Peking poetry 

Roger Dunsmore climbs Tiger Hill

In 1988, after teaching at the University of Montana for 25 years, poet Roger Dunsmore was ready to retire from academic life. For most academics, retirement means many things: writing, research and travel. Dunsmore's retirement was no different, except for him, the usual amenities arrived not when he left the classroom, but when he agreed to revisit it through the most challenging teaching opportunity of his career.

After Dunsmore spent the 1988-89 academic year at the largest American Indian high school in the country, the dean of

UM's foreign exchange

program approached him about teaching at China's Shanghai International Studies University. In both 1991 and 1997, Dunsmore instructed for a semester, and from those experiences he composed his first collection of poetry in almost 17 years, Tiger Hill: China Poems, which became available locally in September.

"I wouldn't have gotten to China without Tiananmen Square," admits Dunsmore, who remembers the reluctance many others had about China. "At the time, many Western programs were pulling out of China, partly out of fear and partly in protest of the regime, but the administration here wanted to keep their program and had trouble finding people who would go."

Dunsmore had anxiously awaited his restful retirement, so he didn't sign on immediately. He worried that teaching in China might amount to tacit support of China's political leadership, and so he waited for a sure sign before making his decision.

"I lived up in the Ninemile with a friend," he recalls. "It was April and we were on our way home from a walk at dusk. It was cold still and we'd left the fireplace going, and as we approached the house, it almost looked like our chimney was slumping. As we got closer, we saw that something had perched up there and then we realized it was two peacocks that had gotten on top of the house to keep warm. They were that brilliant China porcelain blue and I turned to my friend and said, 'I'm going to China.'"

Dunsmore composed the poems of Tiger Hill on both trips, but the collection reads as a single chronological journey, beginning with a prose piece titled "The Presentation of the Contract" and ending with a series of 13 poems under the heading "Back Home." Throughout, Dunsmore is careful and observant, with every gesture, every bit of conversation, taking on significance beyond the poems. The people of Tiger Hill speak in undertones, but their murmurs represent parenthetical truths that speak to fear, curiosity and a poignant kind of companionship. In "A Conversation," a young Chinese teacher calls the narrator into his office and asks, "Did you follow the events of June 4th, 1989?/We could not tell what happened./We could get no image on our t.v./How many were killed?" And then later, "By the way, outside this room/I don't know you."

During that same trip, Dunsmore came close to death when he came down with a severe case of pneumonia and was hospitalized for almost a month. The experience didn't sour his feelings about teaching in China, rather it made his eventual readjustment to Montana more difficult.

"I'd hear the tones

of the voices of my

colleagues," Dunsmore explains during a recent phone interview, "and they were so certain, so seemingly confident. I felt like you needed to go to the other side of the world to die and come back. And then maybe you [wouldn't] be so certain or smug in your tone."

In the poem "Tones of Certainty," Dunsmore illustrates how a friend he visited in a Montana mental ward helped him transition back to the uncertainty of life in the states.

"I would go there almost every day and sit among these people who'd been hospitalized for mental difficulty," he recalls, "because I'd feel comfortable with them and didn't feel comfortable with all the people outside of that room who were so sure they were right or sane."

One lasting image from Dunsmore's trip abroad is his memory of an old man teaching his granddaughter Chinese characters in a nearby park. The man held a paintbrush in a bucket of water and painted the characters in long strokes on the sidewalk.

"It was a hot day," explains Dunsmore, "and the characters would evaporate quickly, and for me the ephemeral-ness is a kind of metaphor for how well the people made do with so little."

The fleeting characters on the sidewalk work as a different sort of metaphor, too, for fleeting poems not included in the collection.

"There are people still frightened of the government," says Dunsmore. "One of the best things I ever wrote was a prose piece about a conversation with an older Chinese friend, but I withdrew it because...he didn't feel safe."

Recently, the poet found a collection of letters from that friend, along with drafts of the poem, and for Dunsmore, the experience won't simply end.

"It's a book," he says, "that will never really be completed."

Roger Dunsmore will read and sign copies of Tiger Hill: China Poems at Shakespeare & Co. Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 7 PM.

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