Kirun Kapur Where do the constellations we name as the self begin? What does it mean to belong to a family, a nation, a past? “Anthem,” the first poem in Kirun Kapur’s debut collection, opens into such questions, saying:

“I’m not talking / about a place, but a country: / Its laws are your mother, its walls / Are your dreams. The flag it flies // Is your father, waving.”

These lines are a fair map of lyric terrain—an inquiry into the geopolitics of imagination and nostalgia, an exploration of the trade routes of the heart. Indeed, Kapur has rich subjects to probe: the past lives of her mother, once a Benedictine novitiate; of her father, an immigrant whose family was divided by India’s 1947 partition; and of her family itself, which, to her, is at once unfathomable and intimately beloved.

These poems are equal parts love song and reckoning. Weaving together strands that include Hafiz, Islamabad newspapers, Bollywood film and the Ramayana, Kapur traces tribal and national violence, circling the unsettling places where these eruptions converge on her family’s life. Often her poems are split with jagged omissions, like when the speaker (a proxy for Kapur) asks her father for answers about saving relatives lost in partition’s violence, and gets told, “You should eat more loki.” There’s evasiveness here, the kind of absence that makes a daughter lean in toward a story, wanting to know what’s in the space that’s been obscured.

Other times, Kapur captures a kind of eddying repetition— a story building on itself with sonic, rather than narrative, logic. Kapur often plays with the pantoum, in which end words from the first and third lines of one stanza repeat in the second and fourth lines of the next, so that a poem cascades with echoes. In one such stanza, Kapur writes: “In a family you have to share everything/ I can hear my father explain: / Whatever may rage between brothers, / A family shares what it has.”

But why, exactly, the rage? And what does it mean to share it across time and continent? The poem repeats its end lines without telling exactly. Kapur’s speakers leave the mysteries of legacy tantalizingly open, as in the poem where a relative says: “Good girls know how to make good puris / They don’t ask for the old stories.”

Visiting Indira Gandhi's Palmist

Visiting Indira Gandi's Palmist book cover

by Kirun Kapur ’97

Elixir Press

Kapur's book of poetry was select by Ned Balbo for the 2013 Antivenom Poetry Award who had this to say: "Through poems that are masterfully paced and densely layered, Kapur sets out to explorethe tensions of our most basic human bonds: love and duty, violence and communion, family and nation."

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Nevertheless, Kapur wants to ask. She feels certain that the past persists. Her epigraph comes from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!: “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fifiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years.”

Indeed, Kapur is at her strongest when she’s contemplating the mysterious way her father’s story, especially, echoes again in the life she has now. “Those moments we were wholly foreign to each other…,” she writes, “he said enough to strike me dumb, to make me / struggle for some sense. He was arming me / with shoes to wear, with fury, feathers, flight.”

About the Author

Tess Taylor ’00 is the author of a book of poems, The Forage House. Her second book, Work and Days, is coming out in 2016. She is the on-air poetry reviewer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

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