From the opening poem, "As Remembered", with its opening line-"I am only beginning to understand how seasons affect me"-to the closing poem, "One More Say" with its closing line-"Here it is a location. Here it is a scattering like mustard seeds"-Tsering Wangmo speaks with the deliberate yet hesitant voice of a young Tibetan who is growing up in the refugee communities of India and Nepal and is receiving her college education in the United States. With a clear, observant eye, Tsering Wangmo sets down what she sees and hears as she comes to terms with her life and with the language of a later time. Rules of the House has the feel, on first reading, of a diary recorded after the event where emotions, if they were felt, remain unspoken. Style dominates content: what we have is a map and not the country. The prose-like pace of the language-sentence by sentence, sometimes two or three sentences and then a pause, a gap, a moving on-distances the reader from a summary engagement with the life at hand. Even so, there are more than enough moments of realisation and common place beauty that stand and stay through the patterned slats of her narrative and that mark it in place and time:
The Tara statue had tears in its eyes. The caretaker produced the piece of scrap paper he used to wipe it off. Words ran into each other where water touched ink like meandering veins in a frayed wrist. The monk blessed himself with it as I read:
100 kilos of sugar
100 packets of Taj tea.
Total = 2,000 rupees.
What is at stake in this first volume of poems is identity. In the various "places called home/ in someone else's country" as the narrator comes to see herself through "the daily rituals and the yearly ones", Tsering Wangmo looks to those who share her exile's journey. Spoken of and heard, yet revealed only with reticence (named simply by letters: M - F - S), it is, above all, M, who offers guidance.
When the thermos shatters, she knows the direction of its spill.
She knows how to lead and follow. Know her from this.
In these uncertain situations, it is not the kindness of strangers that she has to rely on, but the ways of her family, the rules of her house that she must learn from.
The insight gained from this vantage is that language and how it is used determines the way the world is known. This is finally Tsering Wangmo's strategy in writing the book. Hers is a consciousness that registers and waits, that gains mastery by observing and setting down without distortion what one becomes attuned to. By taking in hand a fate that is, more often than not, out of her hands, her identity is formed, and in the writing, reclaimed.
I am only beginning to understand how seasons affect me.
Winter. Snow beating street people into obedience. How mothers held back from stepping out in discreetly ornamented shoes and thin nylon socks.
This is the way I count years: the winters we had fire and the summers we erased because we were in another place.
I am told I was five in 1971 even though my birth certificate states I was born in 1969. The elders count on their fingers. They have done it for a long time.
It was winter but not the kind of winter they were born into.
They were wearing hand knitted woolen sweaters. I was wearing a jacket that children born of refugees wear.
When I am with them, I cannot say I remember. I say as I am told.
It is not the accuracy of the story that concerns us.
But who gets to tell it.
With the simplest of descriptions, Tsering Wangmo portrays the predicament of displacement and of her need to recall it.
ONE MORE SAY
Think on this when prayers fall like thick paint on asphalt.
Think on this when the face is fading.
Think on this and be decisive in your motions. The breathing. The utterance.
No Eastern star leading conch shells and a rainbow at dusk. Those who must believe, do.
Who dares to question the accuracy of a direction when the journey was not theirs.
The moment of birth. Before the father extended his arm towards the mother.
Here is a location. Here is a scattering like mustard seeds.
With this final placement and dislocation, with this singular image held within the rhythm of language, Tsering Wangmo tells us what it is (for a person, for a people) to lose one's home and to set forth in the world for another. For the child taken along on that journey, the voice of memory becomes through the insight gained in these poems, the voice of experience.
(Wayne Amztis is a photographer and writer who lives in Kathmandu.)
Rules of the House
by Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
Apogee Press. $12.95