Omphalos by Bhanu Kapil – Ban: a novel-shaped space

I would begin with the Greek word, omphalos, meaning the navel, and
hence the stone that marked the centre of the world, and repeat it, omphalos, omphalos, omphalos, until its blunt and falling music becomes the music
of someone pumping water at the pump outside our back door.  
                        – Seamus Heaney, ‘Mossbawn’

As part of an occasional series, The Poetry Review asks poets to write about their omphalos, a place central to their imaginative world.


Note on [near] the essay, extracted or built from a second set of notes, towards ‘Ban’. Ban: a novel-shaped space. For many years, I wrote towards or against a rectangle of: asphalt. A piece of the street. To imagine: a day (23 April 1979), the day: of a protest in Southall, Middlesex: that escalated: by nightfall: into what was later called a riot. But which was, at 4pm, an organised action: to demonstrate against: the decision: of the National Front: to hold: its annual meeting: in the immigrant: west London suburb: of Southall itself. At that time we lived in Hayes, the next town over. A milky effluent (lilac and brown) of the Grand Union canal: is a memory I have, for example, of a colour. London Proper might as well have been Prague, or Istanbul. On the day of the riot itself, we lay on the floor next to the radiator, the quilts from our beds piled high over our bodies. I recall the muffled sounds of breaking glass. 

To orient to this scene: from the US, burning up: with a kind of desire to write something, to extend – always – these preliminary notes: I imagined a girl. This is Ban, who at eight or nine or seven – lies down on the street, the rectangle of asphalt – on the border of Hayes and Southall, at 4pm on the day I am trying to describe. Are the sounds of breaking glass coming from her home or from the street? My book was this: the viral gravity of a girl falling to her knees and then to her side until finally she is prone, then supine, glitching beneath the ivy like a comma. By nightfall, she is dead and not a speck of her remains. A smudge, a stain. In writing about this place, a real place on the earth, I made occasional visits to the UK. On one occasion, I attended, as a delegate, the third world congress of the World Conference of Cultural Psychiatry, making my way from the Tate to the campus of Queen Mary’s, its medical buildings, the NOVO cemetery. On another occasion, I stayed with my cousin in Kingsbury. He drove me to Hayes, where I lay down on the rectangle of asphalt where Ban: lay down. That piece of pavement outside the Grange Park School on Lansbury Drive is, then, my ‘stone’.

What it has been to return to the UK, the strangeness of returning to England as a person who was born in England but who no longer has a family home in England, is also a part of what I wanted to register in these notes. I wrote these sentences in my notebook, in the libidinous space between the conference’s afternoon programming and a visit, the day before, to the place where I once had (or did not have, as it turns out) a physical origin of some kind.

A Phoenix with Brown Feathers Has Alighted on a Wall Next to the Thames

The opposite of a colony is the colony’s mother.

A mother is a land mass with a residual vibration.

Do birds orient to this vibration?

In the cloisters beneath Westminster Abbey, there are plaques honouring the ‘brave men and women’ who ‘initiated’ colony life in ‘Malaya’. And India.

The plaques are pristine. They are made of a milky, hygienic marble.

Slipping through a wall into a tiny stone foyer, stepping over the graves of composers – a record of ‘Haydn’s visit’ – I come face to face with the ‘oldest door in Britain’. I touch that door, like a Jungian scholar of ancient forms.

It’s cold here.

En route.

The medical building glitters in the pale silver rain coming off the Thames. A non-wave. Evaporation. Hockney’s California transposed to a London afternoon.

From the hospital I go to the Tate and see the Hockney.

My friend once saw Hockney unloading his paintings from the back of a car in Santa Barbara, outside the art museum.

Deep in the gallery, I find a painting by George Shaw of a housing estate on the outskirts of Coventry; an ordinary scene tinted yellow and gold and silver with hobby paints. The social housing project is supra-romantic – a currency. I think of the previous day’s activity – an ordinary scene next to a fence overgrown with ivy – on the outskirts of a city – the place where public housing buckles at its seam, is written on, fails. There, in the place where Ban curled up like an autumn leaf, I lay down. Like a British child.

It was raining. I pushed open a gate and walked down to the Thames – afraid to slip, yet enchanted – by its roaring waves. The Thames is a tidal river. It is pewter, slate, violet – all the colours, in reverse, of the top-down world.

From the Thames I went back to the hospital. Hospitals refract their contents; they are not built to retain illnesses, but to dispel them – either by curing them directly or relocating the bodies that suffer from them. On the train back to my cousin’s house in Kingsbury, I continued on with the Rey Chow – there, I found a description of a text from which there is ‘no escape’. The way a person attends in massive, dreamy ways to the architecture of the hospital itself, as distinct from its technologies of constraint.

Document the corridor. Dream the corridor.

Hockney elevates then sections the medical building, an activity that also gives intense pleasure: to whom?

So love the pink, blank sky. And the palms.

The Poetry Review 1064 Winter 2016Bhanu Kapil is the author of five collections, most recently Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015). She lives in Colarado. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 106:4, Winter 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author.