This is not a review.
Tibetan writers who have lived all their lives in India or Nepal, and whose idea of a homeland becomes more tenuous and dream-like every year, write in ways that readers of diasporic literature have become familiar with: the sense of loss and in-betweenness, the strong sense of place and nostalgia, the vein of anger that accompanies exile and a permanent hankering for 'home'.
None of this is apparent in Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's first collection of poems, Rules of the House (2002), which was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Awards in 2003. There is the uneasy implication of regulation in the title - whose rules are these? who is to abide by them? what happens if they don't? - that is reinforced by the seven poems scattered through the collection that are 'lessons' someone gives. But whatever conclusions one might be tempted to draw from the title or the poems have to be provisional ones, because once you begin reading you are untethered from your preconceptions about poets writing about exile, loss, country and identity.
TWD refuses to name her main characters. They make frequent appearances as M, F and S and could correspond to Mother, Father and Son but though their relationship with each other is often clear, even this much is never named. Other characters are named - Pema, Doma, Thupten, Tashi, Jetsun, Samten - but not these three. It is a resistance that seems futile, until one considers the powerful charge that familial ties can conjure in a community living circumscribed lives in a country not their own.
This resistance is everywhere, but frequently unrecognisable because it is disguised as elusiveness and difficulty. In her opening poem that is, in some sense, a Preface, or even a manifesto for the poems that will follow Dhompa says:
When I am with them, I cannot say I remember. I say, as I am told I remember.
In itself, it's not an easy to read construction. Does memory function differently in the absence of community? How? Should there be a comma after told? Or can someone be instructed, not only in the art of remembering but also in what it is they remember? Is forgetting so constant that one's memory must be refreshed by others, from other stores of common remembering?
Dutiful memorising must be a part of every person in exile. The exhortation to never forget! as if all that is perishable can be held at bay through the agency of memory and the passing on of it through story.
Rules is a story. It is a coherent collection, sectioned and carefully constructed but it tells not one story but many; or many versions of many stories. The tension between the strong frame and the elusiveness of the individual poems is, in a word, exhilirating.
In pieces we think, goes the first line of the poem 'Cutting Cloth'. This is the whole of it:
In pieces we think. Wording eyes.
How we see when sun splinters enter.
Her laugh. When the river ran full,
we lapped it up. Her laugh; when she did
that gurgling of tea on coal.
How should I explain. We lived
by a water tank. It was easy to speak.
Restless in light-scorched air
(her words for heat).
Restless ears we pressed against cold
steel, and bartered tales.
Dhompa's poetry is in the widening of the gap between conrete, whole sentences; the recognition that consciousness and even identity is a collection of discerete and often unrelated thoughts. This must owe much to a Buddhist view of the world, as the ideas of impermanence that seed the collection indicate. And yet, her writing is nothing like, say, Thich Nhat Hanh's. There is no deceptive simplicity here. There are no apologies made for the work she demands the reader do.
In a poem titled 'The Third Lesson', Dhompa uses the words 'Later he remembered' in an incantatory manner. 'He' is Samten, who was dancing to Nepali rap when 'the elder died in her sleep'. The dead demand remembrance: what they did, how they spoke, ate, behaved. Samten remembers, not just to reverence the one who died, but to confirm his own continuing presence ('Later he remembered the largest pieces of meat were given to him').
But in between [S]amten's narrative is the doctor who answers laconically, 'Impermanence', when asked for the fourth time, what caused the elder's death; and the lama:
Now she is dead, the lama said. Do not speak her name out loud. She is now your mother who is no more.
What is one to make of that sentence? Is it: only now, after her death, does this person become a mother; or, are there invisible hyphens between 'mother who is no more', making of it a title, a new identity.
This is not a connection I should make, but I will. When I read the poetry of those writing from India in English (please don't groan. I won't make this long, and I hope I won't make it familar), I expect some things because I have grown used to seeing them all the time.
I expect to see a heavy reliance on images; on an equation - I think specious - with a description of quiet violence on one side and the implication of truth on the other; a narrative uncomplicated by anything that disrupts its clear path down the page; and imitation and homage.
None of that is visible in the poetry of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. Instead, there is a vital awareness of 'this alley of slippery language.' Under the long lines and paragraphs of prose that form the recognisable style of Dhompa's poetry, are the echoes of other tongues.
The loss of a language can be as harrowing as the loss of a cuisine; it is more personal and disenfranchising than even the loss of a place one calls one's country; but Dhompa, thankfully, never wallows. Instead, there's a subtle humour to her words. Perhaps what her language has is not loss but residue.
In ‘Carried from here’, the speaker says, ‘Raindrops, I say in English. They want to learn functional words: immediately, enlightenment, conversion.
'Fourth lesson' begins thus:
Entrusted in your care, the equivalent of speech. The harbour in sea mist if ships come that way.
The oddness of the word "pomade" in a room overlooking a church steeple.
Speech measured by what is within definition.
I love the mystery of it. I love having to read something, and know I want to read it again immediately. I love that I cannot paraphrase Dhompa's poetry, explain what it's 'about', (as if poems were a form of introduction to a blogger). More than anything, I love reading it and not saying in my head, 'I've heard this somewhere before.'
(Whether this is a function of it being a poet from the subcontinent, and therefore an unexpected departure, I don't yet know. Of late, I confess to a paralysing boredom with most poetry I read, no matter where it's from.)
Tsering was in college with me. A year ahead, in the same department, and the same hostel. Yet, I don't think I bumped into her too often. I knew her as a member of the Tibetan community; in a year when the Dalai Lama visited our college, I remember she was invited to read her poetry to him; I remember her best for a poem (perhaps the same one she read out the the Dalai Lama?) that appeared in the college magazine, called 'The Lost World - A Broken Dream'.
A little hunting later, I've unearthed the poem (which I won't reproduce here). It's a beautiful, heartfelt poem but unexceptional. Until this second, I didn't quite realise the leaps that Tsering has taken in her writing, the years of effort and polish that makes the poems in this book - already eight years old, and followed by another book, two chapbooks and a forthcoming, new collection - the diamonds they are.
I found her work again last year, through a link on Silliman's blog and I'm most grateful for that. If there's one book I'm very happy I read this year, it is this one.
From an interview with Tsering:
14 Hills: What is success for you as a poet?
TWD: I haven’t thought of my writing in terms of success. I’m just grateful I can write. I’m very pleased when a book comes out. I feel happy. I don’t necessarily feel happy about the poems, very often I look back and think, Oh that line could have gone, or I could have read this more carefully. But at the same time I’m also okay. I don’t trouble myself with it too much. Just having the poems out makes me happy. I don’t think I’m going to sell a million copies, I mean, I don’t even desire it really. I don’t know what that would mean. I don’t know. [laughs] I’m used to people not reading! Last time I went home and my cousin says to me—because I don’t even bother to tell them that I write; half the people don’t know I write; even the Tibetan community here, most of them don’t know I write. So when I went this year [to Nepal] I gave a copy to one of my cousin brothers. I gave him Rules of the House because I thought maybe it would be easier for him to read because they are more like stories. I met him a few days later and he says to me, “Tsering, you know, sorry, I read your book, I tried really hard, I just don’t understand it.” So I said, “Well, did you like any lines or did any lines sort of make sense?” And he said, “No no no, just in general I don’t get it,” he says, “Anyway, I think your English is incorrect. [laughs] I think you had some grammatical mistakes around, you know; your use of English is a little bit wrong. Did you do that deliberately?” [laughs again] I was laughing, I said, “Oh I don’t think my English is incorrect, but you know, maybe I should go back and read it.”