Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal
The Yak Dilemma
Makina Books, £10

Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s debut collection, The Yak Dilemma, is composed of odes to – and eulogies for – landscapes: she is often unanchored in the present, but commits these coordinates to memory through poetry. Her poems are sojourns and trips across multiple cities and down memory lane, both holidays in the Mediterranean and homecomings. She leaps through time zones – from India to Northern Ireland – yet her movements seem light, without strain or effort. She’s come so far. How did she get here?

The collection is studded with maps and museum passes, travel tickets and rented rooms, worn-out walking shoes and saffron-stained suitcases, postcards and souvenirs. The resultant text is a tangling of routes and roots—one that goes places as it is grounded, one that is as fluid as it is fixed in history, geography and memory. The Yak Dilemma flirts with form – featuring ‘accidental’ sonnets and ghazals – and has fun with the page-space (a couple of poems are laid out horizontally). The poems speak of personal, spiritual and socio-political fissures and dilemmas, as well as invite the reader to become a voyeur and vicarious traveller. In thirty-five poems and four sections, Dhaliwal points her poetic compass to mountains and museums, ‘weightless seas’ and ‘unmapped cities’—and pens laments and love letters: to lost landscapes, lost languages, lost lovers. She writes of no man’s land (“Meet me in the morning on no man’s land”); wastelands (“[This Walled Wasteland]”); and partitioned land (“your bird/ my bird”)—where ‘the distance between Jhelum and Satluj is a wound’s width’; she writes of the dilemma of dwelling between places, in liminal spaces; and her journeys and trajectories through cities she hesitates in calling home. Her nomadic tendencies notwithstanding, she asks what anchors her, where she gravitates towards—and why her body feels bordered.

The collection swiftly travels from Hauz Khas, Dilli – with its ‘walls bedecked / in love and ‘bulldozed dreams’’ (“Undesigning K-25, Hauz Khas”) – to Highgate Cemetery, London – ‘where the gardens are well-tended / but the living appear to be lonelier’ (“Roses for Karl Marx”). One moment, the poet is in a “Room in Edinburgh” – ‘where the seagulls / hover over the seven hills’ – the next she’s “Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork”. Dhaliwal contemplates solitude and debt ‘in Dublin, on a day as grey as if smeared with pewter’ (“Housing Crisis in Raglan Road”), her ‘half-baked Arabic / & over-ripened Hindi’ (in “In Istanbul”) and happiness and heartbreak – ‘how am I doing?’ – in “Ghazal on Living in a Hotel in Downtown Cairo”. In so many of these spaces, she’s a flâneuse, but also a foreigner. She lives in room after room, house after house—yet struggles with a sense of home. ‘Four walls don’t make a home or a house—it takes some doing,’ she writes in “Ghazal on Living in a Hotel in Downtown Cairo”. The poet may traverse many thresholds and territories, but who – and where – is she when she stands still?

In “Arabic Lessons”, set in a seminar room in a university in Belfast, the poet’s teacher asks: ‘why were we there’. She wants to read Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in his mother tongue and live in Beirut, Cairo, and Kuwait without letting anyone know she’s a foreigner. That’s why. But after ten weeks, ‘nothing came more naturally than the phrase / for bidding farewell, our minds ready to depart / wherever we had come from’. Close to the ending, in “Vulnerability Study” – a listicle-like diary entry – she includes: ‘A stranger’s tongue twirling with words like kismet & / karma, to know where are you originally from.’ It’s a question immigrants have learnt to live with. It’s a question that says no answer will ever be good enough. (The Pakistani-Kashmiri-American poet of If They Come For Us, Fatimah Asghar reminds us with a reality check that there exists a ‘wrong answer’ and a ‘wrong accent’.) Dhaliwal has questions of her own. What she wants to know – as the peripatetic poet tentatively asks in the final line of the title poem – is ‘where have I truly come to?

The itinerant poet comes and goes—and feels unsettled and unmoored in a world where ‘four walls don’t make a home or a house’. But what when she stays? In “Room in Edinburgh”, she says: ‘We stay in the exact same place—our own kingdom of mountains.’ The lovers listen to music and let their eggs burn. ‘In this kingdom, we hold hands, we kiss, and everything still / is bright even in the season that withers everything away.’ They mark their territory. No winter is too dark. Suddenly, the ‘seven hills of Edinburgh’ don’t feel so far from her hometown in the Himalayas. Somehow, she belongs—just as an ampersand does in another poem, one that opens the collection and sets the tone: ‘In that bleeding / memory, our bodies are countries / we trespass to walk from yes to / yes. You convince me if we can / substitute an ampersand for / a comma then it belongs there’ (“Meet me in the morning on no man’s land”). Halfway through the book, she writes of her ‘most important vocation’ as a poet, in “Sharing a beer with you”:

sharing a beer with you is more important than not writing
the most moving poem of the universe because who am I
to decrystallize honey that is not in our kitchen, making
strangers’ hearts quiver if I only care about one heart
in the whole world, which seems to be yours. 

Not writing the most moving poem. Not moving, yet walking from yes to yes. Sharing a beer. And suddenly, she knows where she’s truly come to. And yet, occasionally, Dhaliwal suffers from diaspora blues – ‘It will outstand, like you do when you stand / behind the mic to read your Himalayan poem / in a pub in an Irish town and they call you foreign’ (“On Wearing a Sadri in the West”) – and homesickness: ‘It could take me from six months / to a year to make the journey back’ (“Trading Himalayan Saffron for Homesickness”). In “Migrant Words”, she loses language and loses her way back: ‘somewhere I cannot now go / I buried some words from my dictionary of lament— / a language I spoke long ago’. In “Love in the Time of Diaspora” she loses a lover: ‘we were in the process of becoming displaced lovers / in the age of displaced postcards for displaced borders / displaced aggression, displaced grief, displaced ovaries’. And finally, in “Poem in which I am an Interloper in an Art Gallery” – ‘while treading on paths that are so foreign, in a city so foreign towards an art gallery so / foreign’ – she fails to piece together the puzzle of a love story. She writes, ‘to have a penchant for other people’s love / stories is like dying a death that was not really ours to die. There is a risk involved in assuming that the hearts that were foreign were traded because you know, if you are a / citizen of everywhere, you are a citizen of nowhere; or just foreign.’ As the theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Min-ha has written, “Every voyage is the unfolding of a poetic,” writes . The Yak Dilemma asks: why risk myopia, when we can move forward—and unfold?

Sana Goyal is a PhD candidate in literary prize cultures at SOAS, University of London. She is an Associate Editor at Wasafiri magazine and Publicity Manager at Tilted Axis Press. Her work has appeared in a number of publications including the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, Wasafiri, AAWW, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and Mint Lounge.

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Summer 2021

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