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Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's Rules of the House and In the Absent Everyday

The kind folks at Apogee Press (Berkeley, California) sent me copies of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's two books of poetry as well as some of their other books a few months back. This post reviews the books by Dhompa, and I plan on reviewing the others later. I enjoyed reading these two books back to back, giving me the experience of moving through a span of her poetry in quick succession: Rules of the House (Apogee, 2002) and In the Absent Everyday (Apogee, 2005).

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The biographical note at the back of the books states that Dhompa grew up in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. She has an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University and now lives in San Francisco where she works for a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid to the people of the Himalayas. These details offer some suggestions of experiences that might inform her perspective. A sense of exile and refugee-ness seems to inform her poetics, and some thoughts on the Tibetan diaspora in relation to other forces (Christian missionaries, China's claims on the region) seep through as well.

Dhompa's words exhibit a gnomic quality. The lines of her poems are carefully worded sentences that suggest larger truths extracted from observations of everyday habits and utterances. Her first book, Rules of the House creates a speaking persona enmeshed in a particular family and community (especially with reference to neighbors and elders). Though there are some characters named throughout, what is striking is the abstracting or universalizing of recurring characters, likely family members, via single-lettered names. As a couple of the poems in the book mention, "Without a name the story could be anyone's" (91). The characters given one-letter initials are F, M, and S, corresponding to Father, Mother, and Son, it seems, with the speaking persona taking the role of daughter. Throughout the book, these characters surface periodically and speak. M, especially, seems to be a figure of special significance for the speaker of the poems, one who passes on life lessons that are both profound and flawed. In this way, the relationship sketched out between M and the speaker could correspond to narratives of mother-daughter relationships, offering a sense of cultural and familial transmission that succeeds at times and fails at others because of the exiled quality of the family's life outside of their homeland.

The lines of most poems in this collection are long. In fact, one way to characterize these long lines is to think of the stanzas as prose poems, driven not by the length of the line but by the space necessary for words to create startling juxtapositions. Some stanzas run three or four lines while others are just a single line. "Sun storm" begins with these two stanzas:
Like brides behind veils, my people peep from drawn curtains and feel the air with their fingers. They do not see any use for heat and are not hospitable to it. Electric fans focus on bare shoulder blades and erect nipples.

Mosquitoes persist. Hands do not move fast enough.
Read together, the stanzas offer some commentary on each other--both draw out details of how people deal with hot days. The second stanza, however, also carries separately a more expansive quality, one that gestures away simply from a sense of exhaustion from dealing with heat and insects and that transfers the movement of the swatting hands into a more existential statement about impoverishment and the inability to do enough (to move fast enough).

The poem "How rules are made" begins with this stanza:
The silver lining, M said, would come, would come. Some things remained the same: the curtain in the neighbor's house, the one-eyed dog's bark, new hit songs on Sunday afternoon radio programs. (41)
The rest of the poem sketches out how "S was unfortunate" and connects these moments to proclamations that obliquely and directly comment on gender. For example, after examining S's throat, a doctor notes, "this is one fine esophagus your kid got there, madam." The poem ends with a couple of claims as well:
The boys wanted to be men. F was not available.

M kissed us on our lips and said she was good as any man.
In this way, there is a suggestion that the rules that govern their lives--the ones invoked by M in her lessons--are gendered as well as somewhat haphazardly cobbled together out of specific instances. The movement from particularity to universality (rules) is one that the poems try to trace.

Another aspect of this first book, Rules of the House, that I find fascinating is the sequencing of poems. Most of the poems are one or two pages long, but the collection is also comprised to some extent by interwoven series of poems. One series is structured as lessons--First lesson (14), Second lesson (20), Preparing for the third lesson (46), Third lesson (48), Fourth lesson (70), and Fifth lesson (92). Another series has parentical roman-numeraled titles from (i) to (ix). The effect of these dispersed series (rather than having the serial poems printed contiguously) is to tie together the observations into a fragmented narrative about the exilic life of the family.

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The lines are different in this book. On the page, the poems look more like short lyrics. Some are also multi-paged, with a single stanza occupying each page. Others look like prose poems in evocative paragraphs.

One thing I noticed particularly about this collection is a more common occurrence and invocation of a "you" (different people). For example, "Error" reads:
You wish to be presented formally, preferably by a relative who has merely heard of you. Accept it to be equivocal. Two mentions of your adversity to flowers. I could point towards a childhood and you'd be clear of all blame. Not far from a view of your city, mimosa in frugal yellow wraps the edges of a driveway. I am writing around you. You have entered this kingdom. Give a little hope. (24)
The effect of addressing "you" directly is to create an intimacy of the poetic space that is not as pressing in the first collection that instead offers insight into a family and community of which the reader is not a part. In "Error," the "you" seems to be a member of the speaker's community, someone adhering to similar codes of conduct when strangers (potential suitors?) meet. The reader of the poem, then, is aligned with this person whose life is hinted at with references to intimate details such as "adversity to flowers" and "a childhood."

As with the first collection of poems, In the Absent Everyday is most powerful when its words evoke images that are dense in meaning that seems to lie just out of reach, rooted often in the everyday encounter. In the title poem, for example, the speaker notes, "I am always receiving messages from people / I haven't met. The understatement of her / heel" (11). Here, the idea of coded messages passed to the speaker from strangers emerges in a concrete gesture as a woman's heel. What that message is remains engimatic, but the force of its suggestiveness is in the mundane quality of a woman's heel--the idea of a bare foot in contrast with the highly-gendered high-heeled shoe--yoked to a sense of expressive nuance in its "understatement." Later in the same poem, the speaker notes, "Days, taciturn as a tattoo tucked / under a shirt, slip unseen, away" (18). This description of the quiet and inexorable passing of days is rich. The "taciturn" or understated quality of the tattoo, something that can't in fact speak, begs the question of what form that tattoo takes and whether it makes a difference for that sense of days passing by.

Dhompa is certainly a poet worth keeping in mind for Asian American literary studies. As the book blurbs mention, Dhompa is perhaps the most widely-distributed Tibetan American poet. As much as her poetry might be infused with a particular kind of Buddhist perspective, though, it is not the same as popular texts by Tibetan philosophers. Her poetry is strongly engaged with language as a medium through which she expresses and pushes against the ideals of a Tibetan refugee community. She certainly fits within the mold of other Asian American poets in exile or diaspora-oriented writers (I think to some extent of Agha Shahid Ali in this respect, especially because he writes about Kashmir as a contested region riven by ideological and religious difference).
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