"The life she will live. Later."
In the absent everyday by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa.
Press, 2005. 81 pp. $14.95
Reviewed by Alvis Minor.
Dhompa writes often
of resolution, endings, and mortality: "Soon, your fate will be
proclaimed," the speaker announces in the poem "Review." Or,
"Letters again, but still, who can say where one finds /
resolution." And the title poem tells us, "It will all end happily,
again." Statements like these rarely refer, as one might expect, to
the failings of the physical body or even the conclusion of a
specific moment. In fact, for all the talk of resolution, one finds
very little of it in this book. As the final poem reveals, "Good
does / not have an expiration date, they say."
Because she is the first Tibetan-American poet to receive any "substantial distribution" (as Ron Silliman tells us in his note on the book), it would be easy to fit the poet's reflections on mortality into a larger cultural narrative. The poems here, though, have far greater aspirations than simply settling into the vast clutter of identity politics. Such concerns are hardly ignored: lamas appear frequently, usually as figures of great wisdom but occasionally as scenery to which the speaker has grown accustomed, and the poems often reflect on the difficulties of traversing two very different cultures. However, the poet exerts far less energy exposing her reader to her world than she does attempting to revise our conceptions of meaning:
I am inclined to regret the morning's impossible tasks
supine before me like an impatient lover. Oh, cuttlefish,
I say, but the invocation is a test to see the effectiveness of the
word against a mundane moment. Your garden is allowed no
flowers to bloom in red. Your mother will not grow wise.
These lines, which
begin the poem "Increments," demand more of language than most poets
ask of it. Instead of using words to pin down meaning - or even,
like the so-called "elliptical" poets, to subvert it - the poet
opens each line here to larger and larger possibilities. What
tasks? What garden? Whose mother? The language suggests some
narrative moment, which ultimately explodes into a looser, less
defined emotional resonance. The power of each word doesn't end as
its meaning is deciphered, but grows as each new possibility is
Dhompa carefully and beautifully anchors her ever-expanding imagery with hints of specificity, using the rhetoric of narrative to give her readers comfort as meaning explodes around them. The poem "Striped damsel," for example, begins with the sentence, "In the village not far from her town, a cow gave birth / to a calf with two heads." By the end of the poem, however, the illusion of narrative gives way to a stark and eerie "reflection":
... Her eyelashes are losing root. Her toe bulbous and
broad. She wants to be happy but feels hurried or conspired
against. She cannot remember the names of invertebrates. She
would like to know her plants. The garden she will have. The
life she will live. Later.
Again, the reader is
left with more questions than answers: What is happening to this
woman's body? Why is she thinking of invertebrates? Why must she
look to the future "later" and not now? Instead of accepting the
mystery, as one must do so often in contemporary poetry, this poet
asks us to consider limitless possibilities. No interpretation or
emotional response is privileged here, and the language crackles
with unbelievable energy as it refuses static definitions.
But this energy is often channeled through a surprisingly meditative tone, another of the paradoxes these poems somehow manage to encompass. Despite their occasional chattiness and explicit rejection of tradition ("Think of / the opposite, says the wise one [...] Now / all of a sudden, tradition is good."), the poems owe much of their success to the fact that they maintain a staunch commitment to lyric beauty:
The indentations of tongue made and then given
to lose in such and such a pursuit. But ah, memory
to secure at will. And poetry before the hour of silence.
Your apercu making trees grow taller. Actor and spectator.
Even as she challenges the limitations of language, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa remains committed to its splendor, creating a music that soothes as well as startles, that calms as well as compels. The resulting poems are a triumph, champions of both beauty and depth at a time when most contemporary poets seem to believe we are forced to choose one or the other.