Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Another new-poet-to-me in Bird Dog 2 whose work catches my eye is Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, a Tibetan-American poet who grew up in exile communities in Nepal & India before coming to the U.S. According to the contributor’s note, she also was the focus of an issue of A•Bacus, which the Potes & Poets website informs me appeared just three issues prior to the one by Richard Deming I looked at last Thursday. Her first poem, “Just the Tools” is brief enough to quote in full:

He writes a language still unknown to him. Looks up each word
in the dictionary when he cannot use his hands to show what he really means.
He can lick the surface of her skin, taste its tingle and wonders what good words
would make of the gesture. That he could want more is impossible. He wants
more. In the end his words are more or less. In my heart, he says, are many rivers.
They all flow in the same direction. He sits at a desk every night in case he is needed.
This is his job. Still waiting to become happy – night after night at the desk watching
TV. He does not wish for the good when so much else is closer. Once after a cup
of chocolate, he pushes his tongue against hers to show he is the greatest. He counts
the seconds. Imagines everybody climbing stairs into their rooms to hide a secret.

The lines here are so long that I have to think about whether or not this is a prose poem when I retype it here. Because the first line is noticeably shorter than the others, I decide that it most likely is verse. Long as they are, the lines are still shorter than those I find in the review section at the back of Bird Dog.

There is a gentle surrealism here, so quiet that it seems possible to miss it as such altogether. Its most evident in the leaps this small fable takes – from using the dictionary to licking “the surface of her skin,” from sitting at the desk to not wishing for good, from counting the seconds to hiding secrets. All these little leaps are very much in keeping with the ambiguity between prose & verse.

What is even more interesting, from my perspective, is that a surrealist impulse should show up here at all. In my own mind, I can never fully dissociate surrealism from its European – and especially French – roots. Even today, 69 year’s after Breton’s “What is Surrealism?” there remain strong Francophile aspects to the surrealism tradition in America, felicitous when they encourage a Ron Padgett to translate work from a Duchamp or Apollinaire, less so in the hands of the Chicago Surrealists, such as Franklin & Penelope Rosemont or Paul Garon who mostly seem determined to bludgeon nuance into submission. Europeanism also appears to have been an important aspect of the attraction of the prose poem as a form to Japanese poets such as Miyoshi Tatsuji & Anzai Fuyue in the period immediately prior to World War 2.*

Arriving in the United States as boy at the end of the Vietnam War, Linh Dinh – who in recent years has lived both in his native Vietnam & more recently in Italy – employs a far harsher mode of surrealism, visible in “A Reactionary Tale”:

I was a caring husband. I bought socks for my family.

My swarthy wife liked to wear these thick woolen socks that came up to her milky thighs.

I had a lover also. People could see me walking around each evening carrying a walking stick.

My most vivid memory, looking back, is of a pink froth bubbling out of my infant’s mouth.

Not everything was going so well: one morning, malnourished soldiers marched down our tiny street, bringing good news.

When good news arrives by mail, the cuckoo sang, tear up the envelope. When good news arrives by email, destroy the computer.

When an old friend came by to reclaim an old wound, I said to my oldest son: Go dump daddy’s ammo boxes into the fragrant river.

To reduce drag, some of my neighbors were diving headfirst into a shallow lake.

We were rich and then we were poor. A small dog or maybe a cat now pulls our family wagon.**

Here surrealism invokes precisely the colonial tone & history of Indochina. It also negotiates marvelously between the contexts of oral history, folk wisdom & the contemporary post-Stalinist culture that became embedded in a regime shaped by decades of war. But the sardonic wit is as American as apple pie. For a poet who once edited a journal entitled Drunken Boat, Dinh evidences virtually no Euro-nostalgia.

Nor does Dhompa.*** Hunting around for more of her work on the web, I came across a piece in Vert that excites me even more than the two pieces in Bird Dog. It’s entitled “City of Tin”:

Politeness prohibits saying what I really think.
Viaduct: a code for a feeling. Like mauve,
over the street of tarmac: a grave summer day
offering clean streets and a leg longer by perspiration.
Or gannets in sight. That women are said to speak so much
of feelings; as though to clarify would mean its end.
It never is. Clarification I mean. To indicate trust I tell you
the fish is who I look at most these days. For love, for love.
Endings happen. Words I use because I like who I become.
Summer resolved of mysteries. Give me nothing. Tiny, tiny
pebbles used as prop. Tilted and tinted glasses. City
of my desires has lines rigged at the waist. One minute
of sleep at a desk might bring it all down. Words you find
under my nail. (S)wallow. Some night owl effusion.

I love the rapid changes in this piece, the way in the last line wallow emerges from swallow, “s,” “w,” “o,” & “l” all reappearing in “some night owl,” perfectly setting up that final word. The Creeley allusion (For love, for love) leads not to the literary, but to set up the later use of reiteration: Tiny, tiny. One can still see the evidence of a surrealist impulse here (the fish is who I look at most or Words you find / under my nail), but it’s just one layer here among many.

More than a few poets of my own age cohort have demonstrated a considerable interest in (influence by) the surrealists: Barrett Watten, Ray Di Palma, Alan Davies, Lynn Dreyer, Alan Bernheimer & – perhaps the master in this regard – the late, great Jerry Estrin, all come readily to mind. While it’s easy enough to see that these poets have stayed free of the Euro-fetishism that entangled earlier generations of Yankee surrealism, it’s harder for me to discern if there is something deeper these writers share in common in their relationship to that heritage. And it both intrigues & delights me to see the surrealist impulse showing up again among younger poets, coming now literally from a completely different direction.

* Tatsuji’s classicist approach led to a poetry that was at once surreal & yet completely devoid of European allusions. The relationship of Europe to the history of Japan is of course particularly complex. Miyoshi Tatsuji would go on to become one of the six poets involved in the 1942 “Overcoming Modernity” symposium. [NB: that link opens an Adobe Acrobat PDF file.]

** This poem comes from the exquisitely designed chapbook a small triumph over lassitude.

*** & yet Dhompa has been criticized by in the Kathmandu Post for a desire “to forsake the local for the sake of pleasing the global communities of the world.”