Reviewed by Joshua Marie Wilkinson
In Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s new book, In the absent everyday, virtually every line is written in such a plain-spoken style, that the eeriness and wonder of these poems don’t slip into one’s mind until well into a first reading. But there is an elegance here, too, as with lines like “Fern moss covers a name on the wall / and so a story becomes secret” from the book’s title poem. The form of Dhompa’s poems--long lines; mostly complete sentences punctuated much like prose; mostly single stanza chunk-like poems, solitary or broken into sections--allows for a meditative accumulation of recollections, held moments, patient attention to detail, and unraveled musings. Even with the largest leaps from line to line, the sentences the poet constructs never seem to compete with one another, and that is the marvel of this book.
Perhaps oddly, then, nearly all of In the absent everyday’s 48 poems start with a line/sentence of reflection like these: “Nothing in her life, she liked to say, prepared her for this”; “Mrs. Dondup says life is not a happy lollipop / and she has said that before”; “Politeness prohibits saying what I really think.” But the prose-like feel of the introductory lines again and again is subsumed seamlessly into the meditative, lyrical lines that follow them, as with the poem “Spotless pots”:
Nothing in her life, she liked to say, prepared her for this.
They were never sure what she was referring to. When she
said this, her fingers pointed towards a metal spoon
embedded in the wall. A remnant of a passionate outburst.
The poet’s lyrical meditations, stunned questions, silly ribbing, fragments, and saddest, loveliest lines all seem of a single arc. The magic of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s poetry is precisely that uncanniness (the familiar strangeness) of myriad lines which simultaneously do and do not cohere at once, which seem disparate and effortlessly linked at the same time.
Even when the eeriness or wonder (or elegance) turns to silliness, the poet’s humor doesn’t shout over its own simplicity: “But here again Betty, the family fish, bangs into her reflection / all day. She is forgetful we say. Perhaps she likes herself too much.” And even the lovely line, “Part of the confusion lay in the way light appeared on the / horizon like a thin sheet of marmalade,” is followed by the stark “You were not / prepared for it.” What is it that “you were not / prepared for”? The confusion? The “part of the confusion” embodied in the appearance of the light? If a gravity lurks behinds these lines, the unusual observations, the plaintive play of the language, always take hold.
Thus, the poet’s found beauty never seems self-congratulatory and her humor never seems content enough with itself to offer up mere punch lines, as with these two lines: “The youngest in the family has learned her first word. / Mother, she says to the milkman who comes to the door.” In the hand of a lesser poet, those lines would never be followed by “In a free country, we say, this girl would have a brother / or a sister. In a free country, her father would be her memory.”
The poet’s gift is that smart balance between spontaneity and control, between seeming like she’s wondering aloud and nonetheless designing layered and enigmatic poems. Perhaps more than most prose poets, Dhompa is a master of the sentence and the line; in fact, much of the book is comprised of full sentences. The simplicity of the tone is disarming and the prose-like sentences are enjambed deftly in peculiar ways that invite the reader still further into the structures she builds.
When a poem seems to proffer a platitude (“The function of the earth is to be constant and to enfold” or “It will all end happily, again”), those commonplaces are often juxtaposed with her strongest, strangest lines:
Sentences shaped like the swallow
of your throat. When the pied piper comes
to this town, you will hide your shoes
and cover your ears. The river will not rush,
the mountains will not cleave. Chocolate
trees will bend so you can lick
their sweat off. It will all end happily, again.
With certain poems, like “Explosion of tires has no meaning,” it’s tempting to wonder about the poet’s biography (Dhompa’s biographical note at the end of the book says that she “was raised in India and Nepal”). Consider the following lines: “The prince / declared his love for a common girl and the parliament / dissolved before astrologers could be reached. If I send / you love letters it is because this is not the age for it.” I know next to nothing about Tibet and I imagine that, if Dhompa’s poems last, and I insist here that they should, someone better equipped will come to explore the traces of the political, biographical, and geographical in her poetry. Indeed, the subsequent lines make me wish I myself were better equipped:
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 a pen and paper they will map our future.
Remarkably, the poet never seems to romanticize the past or her childhood environs, and better still, she avoids peppering poignant-sounding bits of other languages to stand in for the “depth” of her transnational experiences, thus shunning stereotypes of her own Asian landscapes and history without avoiding those same landscapes, histories, or experiences.
In the poem “Increments” she writes, “Oh, cuttlefish, / I say, but the invocation is a test to see the effectives of the / word against a mundane moment.” What strikes me here is that the poem’s speaker doesn’t rely either on a romanticization of the “orient” nor on a meta-poetic disclosure to keep the experience of coming to terms neatly boxed away in linguistic reflection. The “test” is always there in these poems, and the experience the poet recounts and enables through language is more fully developed because of her testing--with all the humor, sorrow, beauty, and perplexity intact.
In his note on the book, Ron Silliman writes, “There is an inevitability implicit in the directness of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s poetry that leaves the reader quite unprepared for the sudden leaps in reality it then proposes.” Yes, the book makes leaps, but it seems to me they are less on the order of “reality” than on the order of the various worlds the poems construct: worlds full of frank humor and unresolved reflections, a child’s world in the presence of elders, a daughter’s world far removed from her mother’s. And each poem is a scene where the poet’s questions seem to extend from her own longing, curiosity, and pleasure in order to reflect on them from a different angle into something knowable or recognizable, even if only for a moment. The result is a disarming, beautiful, and uncanny book of poems.