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The Yak Dilemma

How The Yak Dilemma speaks to those straddling different worlds.

By Latifa Akay

 

I was curious to read The Yak Dilemma, Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s debut poetry collection (Makina Books, 2021) not least because it was the first time I’ve had the opportunity of reading the poetry of another person of colour from, or based in, the north of Ireland. As someone who grew up Muslim in Belfast, with a Turkish Kurdish dad and a mum wearing a headscarf, the themes explored in The Yak Dilemma are poignant to me for many reasons that I’m going to try to unpick. The Belfast I grew up in, while full of charm, was a place where any difference was very palpable. I say this from the privileged position of being someone who is read as white, not visibly identifiable as Muslim, and with a local accent, meaning my experience of a place like Belfast has always been one of greater ease and safety than for most people of colour. 

Among many beautiful titles in the collection, ‘Reading Agha Shahid Ali in Northern Ireland’ struck me as particularly beautiful – almost a poem in itself. It prompted me to reflect on all the cultural and religious references that I grew up with in Belfast – that to others at the time may have seemed out of synch with the place and landscape, but that to me are woven into the very essence and fabric of what makes the city what it was, and continues to be and to become. To see references like this, to a Kashmiri-American poet who wrote Persian ghazals in English, breathed and written into existence in Dhaliwal’s poetry, felt special. Beyond Ireland, the themes and questions posed in The Yak Dilemma will speak to anyone straddling worlds, binaries and identities. Many of the poems consider what it is to inhabit margins – in place, language, body and society. In this I was reminded of Audre Lorde’s ‘A Litany for Survival’, which begins, ‘For those of us who live at the shoreline / standing upon the constant edges of decision / crucial and alone / for those of us who cannot indulge / the passing dreams of choice / who love in doorways coming and going / in the hours between dawns’. Lorde’s poem ends with the encouragement, ‘so it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive.’ Dhaliwal doesn’t shy away from edges, doorways and shorelines in her poems, but dwells in those margins and in speaking into existence what can be found there, extending an invitation to readers to do the same.  

Throughout The Yak Dilemma, Dhaliwal gifts us a measured and sensitive set of meditations on language, home and belonging, across space, time and borders. While deeply rooted in her personal experiences, one of the generous features of the collection is the sense of openness that it gives the reader, making it easy for them to locate themselves in the journeys traced in these poems. The collection carries us from scenes in Ireland (Dhaliwal’s ‘home’ of many years) to locations including Highgate Cemetery in north London, downtown Cairo, a hotel in Fatih in Istanbul, ‘Punjab’s fewer than five rivers’, and the Himalayan Highlands. 

Spaciousness meets us from the very outset in the collection, with the first poem ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’ serving as an initiation for readers into a meditative pace that characterises the whole collection, though edged as here with memories of violence. Clean blocks of verse carry us through Dhaliwal’s ethereal ‘no man’s land’, the poised spacing between words ushering in an almost prayer-like quality.  

The sense of space we encounter in the collection ranges from the satisfyingly banal in ‘Arabic Lessons’, ‘we were ten strangers scattered in a seminar room / in a university in Belfast’, and the visible pauses created by blank pages in the collection, to grander heights, such as in the poem, ‘While reading a famous author’s obituary, in the afterlife’: ‘the truth is that a few thousand feet are absolutely redundant in terms of the units of length in astronomy.’ The cover blurb of The Yak Dilemma concludes that ‘its words create new territories by carefully revealing the fragile spaces that fall in between’. And indeed, it is often in her attention to the micro level that Dhaliwal navigates most powerfully, offering invitations to the reader to prise open the received to find new meaning. In ‘Housing Crisis on Raglan Road’, Dhaliwal reflects on thinking solitude was soltitude, ‘The extra t a sword / to cut through a lapsed state of being on one’s own.’ In the title poem, ‘The Yak Dilemma’, she writes, ‘Whenever I draw a line / on the paper I think of her telling me that this line / is River Ravi around which several yaks graze.’ At a time when the violence of borders and binaries is so palpable in so many places, this beautiful reimagining of what a line or a border could be, feels gift-like. In ‘Rooms in Edinburgh’, ‘some say that looking at a same mountain twice is equal to looking at two / different mountains.’ And in ‘Unmapped Cities’, Dhaliwal writes, ‘It is uncanny how languages are lost in one city to be disregarded in another’. Her attention to the distinction between ‘mountain’ and ‘mountains’, between ‘lost’ and ‘disregarded’ language prompting reflection on these separate, yet overlapping modes of disappearing, and the fact that, in spite of the ‘uncanny,’ for both to occur, some intention is involved. 

Dhaliwal often uses reported speech as an imposition. In the title poem, she describes ‘learning what different animals / were supposed to be called’ and speaks of her grandmother, ‘whom I am told is from Chamba.’ This speaks to a certain lack of ownership that Dhaliwal at times almost laughingly acknowledges that she has over her own narrative – what it is to be an object of speculation, an exile, to feel herself under the perpetual gaze of whiteness. In ‘On wearing a Sadri in the West’, she writes, ‘you will be told it is a beautiful vest.’ Her use of such speech also suggests something else to the reader – that rigid definitions and imposed narratives, particularly those placed on racialised subjects, will often hold a violence, a limiting of the possibilities that lie in troubling supposed truths. 

Dhaliwal deals with attempts to categorise and typecast with an admirable composure. Again in the collection’s title poem, she maintains an affable tone when describing a range of instances in which she has been told facts about the yak, an animal native to her birthplace in the Himalayas. She uses measuredness, too, with great proficiency in ‘Unmapped Cities after Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities’, to lay bare the conditional acceptance of ‘otherness’, and the constantly shifting parameters of acceptability: ‘Some people will say / how cool is this language that is not English – / that even a health warning in it looks amazing / on a tobacco packet. On the other hand, / some people will shush you when you talk / in that language that is not English / with a dear friend, in a café whose name / is not in English. Everyone is so scared as if this new language will be the death of English.’ 

While Dhaliwal frequently resorts to an almost flippant dry humour, she holds space throughout the collection for the rawness of emotion to come through. In ‘The women who dine alone, dine alone’, the speaker says, ‘the words get to my blood and bile’ when she is told by a friend that ‘there is something very English about the way / I hold my cigarette between my fingers.’ In ‘Talking to Ghazala after The Republic of Ireland voted Yes to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, she allows herself to reflect on the bittersweet role that the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, who died from a miscarriage in 2012 at University Hospital Galway having been denied an abortion, played in the repeal of the Eighth Amendment restricting abortion in Ireland: ‘we have woken up to a miraculous / Monday morning. Hordes of people wearing / Tá badges, REPEAL jumpers and Together for Yes / merchandise chanted Savita! Savita! Savita!’ Her bittersweet reflections are quite literally bittersweet in the poem’s ending, ‘I saved you a box of After-Eight, Ghazala.’ 

In all of these moments, Dhaliwal still strikes a balance in her poised composure, and even when she or her speakers get close to unravelling, she uses form to offer containment. In ‘Migrant Words’, the elegiac villanelle form carries us through her lament for ‘a language I spoke long ago’ – the repetitions of the villanelle delivering us again and again to ‘somewhere I cannot now go’ and the speaker’s own disbelief at the loss of the language spoken by her ‘mother’s mother.’ In ‘An Accidental Sonnet’ she writes, ‘You know, when I say pleasure / I can’t always differentiate it from pain,’ while in ‘Reading Agha Shahid Ali in Northern Ireland’, the speaker writes ghazals in English ‘in a country / where I am constantly told that English / is not my first language and yet I hide / my pain under iambic pentameter.’ 

The sense of poise is another noticeable feature of this collection. In ‘Ghazal on Living in a Hotel in Downtown Cairo’, Dhaliwal uses the repeated refrain in the ghazal form to return repetitively to the question, ‘how am I doing?’ She connects with the disquiet in this poem to articulate, in the opening line, one of her most deliberate takes on ‘home’: ‘Four walls don’t make a home or a house – it takes some doing.’ Interestingly, she makes this statement in a poem in which the speaker is a tourist – showing perhaps that while defining what feels like home can be hard, pointing towards what isn’t home can be easier. Between the walls of this echoey poem, where a receptionist asks daily, ‘Hal’ant masrur? Are you happy?’ the closest the speaker comes to a conclusion is by turning the question on the reader in the final couplet, ‘how are you doing?’  

The question of a sense of self, or lack of certainty, recurs again and again in Dhaliwal’s poems, tied intimately to reflections on home and language, and to literal and metaphorical spaces. In ‘Poem in which I’m an interloper in an art gallery’, the speaker powerfully describes the jewels of a stranger as ‘more familiar to me in that foreign room than my own self’, concluding this poem with the unapologetic echo of Prime Minister Theresa May’s hostile soundbite, ‘if you are a citizen of everywhere, you are a citizen of nowhere; or just foreign.’ Even in the poem ‘Trading Himalayan Saffron for Homesickness’ in which she visits her parents and signposts ‘homesickness’ in the title, she still makes sure to show that no one place is a neat fit: ‘my eyes will twitch with a tear or two like the wick that is not the correct size.’ Home instead for Dhaliwal comes in feelings, company, spaces – in the comfort of ‘worn-out shoes’ in ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’, in sharing a beer with a lover in ‘Sharing a beer with you’, or in the presence of her lover in ‘Room in Edinburgh’ who means ‘everything still / is bright even in the season that withers everything away.’ 

Dhaliwal’s poem ‘Unmapped Cities’ draws from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a work described by the author himself as a ‘polyhedron’ with conclusions ‘written along all of its edges.’ Dhaliwal’s conclusions similarly are found in the margins of this collection. More central are her questions – ‘I stand in a labyrinth of questions’ she writes in the title poem – questions which ultimately serve as an invitation to openness from readers. A further take home from this collection is the poet’s evocation of the opportunities in multiplicity. In ‘Vulnerability Study’, the speaker describes ‘feeling hurt in one language to heal in another.’ An offer, perhaps, that in the margins – between words, in seemingly mundane moments and on the cusp of languages – meaning and openness can be found, if the reader wants it.

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