Category Archives: Non fiction

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s My rice tastes like the lake

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It is not everyone’s desire to swim as a fish.
I have a little dog that behaves like a cat,
it is not his fault he cannot pass the discipline test.

Today we are reviewing Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s My rice tastes like the lake (Apogee 2011). Born of Tibetan parents who fled in 1959, Dhompa was raised by her mother in Tibetan communities in India and Nepal. She earned a BA and MA from Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi, an MA rom University of Massachusets Amherst, and an MFA from San Francisco State University. She has published chapbooks and poetry collections including Rules of the House (2000) and In the Absent Everyday (2005). She’s also apparently the first Tibetan woman poet to be published in English.

What struck me first about My Rice tastes like the lake was its tranquilly logical phrases. Dhompa’s poetry is at times prose-like for this calmly rhetorical style. Yet this register is often mediated by sudden intrusion of speaker’s vulnerability, or by a turn to a more familiar address:

Exemptions are in
the generalizations so I adopt experience
as lesson and use fish and flotsam
for metaphor and analogy. Of all, best,
the idea of duplicating a life lived
because I miss her.

And insofar as this book resembles at times a rhetorical essay, it weaves together an examination of the difficulty of being caught in language (or between languages), and the experience of being an exile, a refugee, in a world where national identity is what legitimates personal identity:

We cannot continue as we are.
We cannot forget we are guests
who have overstayed. I invite you
to living against (as we do).
It is not enough to have one tongue.
It cannot point to everything
and in every direction.

We do not use our mother tongue
for our lovers. Beloved,
we speak your words.
What do we want? Freedom.
When do we want it? Now. Protest
in the mother tongue. Free now
from the notion of continuity.

The present is the utterance;
now is too late.

Thus the poet essays to describe the inadequacy of English in English. As English speaking readers we begin to question our notion “now”, of the present moment as a point on a linear continuum. Perhaps another language might grasp this better.

This is a world vitalized by words, by the power they have to attribute intent, emotion, moral disposition to our surroundings.

After rain, a swarm of flies
misbehave like stubborn stubble.
Claimed by multi-legged beings,
hair loosens from its comfort of a braid.

Rain seeps into animals who lie
still, the wind breathless from blowing.
Until sun convinces us to take
our layers off; dismisses the hats
we wear.

Here, even the sun has the power to convince: or at least, that she conveys it as possessing that power is raises a question about where rhetoric originates. That is to say: “Until sun convinces us to take our layers off” seems clear enough, we all understand making choices in response to our surroundings; but the poet’s talent is in the way she reveals something odd in this conventional logic. If “dismisses the hats we wear” is mere personification (of the sun) then it’s nothing too odd. But up against that first clause, it is not mere personification: to be convinced is to concede agency, to admit that our fate is not our own. “The sun convinces.” And this is what’s so startling, how she closely interrogates the actual patterns of words that we’re accustomed to, how she reverses and disrupts them:

She cannot
tell her voice apart.

Let’s talk a bit more about the examination of boundaries, belonging and privilege in this book. Dhompa’s incisive (yet always low-key) observations here are often devastating:

In the world of the civilized,
we are present on days we schedule for
our hospitality.

Back to “now” – for “now” as it is understood here in English, is destabilized, is emphasized as a mere word, a word which reflects a world view, a concept of history as linear, a diagram she troubles:

So far from where I should be,
neither time nor place
is referential. I leave
today and will
see you yesterday.

So here we have it: language is identity, is identity of all sorts. “Reference is not genetic”; and thus the notion of “being from a place”, like the meaning of words and sentences, is not innate, but is nonetheless consequential:

I ask feet to forget
the summer rendered in sentences.
After we speak of beauty, we are led
to its consequences.

Language is a system of exchange and ritual, I think, and an inadequate one:

I refer to myself as here and to you as there,
we must be to each other as fixed points.
In time, it will be clear
what we are looking for is a system to be happy.

The poem’s sections are entitled:

My rice tastes like the lake
exile
perigee
border
selvage
catabolism
escape
recurrence

Which I note because it’s handy, I find when tackling challenging little books like this to pay attention to the differences between sections. (And I’d like this blog be a place where I help people of my level of experience – as in, not very high — figure out how to read poetry). So in “perigee”, which means “the point in the orbit of the moon or a satellite at which it is nearest to the earth”, we find:

To consent to a theory of belonging I embrace
renunciation in the mountain and concede to the immateriality
of citizenship. The time to leave a country is when it accepts me.

That is, she speaks in this section of almost leaving the periphery, but never being part of the center.

And then in “catabolism”, which means “The metabolic breakdown of complex molecules into simpler ones, often resulting in a release of energy,” we have:

Too much time has been spent in introspection,
he says there is a procedure to becoming circumspect.
This is when one attempts to unthinking. The mind is
a whirlpool, a whirlwind void: not too loose, not to tight.

In short, it is a startling book, startling because of the poet’s ability to create a phrase that is at once precise and familiar, and yet perplexing. We have the sense that she knows things about English (who is fluent in several languages) that who have never ventured from anglophonie will miss:

This mind, rapacious as the pantry
it stocks, does not see itself.

Reading this book made me want to know more about Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, because I suspect that would bring it into a whole new light for me. As it is, I’m closing with this last extract because it’s beautiful:

If we are to consider suffering we must follow
the upheaval of a thought: a papaya is lost to raindrops;
a house catches fire; a body snaps as a matchstick or a leer;
a crowd combs the beach for diamonds washed
to shore from a pirate’s loot. We return to
the same question for if we remember sickness,
suffering, old age, death, then we must understand.
Wind collapses the slender spine of an umbrella.
Everything held precious, conforms.

Sources consulted for this review:

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s profile at The Poetry Foundation.
This review of this book at Reconstruction.

Also, I haven’t read yet but just found another review over at The Volta.

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Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands

This book, originally published in German, was assigned to two years ago my introductory poetry workshop. It was an interesting item on our reading list, as the book more obviously qualifies as creative non-fiction than poetry (its American publisher, Penguin, classifies it as travel/reference). I agree with the instructor of the workshop, however. Atlas of Remote Islands is a book of poems, and I will tell you why.

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Schalansky opens the book with an essay in which she describes her early attraction to atlases as a means of travel – something she was banned from doing in her early life as a citizen of East Germany. She then moves onto the story of islands and what they can mean: and escape, a laboratory, a prison, a utopia, a hell, a microcosm, a story, a stage. She then talks about maps & what it is to create a map:

Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name. This foreign land is both occupied and possessed and the act of conquering it is repeated in the map. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.

And, as so often is true with good writing, this essay is both about its subject and also about writing itself:

An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact.

That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discovered of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.

Schalansky thus makes a good argument for her claim that “it is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to become recognized as literature,” for like maps, like written histories, re-fabricate the reality they aim to represent.

Atlas of Remote Islands is also an exceedingly beautiful book. Schalansky has studied typesetting and in fact invented the font for the book. It is a pale blue, hard-cover book, with inside covers and dividing pages of a complementary toasted orange. At the top of each prose passage (which lie on the book’s verso pages), beneath the title, are carefully laid-out facts and visuals about the island’s coordinates, population, location, timeline, size, and national affiliation. The maps (on the recto pages) are sparsely ornamented, delicately printed masterpieces which represent the islands’s topography (by means of shading), villages and cities, landmarks, and roads.

It is a remarkably well-crafted book. And this attention to aesthetics makes sense: if journey by means of atlas is to be a rewarding one, shouldn’t the object itself offer something more than just what is contained in its text? Schalansky understands something profound about representation. She quotes the latin adage scribere necesse est, vivere non est — “only that which is written has actually happened.” And what is written is itself a happening. The representation is not merely a simulation, but itself is an experience.

But much has been made, in other reviews (all which are good reads: The Guardian, National Geographic, The Spectator, and Literary Review) of the aspects of this book that I have discussed above. Less has been said of the quality of the actual writing. Let’s talk about the poetry of the book.

What makes a prose poem a poem? My opinion is that is has to contain essential poetic elements — image, music, metaphor, and metric beauty. But, taking as it does the a shape we traditionally associate with narrative and plot, a prose poem ought to offer more semblance of a story than may be expected from a poem-shaped poem. What is brilliant about Atlas of Remote Islands is that it takes real, historical facts and, by means of poetic devices, transforms them into living stories. Here is an example, the entry in the book for Macquarie Island on page 78:

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The text begins in manner of an information text, but establishes its poetic nature in the second sentence, “It is a piece of the earth’s crust from the ocean that just happened to shoot up above the sea level, a vertebra of an undersea spine that rises above the water.” The non fictional character of the text is affirmed by the use of actual quotation (one of these days I will do a whole post on quotation and found language). Double backslashes inserted between sentences suggest the pause or jump we experience with line-breaks and section-breaks in poetry. Most important (here and in poems in general, maybe): the ending image. Schalansky is a master of the haunting yet conclusive image — she has a way of ending each not with rhetorical statement or explanation, but with an image that leaves you feeling as though the story you have been reading is in fact entirely different than you first thought.

The compactness of Schalansky’s writing is astonishing, and upon closer reading it becomes evident that as much care has gone in to the structure, pacing and poetry of language in each passage as has gone in to the design of the book, the research behind it, and the drawing of its maps. Thus one thing we can learn from Schalansky in addition to the power of a book that is aesthetically well-planned, is the power of non ficiton that is carefully informed by the methods of poetry.