“This is now a history lesson.”: walking on Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s territory
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, In the absent everyday. (Berkeley: Apogee Press, 2005). 81pp.
In Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s collection In the absent everyday, a new world unravels. Here, wonder beckons grace and wisdom. The poems are as direct as ever yet intricate. Is there a word for a longing that is musical in nature? Perhaps, no. But Dhompa’s poems in this collection act as a good testimony for that.
The opening poem in Dhompa’s collection ‘A matter not of order’ stretches to ten parts, labelled chronologically even though the title is directly indicative of no order being in place here. ‘A matter not of order’ introduces us to the lingering anxiety of the vernacular not being a language in this collection, but a script that surpasses all the constraints of any given language. Dhompa’s vernacular is her own and abides by no notions that restrict our script of thought or expression. Part ONE asks us without hesitation, “Where are you from?”; and in part TWO, the speaker holds the reader’s hand to venture with them into the motherland of ‘the absent everyday’, where the speaker:
[…] Sang songs
to a kindergarten teacher
who wore pink checkered dresses
and spoke in English when cross.
Part THREE and FOUR act as an invitation where, “You are placated / with offerings / as hollow as midnight’s ankles.” and despite up to “three gimcracks” the bottles are excused as they can “still hold / something of use.” and then we are told, “Come in. Come in, said the / obedient citizen to the witch.” Part FIVE paves the way:
[…] West surrenders
to a new language. Bellwether.
Billingsgate. Bivouac. […]
The “salter butter tea” gets replaced by “sweetened tea” in Part SIX, and Part SEVEN is a basic moral lesson in “who you are.” In the next part, the reader is directed, “Wish to desire. It’s the human way.”—the ferocity of this emotion steering the entire collection. The final two parts acquaint the reader with a myriad of omens that a crow brings with it, and reassure us that even if, “The world is a lie.”, “We are drinking. / We are eating.”
The title poem stretches to eleven pages. The vernacular again is redefined here:
We have let out dialect avoid our throat,
there are no flying men. […]
The narrative throughout these eleven pages is wrestling to be held together with an almost nebulous thread. The landscape of ‘the absent everyday’ has hills that huddle “like teenage girls in their first ankle length dresses”, has daffodils, new shoots, fern moss and a green anxiety. In ‘the absent everyday’, “There is war / in the vicinity.” There:
We are on vacation but no closer
to learning terms for the familiar.
The cause of the riot remains undefined but, “We’re dizzy with the riot of the colours / we have sometimes worn.” and we are “studying, steadying for a purpose.” Every word in this vernacular is loaded:
The word sorry said too often brings the
clothesline down. Women understand
(such indirect ways) we learn to say.
What demarcates identities in ‘the absent everyday’ is the fear of an underlying doom. All the fears stand capable of falling into the river from the top of the speaker’s mountain. The reader is told, rather reassured that alas, “The river stops flowing.” We do not know what lies in between Dhompa’s present, past, and future. These tenses whirl a peculiar tension in the title poem. The tales of the bygone years are remembered with an eerie joy, and it is told that, “It will all end happily, again.”
The journey of Dhompa’s poems on the page, vertical or horizontal, is consistent throughout her collection. As a result of this, the reader is bound to develop a uniform visual relationship with each poem. The enjambment in almost all poems is a work of genius which restrains me from labelling them as prose poems here. Each poem makes its reader travel from its very first word to the last in a single breath, without leaving any room to heave or grieve. All poems are written in a single stanza, some longer and some shorter—their syntax resembling that of two friends gossiping, crying or sharing a sandwich. Sometimes, the poet’s meditations prune the deepest truths with an unmatchable gentleness, like here in ‘Malady for groove’, “The world is spinning, / rain is rain, and again, we are surprised that soldiers die.” The musicality of Dhompa’s verses is unique to say the least—it nudges us to seek beauty in the most ordinary moments. In In the absent everyday, the poet asks the reader to be patient but before the reader realises this, the reader knows that this patience is a gift.
Almost one-third through the book, I deliberately paused to reflect on who the “we” here were. Is the “we” referred to the countryfolk or is it a collective pronoun for the people we claim/are made to claim as our kin much later in our lives; or is the “we” for the denizens of an independent Tibet? Dhompa’s poems are political in the sense that they never care to make such claims themselves—thus, speaking volumes in the little acts of the ‘absent everyday’, from drinking tea to the dislike of roses. The first time we read “home” in Dhompa’s collection, in her title poem, it is italicised. The speaker’s home is uprooted. In ‘He names’, “He wants the sinking feeling of not knowing / how far home is.” Jamyang Norbu, an important Tibetan political activist and writer, writes in his most recent essay collection Illusion and Reality about the Tibet question that dominates Dhompa’s collection:
The struggle we Tibetans are involved in is basically a struggle for independence. But in a wider and more universal sense it is the struggle between the freedom of a spiritual civilization and the tyranny of totalitarian materialism. More than just land, power and economics, we are fighting for democracy, for the right to live as we choose, for the right to believe, to doubt, to change. Thirty years of defeat, confusion and apathy have so blurred our national vision that we have somewhat lost sight of our goals.
The final is poem in this collection stretches to ten pages as well. It is titled as ‘A geography of belonging’ and is an attempt to properly map identity and independence. Each part is unlabelled but an indication that real life is happening elsewhere. It is only towards the end when the reader is reassured that Dhompa’s vernacular belongs to an independent land—an independence sought not just yet. In part three, we read:
[…] Once a week we question whether our
country will be free. We are not warriors. We know
a working bowel is proof of a healthy life. We know
people who do not speak our dialect are sitting
at a table. With pen and paper they will map our future.
The poet calls the solitude sweet, a nation hungry. The poet calls the poor as poor despite everything changing. The patience in the verses does not turn into hope. Hope never matures or graduates from a child’s yearning. But there is a very strong belief that the destination now might only be a little walk away.
Another latent theme that caught me by my ankles was motherhood. The mother of us all, the mother of only me, the mother of only you, the motherland, the cow who “gave birth / to a calf with two heads”, and so on. In the poem, ‘Dry beds in the sun’, Dhompa writes, “The mourning lasted for / forty-nine days. / Mothers took longer. Said it was their way.” There are multiple uncanny moments of domesticity like this. In the poem ‘By the wayside’, “how still the world is beyond mother’s shaking / shoulders and Mrs. Dhondup running back and forth / between tea on the stove and cleaning rags, which she puts / against mother’s cheeks.” Dhompa’s vernacular marries motherhood in tender instances like this in the poem ‘After the night’:
[…] In her dream comes a mother who has lost
her street address. She speaks no English and holds a key.
This leads to our understanding of mother tongue/mother’s language in the poem ‘Two years of winter’, where visitors leave for places,
[…] always too far for mother. Always so
foreign to her even though we lived in the same country.
She spoke no language but one. […]
Who is “more than a lover” and “less than a mother” for Dhompa’s speaker? It is an answer for the reader to seek in many poems in the second half of the book. There are many declarative moments as well, for instance in the poem ‘Increments’, the speaker declares, “Your mother will not grow wise.” There is so much about dreams in the book, and in ‘Lullaby’, the speaker finally asks, “Are you dreaming your mother’s dream?” It is not just the mother’s dream that the speaker longs for but also for that maternal wisdom in the acts of domesticity that transcend generations, like thinking of mothers when the question of washing clothes during imminent rain came up, or when the mother tells “one rotten apple can ruin the basket.”
The poem ‘Mother will not grow old’ is part elegy, part eulogy. The speaker’s mother’s mortality is at question here, which is the very cause of this dichotomy. “Mother is not a word I use anymore.”, the speaker writes, further adding, “But you are here and you’re never / going to grow old.” The speaker misses her mother “on mornings when the / ordinary is just as it is.” and in the poem ‘Salvage’ admits, “To say she was the most / I had. Once she was enough for everything.” As much as this collection is for the motherland and mother tongue, it is for our mothers whom we will never meet yet they continue to exist with us, somehow.
It is only in the final poem of the book where we realise that there is so much that the speaker owes to their mother. This feeling is almost balmy, but it confronts us in brutal moments that bridge life and death, like “Mother had her prayers and father / the language of new trades he fell victim to.” Dhompa never tells us what really her language is and does not presume what could be the language of her reader. The final page posing a question that sets this in stone, “How does this translate in / your language?”
Dhompa is interested in the naming of us, the naming of things, the naming of rituals, the naming of myths, the naming of deities. Questions like, “What’s your good name?”, “What does your name mean?” come up often. The politics of identity and owning an identity is at play here. The territory that Dhompa maps in her collection is not tragic but somehow content with a silent longing for a better world. We meet so many people along the way—Marcos, Mrs. Dondup, Pema Karpo, Agnes Drum, Mimi, a fisherman, Jim, Betty: the family fish, cuttlefish, an octopus who can get her own drink, the monkey who entertains the crowd, the boy or girl called Teddi, a goldfish who tells not broccoli today / not tap water, alpine moon or pink tasselled porcupines, Josephine, spiders, Doma: the family dog and so many other dogs who act as the reader’s noble companions throughout the collection. It is made sure that the reader here is never lonely.