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.A fault line runs through the city centersullen as a stretch mark under a dress;we believe our undoing comes from one source.An escape plan is our solace. There are words,there are stories we never tell. She saidon the radio, my rice tastes like the lake.It was a perfect sentence. (“My rice tastes like the lake”)
In San Francisco poet Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] third trade poetry collection, My rice tastes like the lake (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2011), following up her Rules of the House (2002) and In the Absent Everyday (2005), both also published by Apogee Press, she continues her lyric exploration of the space she inhabits between two cultures, two countries and the blended awareness she has created for herself, since.
Over the length and breadth of eight poem-sections, My rice tastes like the lake extends the lyric breath of each poem to its full, writing out a sequence of Tibetan landscapes that exist both without and within, across the surface of her years in the United States. In the poem “Exile,” she begins, writing: “From a distance, topography is intent / as in, Where I am from is no more. / Blood is not a natural conclusion / to kinship despite theories and experiments / where red prefaces emotion.” In the same section, a second poem on exile, “”Exile: an invitation to a struggle,” writes:
The distance is a question.The question is also a statementof a struggle.
If the word is a struggle,you understand.
It reads as though to even name the difficulty is its own difficulty, writing her states of dislocation. In the thirteen-part poem “Selvage: for country,” she writes:
I am in the boat you built with a holein the starboard hull patched with remnantsof material found. It is raining. I do not thinkI will sink today even as I rememberyour prediction. You are not the same person.You have not changed. And I am in the sinkable boat,again. The cleats turn into themselves. Everywhereis water. Why is it I am paddling on my own? To savemyself I am alone. They were always drinkingtea, the people of my past. They rarely shatteredcups or plates or replaced the thermos, emptiedbefore sleep. Every day they used their fingersto measure salt and butter and time. I do not knowhow to be like them. To keep from breakingin small rooms where everything balances on hope.
My rice tastes like the lake writes as an examination of her daily life and immediate, writing out traces of what no longer exists, an exile from what can no longer be returned to. In the poem “Border,” she writes: “There is no irony / in how I think, except at work, where there is / a dismantling of text and I am many people / but never enough, for dissolution of cause and effect. / It is not without strife we are here. I speak for the gorilla / in the zoo who is photographed all day; he likes / cornflakes and ketchup.” It’s as though she is in the midst of exploring a perspective of exile that doesn’t automatically presume complete displacement or homelessness or a romantic attachment to what has been lost, but instead, explorations of the entirety of presences and absences and how they relate swirl throughout her poems. There is what is lost, and what remains, carried. This collection is rife with absences, and reoccurring silences. The thirteen-part poem “Catabolism” begins:
To solicit silence, not preceding or shadowinga moment but subsequently memorialized as a sensation,you would have to be static. Thinking backis a term we use to preface regret. To carryno contradictions we must build emptinessas one stretches the body to win an eating contest.My attempts to re-enact emotion relyon the familiar. Within time, opinionscollude to become history. Withintime, rules apply to gestures. In years, howwill strangers read us when we walk by?
Silence is very much a Buddhist trait, and one that allows for deeper meaning, and Dhompa’s lines allow for much that isn’t there on the surface, unseen, silently included. Composed, in every meaning of the word.