he became lost and found himself in the deluge
— Nguyen Quoc Chanh
In the audio clip of Nguyen Quoc Chanh reading his poetry you can actually hear the sounds of a city: the drone of motorbikes gliding down avenues, stray horn beeps of taxis angling through congestion, an emphatic voice from the crowd rising and breaking like a lone cloud. To my ears, it sounds just like Ho Chi Minh City. The porousness of the echo-chamber that constitutes the studio for this recording is especially audible mid-way into the third-line of the first poem in Chanh's samizdat Hey, I'm Here (2005):
Saigon punctured, a corpse not yet buried, the capital sinks a few inches each day [...] words survive thanks to crossbreeding [...] A national secret is the feasts derived from the fortunes of poppies, to be human is to be humiliated, to be Vietnamese is to be super humiliated [...] Someone advertises on the Web: I need a sexual partner who's a vanguard in thoughts and actions...
Chanh leaves in what other poets edit out, neither censoring the contradictions of the self nor the offenses of the world. His poems get us closer to the temperature on the street—its accidental encounters and collisions, aleatory noise, liquid language, quick commerce and quicker corruption, refuse and wreckage. Accidentally recorded or not, the urban soundscape offers a fitting accompaniment to the words flowing from the poet's mouth, and helps capture something of the atmospheric conditions of The Deluge, an anthology of new Vietnamese poetry. Read in a room somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City, uploaded and e-mailed to the Berlin-based webzine talawas, and downloaded to my computer as an audio file, I listen to the voice streaming into my room in Gainesville, Florida. I imagine Chanh—but it could be any of the poets in this anthology really—reading aloud to an imagined audience scattered throughout the city and dispersed across the globe, each word an affirmation and reminder of the poet to his republic: "Hey, I'm Here"—and I'm not going away.
A rebellious spirit dwells throughout the poets and poetry in this anthology. You hear it in the opening poem, "Resurrection," when Thanh Tam Tuyen calls out his own name amidst desolation: "I want to cry like I want to vomit / on the street / crystal sunlight / I call my own name to soothe my longing." You see it in the depictions of social and psychic devastation in the war poems of Tran Da Tu and also in the portraits of individual and collective disillusionment in the postwar poems of Trang Vang Sao. You feel it in the liberating confluence of different poetic traditions in Phan Nhien Hao's poetry. You can smell it too in the foul, "Open Mouth" poetries of Bui Chat and Ly Doi. In their individual ways, the twenty-eight poets here refuse to do and say what's deemed acceptable, whether it's about the body or society they live in, the literary traditions and cultural histories they inherit, or the present tense they inhabit. These unruly ways involve the new forms of thought and feeling experimented with in their poetry: from the mercurial temperament of the prose poem to the concentration of the short lyric, from the disorienting imagery of surrealism to the detailed depictions of social realism, from the live wire of everyday speech to the synapse firings of ordinary consciousness. Gathered together for the first time, they share a language, a genre, and a complex history. Measured in syllables, syntax, and tonal shifts, the new Vietnamese poetry is a barometer to the turbulent changes in Vietnam's cultural and literary climate during the later half of the twentieth century, as well as to the global transformations of the early twenty-first. This anthology consists of twelve poets living and writing in Vietnam, and of nearly an equal number overseas. Also, nearly half represent the generation who witnessed the war in Vietnam as either civilians or combatants, and the other half the generation who either grew up or were born after the war. However it is divided, this anthology offers a unique sampling of past and present voices at the vanguard of Vietnamese poetry worldwide, a long awaited and necessary deluge of dissident and diasporic voices.
Til other voices wake
us or we drown
You won't find many of the poets collected in this anthology in bookstores in Vietnam, but this should hardly come as a surprise for anyone familiar with the nature of writing and publishing in Vietnam—where independent presses and journals are nonexistent, public poetry readings are broken up, Vietnamese literature written overseas unacknowledged or derided, and where you can write whatever you want so long as you avoid politics.
On a recent trip back to Vietnam, I combed through the Poetry and Literature sections of all of the bookstores I visited in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, making mental notes of who and what was on the shelves. In every bookstore, big or small, new or used, you can find slim, pocket-size editions of selected poems by popular poets such as: Tan Da, The Lu, Han Mac Tu, Xuan Dieu, Nguyen Binh, Xuan Quynh, Te Hanh, Luu Trong Lu, Ho Dzenh, Vu Hoang Chuong. Also readily available were shiny, attractively repackaged editions of a number of revolutionary poets such as To Huu, Xuan Dieu, and Che Lan Vien, each buttressed by literary biographies and criticism. For the few high school and college students studying literature, there were affordable, critical editions of modern Vietnamese poets and poetry.
More interestingly, I found reprint editions of Vietnamese Poets, 1932-1941, Hoai Thanh's groundbreaking anthology of influential poets of the 1930s. Published in 1942, with critical introductions and annotations by Hoai Thanh, the anthology showcases a number of poets associated with the Tho Moi or 'New Poetry' movement, including Xuan Dieu, Luu Trong Lu, Huy Can, The Lu, and Che Lan Vien. These and other poets at the time began departing from the poetic forms and traditions inherited from China. Influenced by the French Romanticists and Symbolists taught in colonial schools and available in translation, and spurred by the Romanized, national script of quoc ngu coming into widespread use, they set out to adapt Western ideas for the modernization of Vietnamese literature, culture, and society. No longer bound strictly to the values of Confucian society, this New Poetry turned inward to express, in lyrics of gentle rhythms and memorable lines, individual experiences of love, suffering, and loss. Popular and readable, this was the kind of poetry young Vietnamese would commit to memory, copy down into private notebooks, or set to music. By the August Revolution of 1945, however, many poets formerly associated with the New Poetry movement, Xuan Dieu and Che Lan Vien most notably among them, rejected their so-called reactionary, decadent, and bourgeois poetic selves, and embraced the cause of revolutionary struggle by taking up the new standard of socialist realism.
Not everyone marched in lock-step. Harder to find were poets belonging to the infamous and influential Nhan Van Giai Pham, an outspoken group of artists and intellectuals active in the North during the 1950s. They demanded greater political and creative freedoms, and critiqued the abuses of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In one particularly good used bookstore, I discovered beaten-up copies of the three-volume collected poetry and prose of Hoang Cam, a key member of Nhan Van Giai Pham. In March 2007, Hoang Cam was one of four poets associated with the dissident group—the other three being Le Dat, Phung Quan, and Tran Dan—that were awarded Vietnam's highest literary prize, fifty years after they were detained, denounced, and disciplined by the Party for the oppositional politics expressed in their poetry and prose.
In terms of contemporary poetry, I only saw a few stray copies of collections by Nguyen Duy, Huu Thinh, and Nguyen Quang Thieu. As for poetry in translation, I was thrilled to find a copy of a selection of Brecht's poetry in Vietnamese, its English counterpart virtually impossible to find in the States. In the same bookstore in Da Nang where I found the collected works of Hoang Cam, I chanced upon a copy of Nguyen Huu Hong Minh's book Giong noi mo ho on the discount shelf, but found no other books by poets in this anthology—like Thanh Thao, Phung Cung, Nguyen Quoc Chanh and Phan Huyen Thu, amongst others—who I knew had once published collections in Vietnam. There was hardly a trace of the once-flourishing poetic culture of South Vietnam before 1975, save one strange exception. Nearly every bookstore carried copies of reissued editions of poetry by Bui Giang, known for his vagrant life, unconventional poems, and copious translations. He was perhaps the closest thing Vietnam has ever produced to a beatnik poet. My father, long an admirer of Bui Giang's poetry, shrugged off the revival as a literary fad. Still, he scooped up a handful of copies to add to his private library at home.
a shout is a prayer
for the waiting centuries
— Thanh Tam Tuyen
The Fall of Saigon, The Liberation of the South, The Reunification of Vietnam—for different people April 30, 1975 conjures different things. For many writers of former South Vietnam, it evokes not just the fall of a country but also the fall of a literature. Saigon would be officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City, its boulevards, avenues, and streets also renamed to commemorate revolutionary figures, events, and slogans. So too Vietnamese literary history would be eventually dismantled, systematically re-written, or outright erased; books would be banned, confiscated, and burned; writers silenced, censored, and imprisoned. Writer and critic Vo Phien recalls "that Monday, May 26, 1975 in a refugee camp on Guam. Just up in the morning, we heard on the radio that it had become illegal in Vietnam to sell reading matter published under the old regime and that as of the previous Thursday, all Saigon bookshops had been closed down. We writer-refugees shook our heads: we had only made it half way to our new land and at home our books had already found their final moments."
The Deluge attempts to revive a number of important poets writing in former South Vietnam during the 1960s and 70s. They are part of a lost generation whose works have all but literally vanished in Vietnam, where official versions of the national literature erase the literary heritage of the South between 1954-1975. The anthology appropriately begins with Thanh Tam Tuyen, one of the most influential poets writing in South Vietnam before 1975. In 1956, he helped establish the influential literary journal Sang Tao or Creativity. A central figure in a Saigon literary scene bustling with artistic and intellectual energy, he called upon poets to abandon the rhyming forms and romantic content that dominated the literary landscape, and also to resist the injunction that poetry should serve politics. Instead, he theorized and experimented with a form of free verse in which what he referred to as the 'rhythm of images' and the 'rhythm of thoughts' combined to form the 'expressions of the rhythm of consciousness,' as electrifyingly realized in what is perhaps his most famous poem, "Resurrection":
I want to live like I want to die
among intersecting breaths
a flaming chest
I call softly
open the door to your heart
my living spirit has turned into a child
as pure as the truth one time.
Clean, stark, and spare, not a syllable wasted here. Though his poems may cry of urban alienation, their song is also pitched in exalted and ecstatic tones. In this poem and elsewhere, his sources of creative influence and inspiration include existentialist philosophy, Buddhism, French Surrealism, and American jazz. His brilliance is to channel these alternating currents towards the creation of singular, jolting, often prophetic forms of perception and consciousness. "In the name of / Love freedom man," which are his true poetic trinity, Tuyen attains a fullness and plentitude of rare poetic vision.
Like many of the poets in this anthology, Tuyen was both a participant and witness to the war. He served two stints in the Army Republic of Vietnam, first from 1962 to 1966, then from 1968 until the end of the war in 1975. In "Three-Quarter Time," he addresses a fallen friend: "A round bullet hole on your chest / A bayonet through the lung / Heart still beating / In three-quarter time." On the other side of the fighting, Tran Vang Sao and Thanh Thao both dispatched deeply skeptical poetry on the brutality and sorrow of war. Thanh Thao, who worked for Vietnamese Army Radio of the North, became well known for his long poem about the travails of war, "A Soldier Speaks of His Generation." Tran Vang Sao, who joined the National Liberation Front in 1965, wrote poetry in the 1980s and 90s haunted by the specter of war. In his poem "Night", a single evening in 1990 becomes the reservoir for an endless catalogue of individual and collective trauma:
night of demonstrations on the streets
tanks hand grenades concertina barb wires
masks and hunting dogs
night during war staying up to watch a corpse
night of B52 vomiting chemicals
night in 1968
night of espionage
Some of the most powerful and original poetic responses to the war, in either Vietnamese or English, belong to Tran Da Tu. Poems such as, "Love Tokens," "Toy for Future Children," and "Fragmented War," all written during the mid-1960s, ought to be considered as vital contributions to the unfortunately vast archive of twentieth-century poetry of witness. In "Love Tokens," Tu draws on the conceits of conventional love poetry to speak to the aftermath of war:
I'll give you a car bomb
A car bomb exploding on a crowded street
On a crowded street exploding flesh and bones
That's our festival, don't you understand
I'll give you a savage war
There's an explosive, jarring effect to Tu's dilatory lines, masterfully captured in Dinh's translation, and all the more haunting for the way they reverberate into our present war zones. Overall, the result is a striking assessment of the social ruin war bestows on the future, as figured quite literally in "Toy for Future Children," a poem which invokes the voice and tone of children's tales ("A blind and deaf bullet buried in the field / Dozing through decades of blood and bones / Then one morning / In a bustling future / As the children return to the field") in an apology for the moral failings of parents, the buried legacy of war they leave behind. Written by a dissident poet who during the war lived in the South, where much of the bloodiest fighting took place, Tu's poetry documents the human cost of that inhumane war from a perspective too often neglected in Vietnam and the US, and with an arresting style seldom seen anywhere.
Poets like Thanh Tam Tuyen and Tran Da Tu represent just two entries in the archive of poetry of South Vietnam that have remained submerged by literary forgetfulness. As a recovery project, this anthology hopes to create an opening for a chorus of other poets from Vietnam still waiting to be heard in future collections: Bui Giang, Mai Thao, Nha Ca, Nguyen Bac Son, Nguyen Duc Son, To Thuy Yen, Vu Hoang Chuong...
You who will emerge from the flood
In which we have gone under
When you speak of our failings
The dark time too
Which you have escaped
Translated into Vietnamese, Brecht's "To Those Born Later" finds an especially appropriate addressee in the postwar generation of Vietnamese poets. After 1975, Vietnam emerged from the dark time of war only to plunge into the shadows of peacetime, with wars in Cambodia and against the Chinese, policy-driven poverty and food shortages, an already stagnant economy further strangled by a US trade embargo, scores of its citizenry thrown into 're-education' camps, widespread corruption among party officials, and waves of its population pouring overseas. Almost half of the poets gathered here either grew up or were born during this prolonged aftermath: Nguyen Quoc Chanh (b. 1958), Phan Nhien Hao (b. 1967), Nguyen Huu Hong Minh (b. 1971), Phan Huyen Thu (b. 1972), Van Cam Hai (b. 1972), Phan Ba Tho (b. 1972), Mien Dang (b. 1974). Ai Van Quoc (b. 1975), Hoang Da Thi (b. 1978), Ly Doi (b. 1978), Bui Chat (b. 1979), and Lynh Bacardi (b. 1981).
Judging from the poems in this anthology, the sensory organs of this postwar generation of poets evolved to survive the times, the light meter of their poetic vision recalibrated to different tonalities of dark. This would at least partly explain the prevalence of night and its boundary-blurring logic in so many of their poems. Night sets the rhythm for the improvisation of thought and feeling in Phan Nhien Hao's surreal and soulful quartet of poems on the melancholy of exile ("Night Freedom," "Night's Dawn," "Night, Fish and Charlie Parker," and "Night in the South"); "Night slithers slowly into the Perfume River" of Phan Huyen Thu's stately flowing, de-romanticized vision of modern day prostitutes plying their trade in the ancient capital of Hue; "the flow of night is level" in the hallucinatory, verbal vortex of Van Cam Hai's poems such as "Deluge," where "the head of the storm surges forward searching for a prey / an urban nest / street intersections spill out." For all of these poets, as Thanh Thao writes in his millennial reflection "Slow Passage 2000," "those who seek in night / a task a hope a place of refuge a void / the night promises everything."
Hoang Da Thi was the first of the postwar generation of poets to be born after 1975. Hoang's playful and precocious poems were spoken by her when she was between the ages of 3 and 5, and recorded by her mother, the well-known poet Lam Thi My Da. Here's all four lines of the poem "Star Buttons": "The sky is like a roof / The sky is like a shirt / A shirt has many buttons / Those are star buttons." Simple, silly, and even a little surreal in its syllogistic construction, the poem brims with childhood innocence and imagination. Her sky looks and sounds nothing like her mother's, whose poem "A Sky in a Bomb Crater" commemorates the death of a female comrade: "I gazed into the center of the crater / where you'd died and saw the sky in the pool / of rain water. Our country is so kind: / water from the sky washes the pain away." Unmarred by memories of the war, Hoang Da Thi's poems perhaps say less about her childhood imagination and more about the older generation's wilful dreams, or should one say illusions, of innocence.
As someone also born after 1975, whose parents and immediate family experienced the war in Vietnam as combatants and civilians, I wonder what Hoang Da Thi's poems written in adulthood look like, whether and how she inherited her mother's dark skies. The predicament of the second generation, writes Eva Hoffman, is that we inherit "not experience, but its shadows." And shadows, everyone knows, possess an uncanny familiarity and strangeness, an intimacy and a distance. In the spoken and unspoken idiom of familial communication, in the ghostly gaze of old photos from another time and country, in the violent eruption of dormant emotions, in the fragmentariness of stories more mythic than real: for those of us born after, the war lives on like a collapsed and nebulous star, emitting its spectral light across generational and historical distance, and transmitting encoded messages across vast expanses of silence.
For Nguyen Huu Hong Minh, "A Historical Black Hole" warps all social reality in postwar Vietnam. His provocative poem of the same name leaves behind distinctions between public and private as the poet takes the reader on a grand tour of his country by way of his own body. Opening with the lines,
Often he sees his male member in Saigon,His head in HanoiHis arms and legs abandoned somewhere in Soc TrangMorning in the Central, afternoon in the South,Evening in the North, night in the West
Nguyen Huu Hong Minh ultimately finds not progress and development, but inertia and degradation; no revolutionaries and acts of heroism, but hedonists and plenty of sex. The body politic in his poem becomes an increasingly solipsistic, sexual, violent, and scatological one. Nguyen Huu Hong Minh also suggests that there is an important connection to be made between the presence of social disarray in postwar Vietnam and the absence of genuine historical knowledge, the latter of which causes the protagonist to "cut out each slice of life to hide in his creative work."
For Nguyen Quoc Chanh, whose poems show a similar negation of, and antagonism towards, postwar Vietnamese society, the poet mourns for the dead who go unmemorialized: "I carry a cemetery inside my body." For Phan Nhien Hao, this means being committed to "memory's bullets." Perhaps no other poet of the postwar generation confronts the difficult, complex legacy of the war as consistently, dramatically, and provocatively as Phan Nhien Hao. "Assume this position for a beautiful shot" says a voice suspended between past and present in "A Photo from the 60s." Reflecting on the fate of a forgotten relative found in an old family photo, Hao constructs through uncertain speaking perspectives and disquieting images a fragmented portrait of lost time and wasted lives:
In the photo his watch showed 10:05,in what must have been a beautiful daythe young man solemnly sat in front of the camera.As the light flashedfrom the darkness of the camera lens the war could just make outa young person to lay waste.
Hao's concluding lines give little closure and less consolation. In reopening the wounds of the past, his poems may often achieve a unity of thought and emotion, but are still unreconciled, uncertain, and ambiguous in their shifts in image and metaphor, their breaks in line and syntax, and their juxtaposition of real and surreal elements. In the name of difficult truths and repressed histories, Hao ultimately refuses, in concert with many other poets in this anthology, the balm and sutures of reconciliation. In poetry of diverse forms of attention, perception, and feeling, this postwar generation of poets explores what it means to inherit competing and often contradictory versions of the past, and forge a future out of that work of inheritance.
Paris changes! But nothing of my melancholy has lifted.
The most dramatic transformation to affect Vietnam in the last thirty years has arguably been the period of liberalization referred to as doi moi or 'renovation.' In 1986, the Vietnamese Communist Party began implementing a series of open-door economic policies designed to decentralize the economy and transition the country towards a more market-driven model. In the cultural sphere, the state loosened its grip on artists and writers, allowing for a greater degree of creative freedom and even encouraging social criticism. Thanh Thao's Rubik's Cube (1985), Nguyen Quoc Chanh's Night of the Rising Sun (1990), and Van Cam Hai's Man Who Tends The Waves (1995) all emerged during this period. No longer officially bound to the aesthetic doctrines of socialist realism, more poets and writers felt safe and free to explore forms and themes once set aside as irrelevant or attacked as illegitimate: official corruption, the social consequences of war, the breakdown of traditional values, and personal subjectivity, to name a few. Indeed, it must be admitted that poets currently living in Vietnam write about these and other private and public matters with a frequency, intensity, and audaciousness difficult to imagine before or without the cultural impact of the renovation years.
However, it must also be admitted that "privatization in the field of culture and communication," as writer Pham Thi Hoai has skeptically observed, ultimately "has not advanced as far or as radically as the privatization of toilet paper, dish detergent, liquid soap, shampoo, bath soap, toothpaste, and tampons." Much of the post-Renovation poetry of The Deluge is awash with references to the new goods, products, images, and ideas inundating Vietnam as the country steers through the transformations of globalism. Almost everywhere you go in Vietnam today, bright billboards and colorful street signs celebrate unprecedented growth and development, commemorate national unity and liberation, promote necessary policies to help curb societal problems, and cast Vietnam as the Asian tourist destination of the future. Not celebratory but critical, many of the poets in this anthology sully the disinfected portrayals of post-Renovation Vietnam. Their poems overflow with disgust, disillusionment, angst, and alienation, tottering dangerously on the edge of violence. In other words, they form distress signals of a collective unconscious in a moment of cultural crisis.
One of the strongest distress signals has been sent by Saigon poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Despite signs of regeneration during the Renovation years, Chanh's receptive poems detect, as in the following title and lines of one poem, the "Low Pressure System" affecting Vietnamese society: "I hear cries of a newborn. / A fish crawls out from a bloody hollow. / The woman closes her thighs and a corpse is covered up." With lines like this, Chanh tested the limits of the open-door policy towards Vietnamese writers. Ever since his emergence during the Renovation years, Chanh has been fearless in his criticism of the government and unapologetic in his experimentation with poetic form. In effect, he has found himself and his work slandered and shut out of mainstream literary magazines and state-run publishing houses. Like many poets writing in Vietnamese, Chanh now publishes his work almost exclusively in online literary journals.
Such a stifling atmosphere gives further credence to Pham Thi Hoai's critical assessment of the impact of Renovation on the Vietnamese literary landscape during the mid-1990s until today. According to Hoai,
The post-Renovation period is indeed one of strange empty spaces, of absent authority, of a train without an engine or an engineer. The old prestige of ideology, of systems of thought and of certain spiritual values, have been abandoned, but the empty spaces have been sealed shut, leaving no opportunity for new sources of prestige or value to take their place.
These are precisely the "strange empty spaces" Nguyen Quoc Chanh's poetry seems to evoke and manifest in its complex system of images, allusions, and syntax. Unlike Hoai, Chanh doesn't see the total absence of authority in post-war, post-Renovation Vietnam. Rather, part of Chanh's poetic project is to reveal the places where power and authority still reside and hide—in our language, in our bodies and minds, in our relations to others and ourselves—as he provocatively suggests in a more recent poem aptly titled, "Post, Post, but not Post...":
Straight on: my face's blank. Aslant: my face's askew.
Below or above: my face's equally soiled.Next to a Cambodian: I'm gloriously yellow
Next to a Westerner: I flatten myself in panic.
Next to a Chinese. I timidly squint.
At every turn, the political edginess of Nguyen Quoc Chanh's poems are sharpened by his uncanny ability to invent a poetic language in Vietnamese that can still be heard in the cacophony of official language.
I walk on bridges connecting two alien shores
— Phan Nhien Hao
Part literary geography, The Deluge maps a global diaspora of poetry in Vietnamese. Nearly half of the poets in this anthology live in countries other than Vietnam. Thanh Tam Tuyen emigrated to the US in 1983 after his release from seven years of imprisonment, eventually resettling in Minnesota. After being released from twelve years of imprisonment in 1988, Tran Da Tu received political asylum from the Swedish government in 1989 and eventually settled in California with his wife, the poet and novelist Nha Ca. Like countless Vietnamese people, Khe Iem escaped Vietnam by boat in 1988, spending a year in a Malaysian refugee camp before coming to California in 1989, where he would eventually edit an influential Vietnamese journal of poetry. Others live in places as remote as De Kalb in rural northern Illinois and in cities as cosmopolitan as London, Tokyo, and Paris.
But can Vietnamese poets living abroad contribute to the creation of a new Vietnamese poetry? This question was posed to Nguyen Duy, a well-known, award-winning poet living in Vietnam. "I cannot imagine a hyphenated poetry—half Vietnamese and half English or some other language. Poetry can't be created via bi-national marriages or artificial insemination," replied Duy. "Vietnamese poets living abroad can act as a bridge between Vietnamese poetry and world poetry. It's a contribution befitting the circumstance of the time. But whether contemporary Vietnamese poetry can create a new departure is something that will be determined by poets living in the homeland." So much for the expansive definition of national poetry. Duy speaks of poetry as if it were a remote country with a monolithic culture, heavily fortified borders, and limited foreign policy. He doesn't suffer from a failure of imagination so much as a hyperactive one: a fantasy of a purely Vietnamese poetry that relies on the greater fantasy of a purely Vietnamese language. Both serve to perpetuate and protect certain political aims and vested interests connected to nationalism and national literature. To imagine something like "a hyphenated poetry" after all would mean letting go of such territorial and authoritarian claims to a "Vietnamese poetry...determined by poets living in the homeland."
For now, never mind the countless cases of exile and émigré writers of the twentieth century; ignore the number of influential Vietnamese writers currently living abroad (Duong Thu Huong, Pham Thi Hoai, and Tran Vu to name a few); forget the fact that the production and reception of contemporary literature in Vietnamese is no longer located solely in Vietnam, but emanates from places like Westminster and Paris, and with the advent of the Internet, is networked through online literary journals like Berlin-based Talawas (the name of Pham Thi Hoai's journal a Vietnamese-German mongrelization for "we-are-what") and Sydney-based Tienve (whose expressed mission is "to contribute to the formation of a Commonwealth of Vietnamese Arts, where, regardless of geographical and political differences, artistic creativity is reunited with its original meaning, namely, the making of the new"). Read the poets in this anthology and you'll witness a new departure for poetry in Vietnamese, created by poets not only living in Vietnam but around the globe.
Consider the case of Phan Nhien Hao. Coming of age in Vietnam after 1975, Hao immigrated to the United States in 1991. While he currently lives and works in the US, he continues to write his poetry in Vietnamese. As he writes in the poem "Excavations,"
At sunrise, I have gathered:The breakages of a child growing up during war, a contempt of ostentatious games, the enduring loneliness of a wandering exile, a half Western-half Vietnamese knowledge
The "half Vietnamese-half English" does not represent a liability, but rather a source of new poetic material for Hao. His poems are a confluence of different creative currents: the associative jump-cuts of surrealism, the brooding consciousness of existentialist philosophy, the emotional textures of jazz and blues, the stripped-down language of an American modernist idiom inherited from William Carlos Williams, and the literary legacy of South Vietnamese poets such as Thanh Tam Tuyen.
A defense of Vietnamese diaspora poetry can be found throughout the anthology. In "Night Song of Ceylon," cosmopolitan Do Kh, drawing on the dramatic voice of the lyric, empathetically imagines the life and work of female migrant laborers, "Boarding the airplane at 4:25 AM / To change pillowcases, empty ashtrays and pick up blankets." In "Monolinguist with Light Pole on Bolsa Avenue," Tran Tien Dung, a resident of Ho Chi Minh City, imagines the experience of being uprooted and adrift in geography and history, "fearing the place of refuge the place escaped from," as he for the first time visits his Vietnamese friends living in the US. In his two poems "Echo from a Puddle" and "A Crack in the Wall," Ai Van Quoc employs an economy of line and image evocative of classical Chinese and Japanese poetic traditions, creating a cross-cultural archeology of allusions to Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Western civilizations. Like Ai Van Quoc, who has translated several Japanese and Chinese poets into Vietnamese, including Shuntaro Tanikawa, Bei Dao, and Ye Hui, a number of the poets here are also active translators: Nguyen Dang Thuong has translated poems, plays, and short stories of Neruda, Cendrars, Prevert, Beckett, Claude Simon, Rimbaud, Stein, Bukowski, and many others; Phan Nhien Hao has translated a number of American poets (Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams) into Vietnamese, as well as Linh Dinh's fiction; Thanh Thao has co-translated Boris Pasternak. The case of these and other poets give ample evidence to Trinh Thanh Thuy's assertion: "Influenced by the peculiarities of foreign languages and cultures, Vietnamese texts written overseas do not lose their strengths but gain new dimensions through awakened, previously latent capabilities."
look for a new brand tomorrow
But you don't have to go overseas to see how Vietnamese poetry is being shaped by outside influences. Some of the most provocative entries in the daybook and dream-log of contemporary Vietnam belong to a controversial group of poets based in Ho Chi Minh City known as Mo Mieng or "Open Mouth." Represented at the end of this anthology by its two leading exponents, Bui Chat and Ly Doi, the so-called Open Mouth poets (the English elides the command form—"open your mouth" or "open wide"—implied in the Vietnamese) have attracted considerable attention for writing poetry unfit for print. Despite all the shock value attached to them, the relevance of the Open Mouth poets rests not in what their poems say about them as individuals, per se, but in what their poetry illicitly reports, as suggested in this poem of the same title by Bui Chat, on the "Kurrent State" of Vietnamese society—
nothin kan seize me from da hands
a look doesn't korrespond to da fi fingers
between da rite and left eyes
not da blue runny nose
dis world kannot squeeze me
old images alter me same as new
The grossly sexual, scatological, violent, taboo, mundane, and dreamlike—all make their way into poems by Bui Chat and Ly Doi. In their eyes, nothing is too base because everything has been debased. Rejecting social norms and aesthetic forms of authority, the nihilism of the Open Mouth poets retaliate against the chaotic cohabitation of the Communist regime, Confucian values, and Capitalist materialism in contemporary Vietnam. These three political, social, and economic forces are the alternating targets of ridicule in Ly Doi's prose poems: the two poems from "Seven Spider Improvisations" mock the coercive aura of ancient Confucian teachings; "Society 3" takes aim at the absurd levels of corruption permeating Vietnamese society; and "The Benefits of Poetry" levels a critique of the crass commercialism overtaking Vietnam.
Literary vandalism might be a better way to describe what these younger poets are up to—breaking, destroying, and effacing our more precious ideas of poetic form, content, and language. Hence, the hip-hop cadenced, Vietnamese street-slang of Bui Chat's vernacular lyrics; the social critique of Ly Doi's collage poems drawing on newspaper, advertisement and internet sources, and the aleatory swerve of perception in Lynh Bacardi's prose poems. In "Shrink & Stretch," Lynh Bacardi writes:
outside all living things are in mourning clothes and trampling on each other to reach heaven. I uncouth a building built with virginal blood. feigning an orgasmic moan. sunlight high above weeping inundating the streets. men who become bloodless when overburdened. the obese rain flows hotly. I'm pregnant with coins reeking a burning smell. a mother selling her flow keeping the cultural flow for her brood...today all ideas upset the stomach.
Such indecorous poems reveal, and, to the extent which such conditions offer grounds for creativity, give ambivalent expression to the decay, depravity, and decadence surrounding them.
A medieval hilltop town in Tuscany is unlikely to appear anywhere on anyone's literary map of contemporary Vietnamese poetry. But it was in Certaldo, Italy where I first met Linh Dinh in February of 2004. A poet whose work I greatly admired, Linh was my introduction to many of the poets now collected in this anthology. I was in Europe on a fellowship at the time and discovered that he was living in Certaldo as a guest of the now defunct International Parliament of Writers Cities of Asylum network. I took the train down from Paris. We decided to meet in the Piazza Boccaccio, named after Certaldo's most famous resident and the author of The Decameron. It was raining. I waited for Linh beside the statue of Boccaccio and leaned against his stone cape for shelter. Across from me was an old cathedral, unremarkable except for its immense wooden doors, which seemed immovable to me at first, until I watched them open and slowly release a cortege of mourners. That's when Linh appeared, greeting me and pointing to the funeral just in case I might have missed it. We left the procession to its own workings and proceeded up the steep road to Linh's residence at Via Valdracca 2, just inside the old city walls. I ended up staying for ten days.
In the course of our nightly conversations, he often circled back to the topic of contemporary Vietnam and Vietnamese poetry. Shortly before his Italian journey, he had lived in Vietnam for two and a half years, between 1999 and 2001. I listened as he spoke of the literary scene in Ho Chi Minh City, his affection and admiration for certain poets there, the official verse culture in Vietnam, and his disdain of the suffocating role played by the Vietnam Writers Association. Relearning Vietnamese, Linh began translating from Vietnamese to English many of the poets he was reading and meeting on a daily basis. In many ways, The Deluge is an extraordinary record of these real and imagined engagements.
It is sometimes forgotten that the group of seven women and three men who gather in a villa in the Tuscan countryside to tell the hundred stories that make up Boccaccio's Decameron have just fled plague-ridden Florence. Their humorous and often bawdy tales stand in stark contrast to Boccaccio's haunting and unflinchingly detailed portrayal of the effects of the Black Plague at the beginning of book. Yet the backdrop of the Plague creates the conditions necessary for their stories. Through the species of refuge called the poem, the poets gathered in this anthology similarly write in flight from catastrophe. Not as escape artists, but in order to resist and counter oppressive realities.