Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, the first Tibetan woman to publish poetry in English, turned 52 years old this year. She celebrated with a new poetry collection, Revolute. Published by Albion Books in a handmade limited edition of 165 copies that sold out in a month, it includes just three poems—the longest is 17 pages— that read like memories. Each dreamlike poem fractures into what could be interpreted as one short poem per page, but the sections associatively connect to form a whole. In an interview with Tricycle, Dhompa said the style reflects her “fragmented existence” living as a Tibetan in exile.
Dhompa was born on a train in India in 1969, a decade after her parents fled Tibet, and was raised by her mother in India and Nepal. Her father played no role in her life. After her mother’s death, she thought that keeping busy and being in an unfamiliar place might help lessen the pain of loss, so in 1995 she moved to the United States to pursue an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Later she earned a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Dhompa published two chapbooks, Recurring Gestures and In Writing the Names, in 2000. Her first full-length poetry collection, Rules of the House, published in 2002, was a finalist in the Asian American Literary Awards that year. Since then she has gained widespread recognition for four more books of poetry and her memoir, Coming Home to Tibet.
Dhompa’s work reflects what she described as her “small, compartmentalized lives”—at times living in Tibetan exile communities and at other times living where she was unable to disclose her heritage because she was an undocumented refugee. In Revolute’s title poem, she writes, “A poem is a map of intentions knotted into the landscape / children and women are instructed to follow back / to nation. Home defined by those who have not lost home.”
Loss of home and family is a recurring theme in Dhompa’s work. Her grandparents were killed in Tibet, her grandmother was shot by the Chinese military, and many of her other elders died in prison. Much of Dhompa’s national and familial history was intentionally and traumatically erased by the Chinese invasion. In “Revolute” she wonders, “Should all poems by us refer to the nation?” It’s a question she has asked herself many times. Sometimes she wants to write about something other than the exile experience, she said, but she realizes that she can never separate herself from the nation from which she was exiled. That she will always be from Tibet is evident right down to the language she uses. Dhompa has never lived in a country where Tibetan was spoken widely, and she writes only in English. Yet in her poetry, words like “freedom,” “citizenship,” and “belonging” carry the heavy weight of her heritage.
Tibet’s history and present affect Dhompa’s day-to-day activity, too. She doesn’t know her family medical history beyond her mother, for example, so when doctors ask for it, she often lacks the energy or desire to tell them why she can’t supply that basic information. In “The History of Sadness” she writes:
…history is cruel,
our fall falling without ceasing.
Even simple questions
trick us. What is your medical history? No branches
to fall back on, no headstone where they jumped
into the river, or shattered their hearts. To make
the doctor comfortable, I write, heart disease.
Writing “heart disease” on intake forms, Dhompa said, “seems the closest to true in some ways.”
For Dhompa, Tibetan poetry plays an important role in keeping accurate contemporary Tibetan experiences known and documented. Often when people talk about Tibet, she said, they speak of monks, compassion, meditation, levitation, and transcendence. But conversations about spirituality and Buddhism can omit crucial political context, like the parts of Tibetan history that were erased through genocide and the inability of Tibetans in exile to return to their homeland.
Her poems, Dhompa said, are attempts to have that conversation without having to have it aloud. The poems may omit some lost history, but the repercussions of those gaps infiltrate Revolute. As she writes in the title poem, “The heart knows what it cannot have.”
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