Much contemporary poetry billed as experimental prioritizes literary devices over raw emotions. In A Tibetan Grammar, translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, poet Bénédicte Vilgrain undermines both literary experimentalism and “real world” emotionalism, refusing to clearly separate technique from intuition.

In the book’s introduction, Vilgrain explains that the rules of Tibetan grammar were originally written in śloka, a Sanskrit poetic form. That Tibetan grammar borrows heavily from the Sanskrit language cements “a debt to Buddhism” — a philosophy that traditionally refuses to separate the theoretical from the practical.

Outlining the structure of A Tibetan Grammar — a sequence of chapters titled after Tibetan words — Vilgrain, quoting Jacques Bacot’s 1928 A Grammar of Tibetan, states that she has “tried to heed the ‘reactivity of the phonemes that makes each change as soon as it enters into contact with another’ … to follow the way meaning can change with inflections.”

In other words, Tibetan grammar is historically close to the philosophies of both poetry and Buddhism, and the sounds of spoken Tibetan yield unexpected meanings.

This seeming collision of the historical with the technical grounds A Tibetan Grammar. Much of the book pointedly uses Tibetan words as prompts for sentiment, which engages the reader. From chapter 5, “G’i”:

khà, surface or mouth

lang-shor, stubborn

Tenacious refrain

that comes out of

khà      my mouth, my

/ /       parents are

lang la shor,        dead, but tra la la la…

In this instance of foreign-language pronunciation the ties to Sanskrit and Buddhism are implicit, and important. The tenets of Buddhism are usually revealed through its combination of myth, history, and philosophy, which Vilgrain utilizes to disregard any divide between form and message. For example, from chapter 2, “sKu”:

ka la: kl u, pronounced ‘Lou’

Water Spirit (Sanskrit ‘Naga’)

Having reached the Kong Po where the

Lous live

my elder brother forgets

his homeland

What we pronounce as “lou” is pronounced in Tibetan as “kl u” — for those who understand how to pronounce it. “Kl u” is the pronunciation of “ka la,” a translation into Tibetan of the Sanskrit “naga,” the term for “water spirit” or snake. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who wrote his major treatise in Sanskrit śloka, is also said to have been a descendant of naga snakes.

Nagarjuna developed a peculiar method of metaphysical i nquiry: x is the case; now x is not the case; now x both is and is not the case; finally x neither is nor is not the case — all possible outcomes existing in turn. If we try to apply Nagarjuna’s logic to the line “tra la la la,” quoted above we again can see that meaning or value is determined by its placement while at the same time that placement is evacuated of anything but temporary priority.

Considering the inseparability of Buddhism and Sanskrit śloka to Tibetan grammar (as well as to Tibetan Buddhism: Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school directly influenced its development), we may follow this logic and say that Nagarjuna is an inhabitant of the “Kong Po,” the land of the nagas. Vilgrain also notes that the Kong Po is “where undesirables from the center go to be forgotten.”

The “elder brother” has left and forgotten “his homeland,” while the Kong Po is the land of snake-monk Nagarjuna who left the “center” to pursue a philosophy of śunyata, or metaphysical “emptiness.” In such a case, reaching the Kong Po can be read as reaching, metaphysically, nowhere.

Vilgrain uses the Tibetan language to point toward Buddhism, illuminating the inseparableness of language and real-world actions in Buddhist beliefs. In chapter 3, “Khà,” Vilgrain pushes this principle toward a claim about the craft of poetry.  For Vilgrain, poetry should go beyond a clear representation of  appearances.

khab, needle

                        Deep is the boatman’s

                        knowledge of water

                        as the needle is known

                        by the one who forges it.

                        We expect the needle to sew —

                        and the bellows to blow.

                        The needle’s eye is empty.

                        If afraid of losing your needle

                        you put it in a pincushion

                        hang it up.

                        Needles are lost

                        through nervousness.

                        Cows are lost

                        because of the valleys.

                        To measure the sky

                        by the eye of a needle.

khà, “kind of article, itself, everything”

                        In the orifice ‘mouth’

                        a thousand tongues

                        in the hollow of the hand


Vilgrain explains that Chenrézig is “in Sanskrit Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion.” Chenrézig, who is also known as Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan (and other names in other places), is a sort of international Bodhisattva par excellence who exists in multiple languages but also outside of language,  as if waiting for vocalization and translation.

Although Chenrézig is a local instance of translation from Sanskrit, it is the languages of the “thousand tongues” that allows us to write and place “in the hollow of the hand” the “article” of the poem which is about “everything.”

Vilgrain also writes that the person who “forges” a needle can look through its eye to “measure the sky.” This is because the person who forged the needle “knows” how to use it. In other words, we create tools that we can use to understand the world. She explicitly contrasts the “boatman’s knowledge of water” to the toolmaker’s knowledge of the tool. It’s an imperfect parallel, since the boatman observes the water; he does not use it as a tool. But Vilgrain’s poems are like this contrast, in that they don’t yield perfect symmetries.

If you contrast the needle maker or the boatman with the Bodhisattva who exists as both the x and the not x of the “everything” of the poem, you get closer to what Vilgrain’s poems are doing. From the tongue to the page to the eye, one thing becomes another. The figure of the Bodhisattva is a stand-in for the craft of poetry.

From chapter 5, “G’i”:

g’a, third letter of the alphabet:

[m-] prefix ga vowel o

The eye

m-go, head:

of a cracked hull

does not hold sights

only water

“The eye” does not “hold sights,” but perceives them. What preexists the vision is the raw material of the eye. Yet the eye in this case is “a cracked hull,” a leaking container.

So back to Nagarjuna: the object of sight exists because of the eye, yet it also does not exist because of the eye. In this poem, what is visualized by the reader is both the eye and the hull, but neither are what the poem is referring to.

Another way of thinking about this is to consider the relationship of Bénédicte Vilgrain, the author, to you or me reading her book.  While Vilgrain uses prompts to engage us with her writing, the writing’s true subject is not only its literal subject matter, but also the gulf that separates the words of the author on the page from our thoughts off of the page.

Whatever her own commitments to the Tibetan language or Buddhism, Vilgrain utilizes their historical and philosophical aspects on behalf of her own work, and on behalf of poetry writ large. As readers we “follow the way meaning can change with inflections,” as Vilgrain says in her introduction, and we imperfectly observe that from the writing to us everything is and is not happening.

A Tibetan Grammar (2016) is published by Burning Deck Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers

Matt Turner's writings can be found in Seedings, Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel, and Bookforum. He has translated or co-translated Lu Xun, Chan Chi Tak, Yan Jun and Hu Jiujiu, and is prose editor...