, 2001
Kelsey St. Press, 50 Northgate Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94708, USA
ISBN: 0-932716-56-3; 112 pages, $11.00 paperback

See the listing for Kelsey Street Press in Jacket’s Small Press page:

Self described as a ‘British national of Punjabi origin who lives in Colorado,’ Bhanu Kapil Rider is the author of Autobiography of a Cyborg, (Leroy Chapbook Press, 2000.) Currently writing a novel set in colonial Bengal, The Wolf Girls of Midnapure, Rider teaches at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. (Interlope, Issue Seven.)
      Her latest book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, could be called a book-length poem, a collection of prose or an experimental novel. It is a remarkable collaged work based on four years of literal interrogations of strangers and Rider’s own response to questions which form the basis of the ‘interrogation.’ Rider designed a stringent interview process, based on twelve carefully crafted questions with the goal of producing ‘ honest and swift text, uncensored by guilt or the desire to present an impressive, publishable “finish.” (6) The introduction and the questions themselves create a stunning examination of longing, love, the physicality of memory, and the unresolved process of placing: placing oneself in the world, in relation to the beloved, one’s history, one’s present, and the irreconcilable nature of all that we, physically, carry.
      In the introduction, she cites her dilemma of placement: ‘As I traveled between the countries of my birth (England), ancestry (India), and residence (America), I answered the questions for myself again and again.’ (7) What emerges is the voice of collective identity channeled through a specific ‘I’. In this way, the book becomes larger than Rider’s introductory wish for it to be ‘... an anthology of the voices of Indian women.’ (6) The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers is an investigation of what it means to be a woman, and specifically, of being an Indian woman living in America: what it means to be placed inside the persistent ache of displacement, gendered life, straddling cultures and relationships. What it means to accommodate the pervasive disorder of what one wants to the reality and complicated particulars of who one is. The epigraph from Hélène Cixous is apt:

Because she arrives, vibrant, over and over again; we are at the beginning of a new history, or rather a process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another. As a subject for history, woman always occurs simultaneously in several places. (In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history.) (5)

The case could also be made for the book as an investigation of colonialism and the female body itself as the site of colonization and the urgent internal press to reclaim or remake identity. Rider examines the female body as a physical signifier for comprehending one’s history, desires and articulation of experience. ‘My name, my body. Such versions, I occupy. Live in, as surely as a  / dung-wall house, a house that does not turn, is not born twice: / skulls, oranges.’ (12) In an excerpt from The Diary of the Wolf Girls of Midnapure , Rider’s ‘Working Note’ provides important context for the arc of her project:

I am interested in those subjects — nomads, immigrants, cyborgs, wolf girls — who are segmented and seeking: a woman, for example, re-attributing herself or unfolding to a set plane upon command. What does the shape of her body and her mind look like as she moves through the world? (A woman who, in the narrative, precedes and follows her own birth. The whole body has the same tone, thus no ellipsis, no separate commentaries or asterisks.) That is my experiment: to make the line travel towards a confused origin — hyper-organic, splitting the skin, still livid. (HOW(ever) v. 1, 5, 2001.)

The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers is ordered numerically. With few exceptions, each page contains a response to one question. The order of her original twelve questions is shuffled; some questions are repeated more than once, notably, ‘What are the consequences of silence?’ and ‘Tell me what you know about dismemberment.’ Rider is interested in the questions underneath these questions, ‘5. What is the shape of your body? / 6. Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?’ (9) The ideas inside the questions and the convergence of both as the book progresses — the answers and questions begin to overlap and blur.

Beneath ideas: the tightness in the chest at the beginning of a long
sentence, the fuschia spikes of closed eyelids, dismembered kisses,
arbitrary thirsts. Milk. Something sweet. Please. (28)

What follows is image after image, presented in a seemingly fragmented style, the sequence of the questions as posed in the body of the text are not sequential, answers to questions do not answer directly, they frequently answer at a slant. The odd brilliance of this book is its surface simplicity. In spare and direct language, Rider weaves in culture specific moments: drinking chai, traveling to Jaipur, smoking biris on a train. She achieves a collage of the heartbreaking dailiness of our lives, ‘You take his battered brown shoes in your arms one by / one, cradling them like the littlest ones with the flapping dusty / tongues, the ones you have to bring inside, to wean.’ (30)
      The book moves fluidly through the specificity of cultures (scenes from the American West, references to India, Pakistan, England) as she renders a group composition based on her research — but it is hard to tell, who is who, what experience was actually had by the ‘I’ of the poem or is a creation of what the book attempts to dissect: identity and what it is that shapes us. What it is that places us in relation to who we are and who we love, and what are the often difficult-to-fathom consequences and implications of these acts.
‘As if our responsibilities to each other end at the border of our / countries, or at our cities, or half-way across our cities, or at our / back doors, or at our skins. No.’ (33)
      Underneath all of the questions, and the answers, is an insistent focus on the relationship of the lover to the beloved. In many places, the book is absolutely about him. And the gaze of the woman both fixed on him and at herself through a filter of what he saw, how he labeled, how he hurt her. This made me wonder about certain aspects of Indian culture, and led me to question the extent to which gender roles are proscribed culturally, or are there aspects of our gendered selves which are both universal and culturally specific? It made me question stereotypical and real aspects of traditional gender roles in Indian and American culture and how those roles might shift or be complicated by a life such as Rider’s — a life among and between cultures.
      Many parts of the book deal with how the female is diminished by him because of this longing and rejection of her, by him. Or, the impossibility of him. At times this particular interrogation felt like a recycled theme and one that I wished she would move beyond. But, ideas of persistent longing are about longing for the beloved and the impossible want of an adult woman looking back, across oceans, across time, from a position in one culture to a personal past in another and the irreconcilable ache of continually struggling to grasp or contain that which cannot be explained.

The distances between my body and the bodies of the ones I love:
grow. They are limited by coasts. I have a few questions to ask, but
I do not know how to break the growing silence. I breathe in the
salty mist, walk back along the wild, shifting edge of everything. ( 61)

When Rider delves into the interstices of what binds us, what shapes us, it becomes a larger idea and one that is utterly beautiful. Many of the answers deal with the compilation of sense and image memory that serves as a running internal narrative for identity and raise further questions of: who are we? And in relation to what? And what do we remember and why? What effect does this remembering, this carrying have on us?

A book, apparently there is a book — I want to make the book of looking for this book — the book of everything that has happened, of everything that will happen. Twenty — four shapes of longing. An abandoned alphabet. Each kiss, each sutured return to the origin. (42)

As if the physical act of remembering, the interrogation of oneself or others and these shifting edges, as if this defining could help us know where we truly are. As the book progresses, the questions begin to merge: ‘What are the consequences of silence? / And what would you say if you could?’ (81)

Like the
women, their faces are the faces I have only ever seen at night — time,
when my lovers break open, and begin.

I want to begin. What is it like to begin? (81)

The book moves into answers of spareness, answers surrounded by white space on the page. All of that white space answers two questions, the actual, and the underneath — longing for the beloved. Longing for the self. Life and death are everywhere intertwined in this book. Love dies. The act of sex ends. Lovers stop being lovers to each other. As in Shakespeare, even sex is a sort of ‘little death’ where coming is ending and a kind of dying. Only, Rider’s deaths are larger, and pile up, accumulate and press on the force in us that is everywhere trying to live, trying to assert what it is. What persists. What defines us. ‘The most orange, untranslatable things I have ever said about my body.’ In the end, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers raises more questions than it answers. And it does so, beautifully.

Jane Sprague’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Can We Have Our Ball Back?, Shampoo, VeRT, Tinfish, Columbia Poetry Review, Xcp: Cross Cultural Poetics and others. She recently published Ammiel Alcalay’s chapbook: Poetry, Politics and Translation: American Isolation and The Middle East (Palm Press, 2003.) She lives in Ithaca, NY where she curates the West End Reading Series.

Works Cited

Rider, Bhanu Kapil. The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2001.

———. ‘Working Note: Excerpt from ‘The Diary of the Wolf Girls of Midnapure’’ HOW(ever) 1.5 (2001)

———. ‘BIOS.’ Interlope#7.

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