Every month, we shine the light on a book from our collection – one which is new to the library, which has been particularly enjoyed by a borrower, recommended by a volunteer, or which seems salient to the month’s events or happenings. To see the archive of past books of the month from this year, click here.
The current book of the month is…
June: How To Wash A Heart by Bhanu Kapil
Bhanu Kapil’s ‘How to Wash A Heart’ is not a comfortable read, but it is a crucial one. This year’s winner of the T S Eliot Prize, Kapil’s collection is a series of poems which tells the story of an immigrant staying as a guest in a citizen’s house. It gives an honest insight into the experience of being hosted, digging deep into the idea that “it’s exhausting to be a guest / In somebody else’s house / Forever.”
Kapil reflects on the tension between generosity and resentment. At first, it is subtle: tea is given but, “You bang the cup down / By my sleepy head”. Food is a presence throughout the collection, imagined in the mango and pomegranate trees of the speaker’s homeland, but in the host’s house, there is a “heaving plate / of meat,” the pain of “eating too much.” The vulnerability of being at the mercy of one’s host is tense and terrifying: “I understood that you were a wolf / Capable of devouring / My internal organs / If I exposed them to view.”
At the core of the collection is the speaker’s longing to be seen as whole and human. For the host, the speaker becomes an object of perverse curiosity, something to show off to her neighbours, and later to be feared, distrusted, and resented. “The host-guest chemistry / Is inclusive, complex, molecular,” writes Kapil. However, the voice at the heart of the poems resists the speaker being reduced to victim or threat. Some of the most heart-wrenching moments in the collection are when the speaker demands her own humanity, through diary entries or in a dream of waking up “In the arms of the person / I love.”
This is poetry unapologetic in challenging the limits of our understanding of hospitality and inclusivity. It deliberately offers no answers and no comfortable resolutions. Instead, it invites the reader in to the experience of how it truly feels to be edged out, and the cost of not belonging. In a year where we’ve all been forced to think a bit more about what it means to be at home, it feels an especially relevant lesson to learn.