How Did This Come About?

Not long ago, I was reading a back issue of Best American Essays (1999) and I ran across Barbara Hurd's splendid essay, "The Country Below," reprinted from the Yale review. I was so impressed by this piece about the bogs and swamps, literal and metaphoric, in our lives and history, that I tried to find more of her work, only to discover the book I most wanted, a volume of her poetry called OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR (which won the Sierra Club Nature Writing Award), was out of print. I decided to write her a note, in case she might direct me to an available copy. During our resulting correspondence, she mentioned that she was working on a book about her experiences teaching poetry to Tibetan refugee children--and might Perihelion be interested in an excerpt from that? As you read through this excerpt from ECHOES ACROSS THE HIMALAYAS, her work in progress, I think that you will agree with my enthusiastic answer: YES!


Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Scenery from my window

When I see through my window
my mind goes backward
to when I was small,
to my tiny village with poor houses.

I used to see out my window
the pigeons and mountains
and all were beautiful
because that place is Tibet.

When the winds came
all the plants whispered,
the water was sweet as milk,
and flowers shone like the spread of stars.

    Ngawang Choekyi
    Class 9

The Day So Angry

The streets of Lhasa--
people frightened, throwing stones at red soldiers.

Red soldiers caught my grandfather,
treated him the way Jews were treated
before the Second World War.

Thousands of people slaughtered,
thousands wounded by red soldiers.
The day my mother heard, 
she became a stone.
Nothing like a human being.

I, eleven, did nothing,
had only anger and sadness
and spoiled words.

    Sonam Wangmo
    Class 11
    Age 17


When I was Departed from Her

When I was ten my parents 
went to the market for my new clothes 
and led me in the dark 
to the monastery to pray
and then I departed from my beloved mother.

When the Chinese were asleep
I and some others walked like cats.

I left my beloved parents, 
my home and school.

When the sun rose,
we rested until dark
and then we went marching, 
marching like ants.

When I heard the cockoo-cockoo
we were in a thick forest.

I left my beloved school, my friends,
my town of Lhasa.

In the daytime we rested. Others slept,
but I never did.
At night, we walked like thieves on dry leaves
and finally arrived in India,
my second motherland.

I left everything.

When I look at my mother's picture,
I remember everything.

    Class 9
    Age 15


Stone, Snow, and a River

I saw them on my way from Tibet to Nepal,
that time I was so small.

On the first half of the journey,
we reached a strange place where
we cannot hear a thing
but the torrent sound of a waterfall.

Beside the waterfall, a huge stone blocked our way.
It looked like a mountain covered with orchids, 
its bottom thick with red and green algae.

When I asked my parents why
stones block our way, they replied
that stones were sent by God to earth.

They jumped this mountain stone
to the other side, but I shook--
how could I cross such a stone?

My father took me on his back
and we all gave hand-to-hand
to each other and passed this
dangerous difficulty.

A day later again we reached a place
which looked so plain and cold and wintery.
The snow fell like white rain.

All the directions covered with snow,
not a single black thing. I feel so sad
but still snow fell like ghosts.

Later the river without a bridge,
just a large tree across
slick with ice and we can find
no single seed of sand.

We take out our tsampa,
which is like sand,
and spread it on the tree.
We sacrificed our food.

The tree felt rough,
then we walked with full concentration.
Otherwise we would fall into the river.

We joined a rope around our waists
and passed the most difficult journey.
I started to feel that God
could help us on our way.

And then I prayed for a long time
and then I turned away.

    Class 9
    Age 16


A Day So Sad

Like orphan children 
departed from parents,
punished like animals, 
without human rights, 
we ran like camels 
without food or water for weeks.

Owl-like, we crossed the borders at night.

    Kalsang Ladoe
    Class 11


Things I Miss

The high Potala Palace, kissing the sky, 
my mother and her flexible hand,
forests and flowers,
the bees extracting nectar,
milk with the whiteness of snow,
the air, free from dust and pollution,
and my little watchman, watching my house,
barking all night.

    Sonam Ngodup 
    Class 11A
    Age 17



In a tiny zone in the Milky Way
in a unique planet in the solar system,
two corners of attitude
survive together.

In the world of cruelty and violence,
there exists a ray of truth,
and in the world of kindness and mercy,
a wave of pain and destruction.

One couldn't describe
by seeing the outer surface.
Some are kind in disguise!
When you open the cover,
in grief, your heart will break,
break down into pieces
like a sack of crushed ice
when somebody, suddenly, pours it down.

    Sonam Ngodup 
    Class 11A
    Age 17


Step by step

a man with a horse
in a broad landscape
painted with conifers and shrubs.

The former cultivates great kindness
toward the latter,
not one horse but two or three.
The sky is painted with blue
and sketched into auto shapes.

Kiss by kiss
the man gets closer to the horse
and step by step
he puts the halter on.

Step by step
he jumps on the horse's back.

That's the way the journey begins.
Soon, step by step
they reach their destination,
a hilly region
decorated with rocks.

Step by step
the days pass
and step by step
the horse starts flying
in the midnight light
of moon and stars
and step by step
they vanish inside the moon.

    Palden Choemphal
    Grade 11
    Age 16


Poetry of Tibetan Refugee Children

Barbara Hurd

The classroom itself was bleak: concrete walls and floor, old wooden desks, rags bundled and tied to serve as blackboard erasers.  Outside the small window, the foothills of the Himalayas rose and Tibetan prayer flags fluttered, and as I walked into the room, twenty Tibetan high school students stood up, their black hair neatly combed, their uniforms of green blazers and gray pants clean and pressed, their smiles shy, tentative. "Good morning, madam," they said in unison.  "Tashi delek," I tried to reply. They smiled at my garbled greeting.  I was a guest poet there, thousands of miles from my home in Western Maryland, far from the university where I teach, far from the familiarity of home and friends, all of which I returned to a month and a half later.   The students were also miles from their home, their ancestral land high on the Tibetan Plateau.  Most of them will never go home. 

During the fall of 1999, I taught poetry at The Tibetan Homes Foundation School in Mussoorie, India. Established in 1962 under the direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the school currently has about 1800 students enrolled in classes from kindergarten through grade twelve. Many of the children were born in Tibet and made the dangerous crossing over the Himalayas at night to escape Chinese oppression and to have a chance at a better education in India. Some of them are second generation refugees, their parents having fled Tibet some time after the Dalai Lama escaped and established his government-in-exile in northern India.  Many of the students are orphans; some have family still in Tibet whom they may never see again. Through courses such as Thangka Painting and Tibetan Language, the school works to preserve traditional Tibetan skills and knowledge.  Through its use of English as the primary medium of instruction and its computer lab, equipped with Internet access and international live video capabilities, the school works to prepare its students for a global community.

On that first day of my residency, the students stood by their desks for several minutes, waiting politely, until I finally realized I was supposed to tell them they may be seated. It was only the first of many reminders of how much I didn't know about this culture and this community. I worked with students in grades eight through twelve, hung out with them between classes and on weekends, shared meals with Tibetan friends, and watched the questions rise in my mind. I'd anticipated language barriers and differences in teaching/learning styles, but I hadn't expected the impact of cultural differences to raise so many questions about the nature, even the goal, of creativity. What I discovered was that the Tibetan students' shared history of oppression and exile and the tight bonds required for a safe refugee community do not necessarily translate into the freshly rendered story, the clear image, the surprising insight that are the pleasures of a good poem. As I walked daily from hotel to school and back again, two questions plagued me-- How to move the students beyond their collective rage and gratitude and into the small, fresh details of their private experiences?  And the harder one: Why?

The students and I fumbled around for days, trying to get used to one another's ways .  My zany icebreakers and free association exercises collided against their tradition of recitation and need for perfection and usually failed. Eventually I settled into "assigning" poems and began what I finally realized was the most fruitful work: the one-on-one, two-heads-bent- over-drafts conversations.  "I miss the high plateau," Ngawang wrote.  "I can't picture it," I told him.  "Show me." He looked to Nyima for help. They whispered over the paper and in a few minutes the high plateau became "a field where flowers/ shone like the spread of stars."   Dorjee wrote that the Chinese changed everything.  "How?" I wanted to know. A half-hour later, he showed me these lines: "Even the land and animals/ became uneasy."  Sonam struggled to describe the violence and how it affected her family: "The day my mother heard/ she became a stone./ Nothing like a human being." 

Detail by detail, the stories emerged, the memories of their families, the landscape of home. And then the bigger question began to haunt me: how to know if such focus on what they've lost is worth the poem that emerges.  I wrestled with whether some stories are better left buried.  Does Dawa really want to so vividly remember watching her friend get shot by a Chinese soldier the night they tried to get to the Nepalese border?  What will happen to Jigme, still miles and maybe years from his family, his story of brutality unearthed, relived, written down and now tucked into my filing cabinet in Maryland? 

What will happen to Namgyal if he tries to go back to his homeland?  After class one day I dragged a chair out onto the concrete balcony that overlooks the school's main courtyard to watch him play a game of basketball.  Beyond the school grounds, the Himalayas rose, and above them, the sun glared bright in the thin air.  I squinted, trying to watch him dribble and shoot too far from the basket.  Lhamo pulled another chair out of the classroom to sit next to me. She folded a piece of notebook paper into a sun visor and silently offered it to me. In a poem last week, she had written,  "Hope arises with more/ bitterness than happiness/ But it leaves an indelible imprint/on my soul."

When the game was over, I slipped my backpack on and gathered up the folders full of poems.  I was too many thousands of miles from home then to remember Lewis Hyde's exact words in The Gift, but I knew he says something about a culture's art being its gift to people both of that culture and beyond, a gift that holds the potential to transform the recipient.  It's a feeling I know, that potential, the way those children's poems felt like treasures in my hands, in my bookbag.  Some of them were quickly scribbled; some are more thoughtful and heartfelt.  All of them hold that potential to transform--me, the poet, anyone who reads them. This is, perhaps, the only answer to the question of why.  It is the promise of poetry, its work in a world of jarring lunacy: that a single image, a couple of lines, can penetrate, can slide inside our busy lives and sturdy logic, our devotion to efficiency, can strike a note of such surprise or beauty or wisdom that we stop and listen. 

Tsering called my name as I headed back to the hotel after the game and joined me on my walk across school grounds.  A small offering, a tiny gathering of icons and incense, burned in the dirt by the sports field.  A couple of monks in maroon robes watched the boys practice pole- vaulting. Tsering is shy. Three weeks ago, she'd titled her first poem "Silence All Over."  Its first lines read, "No one spoke--/not the mountains, trees, pond."  On this day, she dug into her notebook, pulled out a folded piece of paper, extended her hands to me.  Her poem fluttered on her palms like a prayer flag.

Barbara Hurd

University of Connecticut

These poems were written in 1999 by Tibetan refugee children at the Tibetan Homes Foundation School in Mussoorie, India, in creative writing workshops conducted by Barbara Hurd of Frostburg, MD.  The poems and accompanying photographs are part of a manuscript entitled Echoes Across the Himalayas.  For more information, contact Barbara Hurd, Department of English, Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD  21532 or Email!