Two Poems

Lý Đợi

Read Instructions Carefully First Before Becoming A Poet

A. Top five professions most suitable for writers and poets

1. Chairman of a country: Hồ Chí Minh, Mao Zedong.
2. Those Who Serve the King: Nguyễn Trãi (if one accepts the messy business of executing a former friend's family, his mother's family and his wife's) or Head of the Propaganda, Education, Ideology, and Culture Central Committee of the Party today: Tố Hữu, Nguyễn Khoa Điềm (also pretty high risk, so watch yer head).
3. General Secretary of the Vietnam Writers' Association: Nguyễn Tuân, Nguyễn Đình Thi, Hữu Thỉnh.
4. Revolutionary: No examples offered because there are too many.
5. Army Specialist (military affairs commander or political education cadre): Trần Hưng Đạo, Lý Thường Kiệt, along with those who write for the Military's Art and Lit Magazine: Nguyễn Khải, Trần Đăng Khoa, Lê Lựu, Hữu Thỉnh, Nguyễn Tri Huân, Trần Tử Văn, etc.

B. Five professions second most suitable for writers and poets

1. Publisher, Journalist, or Editor (on the payroll, news agencies taken seriously): No examples given because there are too many.
2. Retired: Approximately 30% of the members of the Vietnam Writers' Association.
3. Marry a Thrifty Woman: Tú Xương, no additional examples offered because it's sensitive information, or marry a thrifty man, re: Virginia Woolf.
4. Teacher (only needs to teach a day or two, private tutoring counted since those that can't, do): James Joyce, Nam Cao, Nguyễn Huy Thiệp. It's possible to quit teaching after becoming famous, like V. Nabokov. Conversely, one can get a teaching position by being famous, like 99% of the famous writers and poets in western countries at present. There's also the possibility of becoming unemployed after teaching elementary school like J.K. Rowling, then thanks to a Harry Potter become an honorary professor at a prestigious university.
5. Born to the Rich: Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, R. Tagore, or those who Befriend the Rich: Lý Bạch, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hans Christian Andersen.

C. Five professions least suitable for writers and poets

1. House Painter: The most famous whitewasher in the history of mankind, Adolf Hitler, left behind one literary work, Mein Kampf, but due to the general public's soiled impression of this occupation, it's not on the shelf of world literary masterpieces.
2. Picture Hanger: There's yet to be a single example in the history of literature, past or present, that shows this trade to be an ideal environment for producing any timeless literary work, no matter one's milieu or aspirations. Paul Eluard might have hung tons of Salvador Dalí's paintings, but it was only to help Gala, out of gratitude to their old flame, even though she was now Dalí's gal.
3. Agriculture/Cultivation: A great poet might become a farmer, for example Hữu Loan, but not vice versa. A farmer can't ever be a great poet.
4. Blogger, Hacker, Online Trader: Perfectly clear. Or does someone dare to say that Yahoo is the one true poet?
5. Actor: First let's use Nguyễn Tuân as a terrible warning of what happens when poets stray onto the screen. Luckily he quit that life of instability, the Hong Kong a-ma-tơ, to be resurrected in the form of Secretary General of the Vietnam Writers' Association.

Just Who Do You Think I Am?

          And made war against Ptolemee king of Egypt: but Ptolemee was afraid of him, and fled;
          and many were wounded to death.
                    —Maccabees 1:18

Mourning covers every stone wall
(even all the stamped graffiti: Construction Worker Available: #),
disgrace invades the city once thought to be a piece of jade (as in piece of shit)
while here in alley #47 . . .
Masters and us servants wail our grief and resentment,
young men and women, all the middle-aged
and elderly wither and wilt:
all women bereft of their beauty
all gallant men stripped of their handsome airs
and the brain sanded smooth and full of detergents.

Inside that row of houses:
groom and all us groomsboys erect elegies,
bride and all us breastmaids cry, buried in our bedrooms.
The land is about to collapse ('cause we stupid) under those living on it,
the sky is about to drop ('cause we heartless) all it contains within.
All Doi Ly the Spider's family and friends face humiliation and disgrace.

This place, this place here is an ambush for poetry.
One of life's ruthless enemies, low and petty snake
let loose amid an insignificant species.

We're an outspilling of blood,
we bite our own tongues with our own teeth,
caulk our own anuses and wring our own necks;
while some cowards flee after hearing the news—
the city now the foreign invader's sanctuary.
Our children attacked, raped and persecuted
our graves turned upside down and ancestors sacked
our poems and songs paper for wiping their asses.

O citizens of this city that believed itself pure jade
once virtuous, now disgraced
once benevolent, now lowly
just who do you think you are
just what were you expecting
Are you all clams—why the sudden silence?

Only I myself remain, one debased citizen from the bottom,
one sage, dead drunk and diseased,
one cracked bum sitting against the wall in alley #47 and philosophizing
about drilling and cutting concrete
and dreaming about some holes, some changes,
and writing an epic (in epically ancient Vietnamese) about those things
(the people persist in believing) which are so obvious!

Thought it might end there but I must speak once more:

to say that you all are extremely impartial—
just who do you take me for?
Look, I'm spitting in my own face, and on my own righteous conscience.

translated from the Vietnamese by Kelly Morse and Nga Hiền Nguyễn