“I dream of the girl who’s surviving him,” Kirun Kapur writes in Women in the Waiting Room. This poetry collection, where women’s voices echo off each other and accumulate in a scattered retelling of their traumas, is filled with lyrical and chilling lines that jostles you in your seat and hangs you on the precipice of gold and rust. Kapur’s words make you become the witness to these women’s lives and have you aching to find a way for them to live.
Immediately, you’re dropped into chauvinistic restrictions and ideas of blame in the first section of the collection where Kapur plays with imagery that whiplashes you between beauty and gore. The idea of marriage being a form of protection is juxtaposed with the characterization of the husband being gentle as fire; stamens are used to undercut the violence of a wife who has been beaten with a broom. Yet it is the woman who is shamed and disregarded. The speaker says, “How many times have I said nothing at all / or tried to explain why we aren’t at home.” You can feel the pressure of these women wanting to speak up but being silenced by the societal stance of victim-blaming. At times, you even feel the silence from the speaker herself, as she feels intimidated into believing that her actions are the reasons for her guilt, her fractured self, and her punishment.
This brings up an important theme that Kapur dissects throughout her poems: the struggle to articulate what these women have been through. Not only do the women in these poems silence themselves, when they are given the chance to speak, it’s visually striking to see the burst of dialogue across the page. Their words are chopped, hesitant, unfinished, desperate. The “Hotline” poems that reoccur, paired with the disjointed and unconventional form of these poems, really plunges you into the minds of these women and their pain. This disjointed speech is also coupled with stories of Hindu Goddesses. Kapur makes you think about the systematic violence that has been placed not only on women in society, but on the oral tradition of storytelling that has been passed down for generations and perpetuate the idea of an “ideal woman.” Even the divine female entities of God can’t escape violence, restrictions, the labelling and demeaning of their characters.
The displacement of mind and body leads the second section of the collection, where Kapur recounts personal experiences of witnessing the illness of a loved one. The speaker slowly loses her mind as her loved one is dying: “I lay under the body of silence, alive. You, / your chest unzipped, prepare to leap away.” There is a dismemberment of the speaker emotionally and mentally while the loved one is being mutilated physically. In this helplessness, the speaker makes you think about what it means to be a witness. What is there to do besides watching?
Kapur, then, turns the tables on the reader; she drops you into a space where you become the abused and the witness to the abused: “If you can hear me you are the counselor / if you’re making these words in your mind / you’re the caller too.” She makes you start to feel the gravity of these tormented situations, pushing the idea of what it means to see and hear this violence from a first-person perspective. If you were to become the woman who steals away with demons, would you be able to confront this darkness? Would you come out whole?
There’s a brokenness in these women and in the speaker, who are trying to overcome their trauma. There’s a wish to leave the body, to become something else. The speaker alludes to wanting to be a river, to be “nothing but motion, muck mouthed, mud hearted, brackish, all dirty at the lip, with rise and fall” because in that muck is the ability to still be afloat. In the imagination of becoming something else is the ability to move on.
As Kapur dives into a global view of suffrage, from places like Waikiki, Ohio, and India, you start to wonder if there is a way for these women to survive. The answer feels murky and even despondent as the speaker continues to relentlessly thrust you into the lives of women who face sexual abuse, domestic violence, unfair healthcare, and counseling. The inability to see an actual end to this injustice feels hard hitting, and the resolution of hope feels almost dreamlike, like the only possibility of retribution would be through a fictional world, not reality.
Yet through a “survival” of women in the fragments they’ve become, Kapur shows us the need to see these women’s lives. The hope she points to is the encouragement to find ways in which we can empower and support women. But, first, they need to be seen. And when we’ve seen them, she’ll have us all trying to figure out what to do next.
Ashley Somwaru is an Indo-Caribbean woman who was born and raised in Queens, New York. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Queens College to immerse herself in pride for her mixed tongue, religious upbringings, superstitions, and cultural traditions that have made her into the red hibiscus she is. As a storyteller and poet, her work seeks to magnify the voices of women in her community, who have been silenced and abused, and to rewrite the history of her ancestors, those who were forgotten. She hopes to find them. Somwaru’s work has been published in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Mochi Magazine, A Gathering Together, and the FEED issue of No, Dear.