Silence, Home, Exile: Women Poets from Nepal, Hong Kong, and the Philippines – Curated & Introduced by Henk Rossouw

In many ways “Time Zones,” by Filipina poet Vyxz Vasquez, gets at the thread that binds this portfolio together: The gap between here and there, between where you’re from and where you are, calls into question both places. Where is home in the silence? Can exile be chosen? How does a poet speak the gap? Vasquez’s poem is structured like a clock showing two time zones simultaneously, so that lines conveying uneasy imagery of a California-like beach, “the brother / is surfing an ice cream of sea salt and mint,” alternate and blur with bolded lines representing a victim of political violence or government brutality, “Skin like a dead chicken after the bones / are broken ... in the head, in the gut, close range / a bullet hole on each side of the chest.” The quotes can’t fully capture the uncanny impact of the poem as a whole: The victim—in my readerly imagination a journalist who has spoken out against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the former dictator in the Philippines—could just as easily be an American of color assassinated by the police. Likewise, the beach could equally be in the Philippines. Time zones overlap; for the lyric duration of the poem, home and exile oscillate. Vasquez offers us exciting work, from the code-switching turtle analogy in “Love Poem,” to using English orthography to write in Filipino in “Ghee Era Contra Draw Gah,” to the list poem “Things Best Kept Hidden” that includes a question relevant in all time zones: “a story of rape: do I heart the bad news?”


Ariel So has a refreshingly direct sense of music to her lines: “My mother sews her grief to herself,” she writes in her poem “Restraint on 100 Chinese Silences.” Caught in history’s wheel, “[we] are speechless for violence.” Grief’s source needs the lyric to articulate its shape, against the silence of the white page. Implicit in So’s “Aubade” is the exile of the speaker’s family from Hong Kong since the Umbrella Revolution and the central Chinese government crackdown on the island’s autonomy: “Loose edges, I caress images / of a hometown where we have lost our rights.” Here, at the picnic of a family in transit that includes metonymic stowaway ants, the lover unwillingly abandoned at dawn in “Aubade” is a city the size of Hong Kong that memory—to keep it safe—has reduced to a “hometown.” Which time zone the poem unfolds in remains an open question—perhaps lyric daylight time? In the present tense of memory, in which nothing is lost or has to be left behind, “We have pineapple-crust buns. / Air pollution ...Cantonese sayings / to curse your eight generations with, and an ancestral backlog of the very dead.” Still, the “loose edges” the speaker reminds us of suggests that while exile burnishes memories, distance eats at their edges. Lyric daylight time means waking up in the dark and wondering where you are: “The wide expanse of time rarely enough under foggy city lights.”


Nepalese poet Mansi Dahal’s “when aama doesn’t see me for an entire year” speaks beautifully to the blurring of time across places that immigrants, exiles, and international students often experience: “i close my fluorescent eyes in the sunlight / to remind myself that i lived a life / before today. just not on this continent. / ... / so was it yesterday // that aama fried grated carrots to make halwa for me? / smell is not carried from one continent to another”. The final couplet of the poem captures the displaced state of being that the poems of Vyxz Vasquez and Ariel So, too, both sing of and against: “imagine being able to live / at one place at one time.” True, the speakers in the work of Vasquez, So, and Dahal have capacious imaginations, able to represent in their poems more than one place, even more than one time zone simultaneously. And yet Dahal’s enjambment—the second-last line hovering on “imagine being able to live” for moment, as if that desire were a complete end-stopped thought, before unfolding the poem’s final line—asks a poignant series of questions: If you live between places, neither here nor there, where do you live? Do you live? These are unanswerable questions, yet are questions that the uncertainty of the lyric—a space that Dahal, a gifted poet, is unafraid to explore—may accommodate. And so, Dahal’s poem “dear america” addresses her current home “with all of my dearness,” even as it speaks to hidden griefs: “dear america, / this morning nepal is declared the happiest country / in south asia. so when they ask me what is the population / of nepal, i tell them we are all happy there. / ... / when they ask me why do people leave nepal / i tell them we are all happy there.”

Henk Rossouw’s debut Xamissa, published by Fordham University Press in 2018, won the Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. The African Poetry Book Fund included his chapbook The Water Archives in the box set New-Generation African Poets: Tano. His poems have been or will be featured in POETRY, The Paris Review, The Massachusetts Review, Poetry Northwest, World Literature Today, and Boston Review. Henk teaches at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he co-directs the UL Creative Writing Program.