Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Ian Boyden: This Kind of a Starlit Night

On August 25, the Tibetan poet and activist Woeser posted a photograph taken at night. In its star-filled sky, the Milky Way seems like a whisper of ancient light as it turns above the ruins of Yabzhi Taktser, rotating over the Dalai Lama’s old family house in Lhasa, empty and quiet. And accompanying this photo, Woeser asked this question: “This kind of a starlit night, if I could genuinely see it with my own eyes, if I had but one wish, could I make this happen?” Even though she was born in Lhasa, and even though she’s from Tibet, she cannot travel there freely and hasn’t been able to return to her native home for two years.

There is an ancient map of Tibet in which the entire country is depicted as the body of a woman. Her body is covered with temples, with mountains, with forests, with rivers. This woman’s name is Srinmo. The same stars circling over the ruins of the Dalai Lama’s old family house also circle over the body of Srinmo. And Srinmo, sentient earth, lies there night after night and looks up at these circling stars. Her wish to return to the centering is timeless.

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This Kind of a Starlit Night

for Woeser

I would unfurl the map of Srinmo
but let the sheep keep their skins
I would unfurl the map of Srinmo
but let the sheep drift like clouds across the high plateaus
The map painted on sheep skin would remain rolled up
while I unfurl the other map of Srinmo
this one painted as large as Tibet itself
when it was the size of its sovereign
independent self

We would run our hands over it
smoothing it over the fields, over the smallest stones
until it is impossible to distinguish
what is map and what is country
impossible to distinguish
pigment from the mountains themselves

Srinmo’s clear eyes
the springs pouring from the canyons Srinmo’s warts
yak shit
the temples built upon Srinmo’s body
the Potala Palace
Srinmo’s sandalwood tree
the mystical words written upon the leaves
of the golden sandalwood tree
of the Kumbum Monastery
the dialects whispered in remote valleys
Srinmo’s breast surrounded
by an eight-petaled lotus
the galaxies spinning through vultures’ hearts
prayer flags
prayer wheels
a snow leopard’s hidden movements within the snow line the swept edge left by a withered brush
All of this inseparable: map, land, heart

That shore. This shore. Paper. Earth.

Eternal Srinmo lies looking at the heavens
a sky full of stars
the atmosphere filled with the oncoming enemy’s dust


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Srinmo: The Demoness of Tibet. 20th century reproduction of one of the earliest maps of Tibet, artist unknown. Pigment on paper.

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The Ruins of Yabzhi Taktser. Lhasa, August 10, 2013. From a series of photographs by Woeser documenting the ruins of the family home of the 14th Dalai Lama.

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Woeser was born in Lhasa in 1966, the daughter of a senior commander in the People’s Liberation Army. When she was four years old, her family moved to Kardze (Ganzi Autonomous Prefecture) in Sichuan. In Sichuan she received a Chinese-language education, studying literature at the Southwest Institute for Nationalities in Chengdu. She worked for two years as a journalist in Kangding (Dartsedo) before moving to Lhasa in 1990. There she became an editor for the magazine Tibetan Literature and published her first volume of poetry, Tibet Above (1999). As her literary reputation grew, she was given the opportunity to study at the Lu Xun Institute in Beijing. In 2003 she wrote an outspoken collection of essays, Notes on Tibet, published in Guangdong but subsequently withdrawn from circulation and officially banned on account of “political errors.” A year later, she lost her job and moved to Beijing, where she continued to write for the Internet and had several books published on Taiwan, notably Forbidden Memory (2006), a history of the Cultural Revolution in Tibet illustrated with photographs by her father. In 2006, when her blogs were shut down by decree, she started a blog on an overseas server. During the massive crackdown and news blackout that followed the disturbances of March 2008, her blog was disabled by cyberattacks but she continued to publish observations and commentary, of which translations can be found on China Digital Times and High Peaks Pure Earth. A selection of her poems also appeared in Tibet’s True Heart (trans. A.E. Clark, Ragged Banner Press, 2008). Woeser is the recipient of the Norwegian Authors Union’s Freedom of Expression Prize (2007), the Prince Claus Award (2011), and the International Women of Courage Award (2013). She lives in Beijing with her husband, the Tibetan scholar Wang Lixiong. She is not free to travel abroad.

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Poem This Kind of a Starlit Night copyright 2016 Ian Boyden. All rights reserved.

Photograph The Ruins of Yabzhi Taktser copyright 2016 Woeser. All rights reserved.

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