Poetics of Resistance

The Nail that Sticks Out: On Vietnamese Poet Ly Doi’s Poetics of Resistance

Vietnamese Publishing Law lists the following subjects as taboo. If a writer chooses to publish a piece that crosses these vague restrictions, there’s a good chance he or she can expect a visit from the police, along with some combination of fines, job loss, surveillance, physical intimidation, or jail time. Since it is loaded language, I suggest substituting ‘writing’ for wherever ‘propaganda’ appears:

1. Propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; destruction of the unity of all citizens.

2. Propaganda about or incitement towards war and aggression, causing rancor between the citizens and those of other countries; incitement towards violence; spread of reactionary ideology, depraved life styles, cruel acts, social evils and superstition, or destruction of good morals and customs.

3. Disclosure of secrets of the Party, State, military, defense, economics or external relations; disclosure of secrets from the private lives of individuals, and of other secrets as stipulated by law.

4. Distortion of historical facts; opposing the achievements of the revolution; offending citizens, great persons and heroes; slandering or harming the reputation of bodies and organizations or offending the honor and dignity of individuals.

Contemporary poet Lý Đợi regularly breaks all these rules, which is why his work is censored in Vietnam, and why for years he has been under surveillance and the victim of harassment by the Cultural Police. It is also why his poems are so interesting in contrast to most state-sanctioned work. Writing these poems has cost Lý Đợi jobs, a steady place to live, and freedom of movement. And yet, he still keeps writing.

These poems may surprise Western readers. They serve as a reminder that, as Louis MacNeice wrote, “World is suddener than we fancy it./ World is crazier and more of it than we think,/ Incorrigibly plural.” Lý Đợi challenges perceptions of Vietnamese poetry, both abroad and within his own country. Grouped together, the poems become a collage of contemporary urban life: communist doctrine rubs shoulders with Buddhist tracts, western commercial goods, corruption, scatological humor and an achingly deep connection to the land.

The series “Boiled – Steamed – Raw” serves as a perfect example of the sardonic leaps Đợi takes in his work. Each section begins with a symbolic dish, followed by appropriated structures that represent the three main regions of Vietnam. “Boiled” starts with that humble staple of the Hanoian dinner table, rau muông, a nutritious peasant dish, paired with a corruption of a communist chant. The central region, which is the heart of both Vietnamese Buddhism and the old Imperial Court with its fall via decadence, is evoked in “Steamed” with its sweet, sticky treat of cassava. Đợi takes a famous line from Vietnam’s literary hero, Thúy Kiều, a woman forced into prostitution in order to save her father from imprisonment by a corrupt ruler, and attributes it to a ‘contemporary performance artist.’ He then presents a Buddhist death meditationfrom the point of view of sperm. These small, steady (and taboo) jabs at revered texts and history remind his Vietnamese readers that, as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Finally, with “Raw” one visits the South, the rice bowl of the country, with its fecundity and western leanings portrayed in the form of a pseudo-scientific pamphlet. Thus in one poem the reader has traversed an entire country both physically and culturally, albeit satirically.

“The Beggar of Hanoi” and “Thinking without identity” show another side of Lý Đợi’s work, namely that he first found his voice through surrealism. The parallel conditions that produced this movement and its contemporary use in Vietnam are striking. Dadaism and surrealism responded to post-war anguish and the “rational thought” that took Europe down a dark path; for Spanish writers and artists, surrealism and extended metaphor provided a coded language that got around Franco’s censors during his long dictatorship. What worked in Europe almost 100 years ago is working in Vietnam today: artists there often resort to abstract painting, surrealism, and performance art as a response to the government-sanctioned socialist realism that cherry picks “good morals and customs” to glorify. As one friend of mine explained, “With abstract art I can tell the Cultural Committee ‘it’s just some feelings on paper,’ and they don’t know any better, so they let me show my work.” However, this practice has real risks, and many artists choose to self-censor instead.

The proverb “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” seems an apt description of creative life in Vietnam today; after all, Vietnam consistently ranks in the top 15 countries that imprison bloggers, journalists, and netizens. Lý Đợi’s body of work demands that his fellow citizens consider what lies on the other side of taboo: their daily lives. As my co-translator Nga notes, Vietnam’s urban centers are alive, frenetic with energy. Đợi’s poems are a splintered mirror doubling and throwing back reflections of this movement. The result is not pretty, but it is urgently real. Đợi is the nail that rips at the skin, reminding all who pass just what or who it is they are willing to walk over. He hasn’t been hammered down yet.

Kelly Morse

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The Beggar of Hanoi

Written in the memory and spirit of Max Jacob (1876-1944) and Hoàng Ngọc Biên

When I lived in Hanoi, by the door of the territorial headquarters where I worked was a beggar I’d toss some coins to before getting into my car with its tinted windows and imperial guard. One day, feeling that it was strange never to hear some ‘thank you,’ I looked carefully at the beggar. It was in this way, as I looked, that I realized the thing I’d mistakenly believed all this time to be a beggar was only a wooden pedestal, painted with care, upon which sat a bust carved in my likenessthe look crafty, the complexion ruddy and natural, the brain with termites eating holes through the rot.

 

Boiled – Steamed – Raw

 

First Course: Boiled

+ Prepared in the style of rau muống luộc, boiled river spinach from the North

Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.
They haven’t found anything yet that the Vietnamese can’t boil…

Repeat after me:
++++++Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.

From boiled Honda motorbikes, property deeds, degrees, courtier titles
From boiled food hygiene and safety, insurance
From boiled intelligence, esthetics, culture, humanity
From boiled human rights, liberty, ideology, spirituality

They’ve yet to find a word that Vietnam can’t boil

Repeat after me:
++++++Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.

From boiling to being boiled
All anyone thinks about is boiling
All households compete for Best Boilers
All professions boil with emulation…

The only reason why I myself am boiled: so as not to be boiled.

Repeat after me:
++++++Life in Vietnam is best eaten boiled.
++++++Boiling is best
++++++Boiling is best
++++++Boiling is best…

 

Second Course: Steamed

+ Prepared in the style of khoai mì hấp, steamed manioc with coconut and sugar from the Central region

Wish I could change my fate and be a man instead
Wouldn’t have to worry about this pillow-and-blanket career anymore
Eileen Over, contemporary performance artist

Read instructions carefully before use:

  • This literary work is adrift, caught in heaven’s net: vast, coarse and difficult to escape
  • I give and take, spending moments. This came during a bad season, the wind changing
  • That’s why it’s possible to wind up the center of a controversial lawsuit, etc.
  • All who re-use should be responsible and apply with care

1. Not allowed to go into battle for a long time: Bored to Death
2. Refrain all day long until at last given the okay to leave one’s post: Happy Ending
3. A hundred million poor brothers rushing up together: Death of a 1,000 Elbows
4. After charging ahead, find out the general only planned to liberate himself: Wrongful Death
5. Shot to the ground: Fallen Soldier
6. Shot against a wall: Rough and Ready Death
7. Wiped with toilet paper: Left Out to Dry Death
8. After a good polishing, to yet again be thrown away like garbage: Death Stinks
9. Last to officially to enter the fray, first to hit the target: Petit Mort Death
10. Show up each Monday knowing that you’re already one step behind: Death by Fury
11. Show up each Tuesday to find your favorite already in another’s grip: Green-Eyed Death
12. Absorbed in the view, one goes astray and starts running in circles: Death by Vertigo
13. When physical strength proves inferior to constantly battling to enter a busy street: Death by
++++++Exhaustion
14.  Hit the bulls-eye, but can’t find an egg: Death by Disappointment
15. Hit the bulls-eye, and find one egg: Job Well Done Death
16. Hit the bulls-eye, and find two eggs: Die Happy
17. Given one egg: Proud Papa Death
18. Given two eggs: Majestic Swan Dive Death
19. Refused by an egg: Walk of Shame Death
20. Because the correct safety procedure is to use a new rubber each time, o brothers of one
++++++house: Cabin Fever Death
21. The rubber is sealed too tightly: Death by Asphyxiation
22. If a hole appears in the rubber: Escape from Alcatraz Death
23. Scrambling in a rush for the exit, one suspects the rubber will be thrown away: A Watery
++++++Grave
24. Inside the water there are tadpoles that are my spitting image, but then again better to be all
++++++black than a broken piece of charcoal: Death before Dishonor
25. While laughing, the mouth opens too widely, swallowing innumerable brothers: Broken Belly
++++++Death
26. Second time entering the battle, every one gets covered in saliva: Dry Heave Death
27. Not disgusted enough with life yet to take an Acid Bath Death.
28. Responsible brothers are to be put in the freezer: Freeze to Death
29. Able to withstand the cold, but such a long time out of use: Waiting Room Death
30. The general runs after wealth all day long, slipping through slits in the law: Death by
++++++Depletion
31. The whole system is deceptive, it produces tricky dicks: Fake It Til You Make It Death
32. Decades of being intimidated results in being worried, worried and afraid: Scared to Death

Y32 …if calculated from 1975                                                                                                         
++++++And longer, if calculated from 1945
++++++And longer, if calculated from 1802
++++++And longer, if calculated from 938
++++++And longer, if calculated from around 43
++++++And longer, if calculated from the murky times of the Mongols

Subtract from one elite clique their headman, they will still refuse to die:

And sour as vinegar
And refuse to mix like vinegar
And life as vinegar

All “living a life of contemplation” and all the while thirsting after immortality like vinegar,
all in our ancient country of Xích Quỷ and naturally, all of ancient HMC, old Tây Cống,
shouting, “I will death defy! I will death defy!”

(Absolutely don’t say: I will testify! I will testify!)

 

Third Course: Raw

+ Prepared in the style of giá sống, raw bean sprouts from the South

 In order for a poetry fetus to develop to full term, bearers should not ingest the common foods below more than 2 times per day. They are not needed to provide a complete nutritional intake.

– Loss of liberty
Over the last few years, science has proven that in our country bearers of poetry fetuses increasingly need to be nourished with freedom. Moreover, this facilitates a large capacity for blood production and a lively spirit to boil up from withinboth necessary characteristics for a good poetry child’s development. However, the majority of the population still consider themselves to have already eaten a sufficient amount of liberty. This results in a pandemic increase of anemic poetry, in peril of being born premature and without enough influence to have any real weight when received. Talking like this is exhausting.

Principal Cause: Self-protection and Lack of Feeling

– Lack of Speech
Speech plays an essential role in a young student’s inner work to develop embryonic poetry. Lack of speech can lead to a danger of poetry being born weak, slowing its maturation. Multiple physical defects, especially to the spinal cord, can result, along with difficulties regarding sexual desire. This situation can be partially rectified with an immediate 30% rise in speech, several times a day, starting from the beginning of gestation. For this reason, one must take care to administer complete speech every day even before pregnancy. However, the majority of people still think that they already eat enough speech, and hang around with their mouths open. This isn’t really going anywhere.

Principal Cause: Self-Gagged and Censored

– Brainwashing
An important source of a poetry baby’s bone and muscle is large, frequent accumulations of independently examined sight and sound. During pregnancy, regular mind drills and a variety of information intake will help avoid a leeching out of morals. This will also grant relief from inner pressure applied by the savage and tyrannical judgment of the collective. We can provide complete minds in the form of fresh foodstuffs; that is to say, not yet ground up by censorship. However, the majority of people still like eating spoiled, blue-black stinking foodall while continuing to believe in a fresh new world.

Principal Cause: Cowardice and Lazy Thinking

-Blunted Esthetics
Esthetics form a large part in the growth of young poetry’s heart range and scope. Supplying a full esthetics during gestation and after is crucial. It enhances a brightness of ideology and the ability to be enlightened spiritually. Experts recommend eating fortifying books at least twice per week, along with partaking of oil paintings as much as possible. Nevertheless, most still think of Vietnam as a poetic, culturally rich country with several thousand years of civilization…this has resulted in clotting, along with severe aesthetic malnutrition. Damn, it leaves me speechless.

Principal Cause: Delusions of Grandeur and Pollyannaism

 

Thinking Without Identity

 

Along the hill running to the river
the flight path at arrival time

me: some end of the line station          café                  premixed gasoline

or an afternoon my thoughts crossed the line

may I pay gratitude to the pebbles        the flowers on the hill
feet slack in their step
bruised scent
and the rain and I remain to collect the rabbit’s moon cadences
alluvium on the mahogany field
those abundant crops
those lost flights       have now arrived
lonely stations or any moment I feel lost
I would leave…

me: some lost water buffaloes in an alley
and knives and cutting boards forgetting an old kitchen

me: a jatropha stake’s darkness and a returning bird tipped in light
my own identity        no time no date
unanchored thoughts

I have a game        bows and guns on the wall

or in the hands of strangers
memories medal and animal skin
the host’s daughter says with a mouth full of rice:
–three fish heads a thousand dead

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Người ăn xin ở Hà Nội

Để nhớ gợi ý của Max Jacob (1876-1944) và Hoàng Ngọc Biên.

Hồi tôi sống ở Hà Nội, nơi cửa ra vào dinh lãnh đạo mà tôi làm việc lúc nào cũng có một tay ăn xin được tôi ném cho mấy đồng tiền trước khi lên xe có cửa kính đen và cận vệ. Một ngày nọ, lấy làm lạ là không bao giờ nghe được những lời cám ơn, tôi nhìn kỹ tay ăn xin. Thế mà, khi tôi nhìn, tôi nhận ra cái tôi cứ ngỡ là một tay ăn xin, chỉ là một bục gỗ sơn cẩn thận và trên ấy là một tượng bán thân tạc hình tôi – trông gian xảo, hồng hào và đương nhiên, não bị mối ăn đến mục thủng.

Món 1: Luộc

+ Theo kiểu rau muống luộc của Bắc kỳ

Sống ở Việt Nam ăn món luộc là tốt nhất
Chưa tìm thấy thứ gì mà người Việt không thể luộc…

Vậy nên:
Sống ở Việt Nam ăn món luộc là tốt nhất

Từ luộc xe honda, nhà đất, bằng cấp, chức tước…
Từ luộc vệ sinh, an toàn thực phẩm, bảo hiểm…
Từ luộc trí tuệ, thẩm mĩ, văn hoá, nhân tính…
Từ luộc nhân quyền, tự do, tư tưởng, tâm linh…
Chưa tìm thấy điều gì mà Việt Nam không thể luộc

Vậy nên:
Sống ở Việt Nam ăn món luộc là tốt nhất

Từ luộc cho đến luộc
Người người nghĩ chuyện luộc
Nhà nhà tham gia luộc
Ngành ngành thi đua luộc…
Duy chỉ có lý do tại sao mình bị luộc: là không bị luộc

Vậy nên:
Sống ở Việt Nam luộc là tốt nhất
luộc là tốt nhất
luộc là tốt nhất
luộc là tốt nhất…

 

Món 2: Hấp

+ Theo kiểu khoai mì hấp của Trung kỳ

Ví đây đổi phận làm trai được
Sự nghiệp chăn mùng đỡ phải lo…
Sướng Thì Bo, nữ sĩ đương đại

Đọc kĩ hướng dẫn trước khi sử dụng:
=> tác phẩm này trôi nổi trong lưới trời, lồng lộng, thưa và khó thoát,
=> tôi lấy về xài đỡ, lúc trái gió trở trời.
=> cho nên, rất có thể bị tranh chấp, kiện tụng…
=> vì thế những ai sử dụng lại, tự chịu trách nhiệm và cẩn trọng.

01. Lâu ngày không được xuất [t]binh, BUỒN chết
02. Nhịn cả ngày, cuối cùng được phóng ra, MỪNG chết
03. Trăm triệu anh em cùng xông lên, CHEN NHAU chết
04. Sau khi ra, phát hiện chủ nhân tự giải quyết, UẤT ỨC chết
05. Bị bắn xuống đất, chết
06. Bị bắn vô tường, đụng BỂ ĐẦU chết
07. Bị giấy vệ sinh chùi, KHÔ chết
08. Sau khi chùi xong, lại bị quăng vô thùng rác, THÚI chết
09. Cuối cùng cũng được chính thức lâm trận, đứa đầu tiên tới đích, ĐẮC Ý chết
10. Đứa thứ hai tới đích, biết đã trễ một bước, TỨC chết
11. Đứa thứ ba tới đích, thấy người ta cặp cặp đôi đôi, GHEN TỊ chết
12. Mải ngắm cảnh, lạc đường chạy lòng vòng, CHÓNG MẶT chết
13. Thể lực kém, trên đường xông pha, MỆT chết
14. Tới được đích, không tìm được trứng, THẤT VỌNG chết
15. Tới được đích, tìm được một trứng, MÃN NGUYỆN chết
16. Tới được đích, tìm được hai trứng, SUNG SƯỚNG chết
17. Được một trứng tiếp nhận, TỰ HÀO chết
18. Được hai trứng tiếp nhận, UY PHONG chết
19. Bị trứng từ chối, NHỤC NHÃ chết
20. Bởi vì sử dụng biện pháp an toàn, nguyên băng vô bao,
anh em một nhà ĐÈ NHAU chết
21. Bao bị cột lại, NGỘP chết
22. Phát hiện bao bị thủng lỗ, VUI MỪNG chết
23. Giành giật để xông ra, ai ngờ bao bị quăng vô nước, CHÌM chết
24. Ở trong nước thấy nòng nọc giống mình quá
nhưng lại đen thui như cục than, CƯỜI chết
25. Trong khi cười miệng há quá to, nuốt vô số anh em, BỂ BỤNG chết
26. Lần thứ hai xuất trận, thấy đứa nào đứa nấy toàn nước miếng, TỞM chết
27. Chưa kịp tởm, bị tắm dịch ACID chết
28. Những anh em có trách nhiệm, bị lạc quyên, bỏ vô tủ đông, LẠNH chết
29. Chống chọi được lạnh,
nhưng vì lâu không được sử dụng, CHỜ chết
30. Chủ nhân suốt ngày bôn ba lách luật, CẠN KIỆT chết
31. Bị toàn thể lừa dối nên bản thân cũng gian dối, DỐI chết
32. Mấy chục năm bị hù doạ nên phập phồng lo sợ, SỢ chết

 

N 32 … tính từ 1975,
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ 1945
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ 1802
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ 938
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ khoảng 43
và lâu hơn, nếu tính từ thuở chỉ có mông với muội…

 

Trừ một “đám” chóp bu độc quyền bị TỪ CHỐI chết,
và chua như giấm
và trộn trong giấm
và sống như giấm…

Tất cả, hiện “ giả vờ sống” và khát khao bất tử như giấm…
Tất cả hiện diện tại xứ Xích Quỷ và đương nhiên ở cả Tây Cống
“Ung hỉ! Ung hỉ!”

[Tuyệt đối không nói: Cung hỷ! Cung hỷ!]

 

Món 3: Ăn sống

+ Theo kiểu giá sống của Nam kỳ

Để giúp cho bào thai thơ phát triển, người mang thai thơ không phải ăn nhiều gấp 2 lần mà chỉ cần ăn đầy đủ dưỡng chất. Kiểu như:

– Mất tự do
Suốt nhiều năm qua ở nước ta, nhất là càng về sau này, khoa học chứng minh người mang thai thơ cần phải bổ sung nhiều sự tự do hơn nữa, để lượng máu hay ho của mình sôi lên và thai nhi thơ được phát triển tốt.Tuy nhiên, đa số vẫn nghĩ rằng mình đã ăn đủ tự do rồi nên kết quả là tình trạng thiếu máu thơ tăng, nguy cơ sinh non và ảnh hưởng tới cân nặng của thơ trẻ khi sinh ra là rất rõ rệt, thế mới mệt.

Lý do chính: thủ thân và vô cảm…

– Thiếu ngôn luận
Ngôn luận đóng vai trò chủ yếu trong việc phát triển phôi thai thơ. Thiếu ngôn luận cũng có thể dẫn đến nguy cơ sinh non, thơ chậm phát triển và đặc biệt là có những dị tật cột sống, những trục trặc tình dục về sau… Nhu cầu về ngôn luận tăng 30% ngay từ những ngày đầu của thai kỳ. Đó là lý do tại sao chúng ta cần phải chú ý cung cấp đầy đủ ngôn luận ngay cả thời gian trước khi mang thai. Tuy nhiên đa số vẫn nghĩ rằng mình đã ăn đủ ngôn luận, thế mới luẩn quẩn.

Lý do chính: bị bịt miệng và tự kiểm duyệt…

– Tẩy não
Trong quá trình phát triển xương cốt và cơ bắp, thai nhi thơ cần tích lũy rất nhiều trí não và huệ năng. Việc cung cấp đầy đủ thông tin và thao tác xử lý thông tin trong thời kỳ mang thai còn giúp tránh việc mất chất, hủ hoá và sự dã man, tàn bạo trong ứng xử cộng đồng. Chúng ta có thể cung cấp đầy đủ trí não với các thực phẩm tươi, nghĩa là chưa qua kiểm duyệt. Tuy nhiên, đa số vẫn thích ăn đồ ươn hôi, bị bầm dập… nhưng vẫn nghĩ rằng nó tươi nguyên, thế mới điên.

Lý do chính: hèn nhát và lười tư duy…

– Cùn thẩm mỹ
Thẩm mỹ đóng vai trò trọng yếu trong việc phát triển tim, tầm nhìn và tầm văn hoá của thơ nhi. Việc cung cấp đầy đủ thẩm mỹ trong thời kỳ mang thai là rất cần thiết và cả thời gian sau cũng vậy, nó thúc đẩy sự sáng sủa của tư tưởng và khả năng giác ngộ về tâm linh. Vì thế, mỗi tuần, chúng ta nên ăn sách vở an toàn vệ sinh ít nhất hai lần và sử dụng dầu nghệ thuật nhiều lần. Tuy nhiên, đa số vẫn nghĩ rằng Việt Nam là một nước thơ, giàu bản sắc văn hoá, văn hiến nhiều nghìn năm… nên kết quả bị suy dinh dưỡng về thẩm mỹ trầm trọng, thế mới hả họng.

Lý do chính: ảo tưởng và hoang đường…

 

Nếp nghĩ không căn cước

Dọc miền đồi dẫn ra triền sông
đường bay trong giờ đáp

tôi: những trạm lẻ                   café                  xăng pha sẵn

hoặc buổi chiều suy tư lấn tuyến

xin tri ân viên sỏi        bông hoa miền đồi
những bàn chân chùng bước
mùi hương tím bầm
và mưa và tôi tồn đọng nhịp thở
phù sa bãi xà cừ
những lương thực bội mùa
những đường bay lạc              giờ đáp trên sân
trạm lẻ hoặc bất cứ lúc nào kẹt lối
tôi sẽ ra đi . . .

tôi: vài con trâu lạc ngõ
và dao thớt lãng quên nhà bếp cũ

tôi: bóng tối cây cọc và cánh chim ánh sáng tìm về
căn cước riêng tôi                   không ngày tháng
nếp nghĩ không neo

tôi có trò chơi              những cung súng trên tường
hoặc trên tay những người chưa quen
hồi ức huy chương và da thú
con gái chủ nhà nói trong miệng bự cơm:
_ ba đầu cá một ngàn đã chết

Translator’s Notes

Kelly Morse: Toni Morrison said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.” I started translating Lý Đợi’s poetry because I wanted to read something that reflected my experience in the face of so much that did not. I lived in Hanoi for two years in the late 2000s, yet when I returned to the USA I found that the majority of translations circled around the Vietnam-American War, or spoke of a romanticized rural life of subsistence farming that, while real, is not the Vietnam I engaged with on my daily motorbike commute with Hanoi’s other 3.5 million citizens. Thousands of people circle the lakes each night, where yes, there are lotus flowers in bloom if it is the right season, which also means parades of girls in traditional áo dài draped across wooden docks while men with expensive cameras take their pictures. However, once these sessions are done, the girls again don blue jeans and t-shirts, text their friends where to meet for coffee, and put on a helmet (often with a hole cut out for their ponytail) before zipping off on mopeds.

This was the Vietnam I wanted to see in translations, the one that pays homage to the past while never forgetting that most daily life involves haggling, cell phones, traffic jams, and trying to get a leg up in the midst of an industrial revolution and Market Leninism (aka capitalism). Instead, I found reconciliation projects. While these have great value, they are the vision of a generation that is not mine, nor that of most Vietnamese. Two-thirds of Vietnam’s current population was born after the war, which ended 40 years ago. It is a young and hopeful population that looks to the future, not the past.

Perhaps this is my failing, that poems filled with lotus and harmony do not match my preoccupations, whereas those populated with construction workers, motorbikes, and censorship do. After all, that is the Vietnam I mostly experienced. But one must be preoccupied, passionate even, if one is to go through all the trouble of translating a text. I’m so glad I found Lý Đợi’s poems, so happy to have a co-translator like Nga; with them I am able to have a hand in writing what I want to read.

 

Hiền Nga: Early morning and the sun has just slowly started to dip its pristine rays into a body of water (a lake, if it’s Hà Nội, or a river, if it’s Sài Gòn) when you’re woken up by the neighbor’s rooster or the honking of a banana seller on a motorbike. You throw open your window, letting in the mellow smell of phở broth from the stall across the street. You trot to the sidewalk and order a cà phê sữa đá. The condensed dose of caffeine and sugar kicks off your morning, and you know you’re gonna make a loud noise today. You know you’re gonna move walls and earth. You’re gonna make some trouble today. You must.

So it’s like what the cliché says, life in today’s Việt Nam is a living, breathing thing. It’s not stagnant, and it’s not sleepy. It’s anything but stuck in the past. It hurriedly churns like the inside of a hummingbird. The frame the society is built upon, the façade they put up, all the conventions, the norms, the established, all the things stifling the people, are gradually being transformed by the people from inside the country. By those like Lý Đợi, whose brave and powerful texts are the peaceful weapon fighting for freedom and progress in Việt Nam.

I moved back to Việt Nam after years of mindful wandering abroad not only because I want to witness history happening, but also because I want to be part of it. Furthermore, I want to take part in making it happen. Lý Đợi’s poetry shows one of the many ways the people of Việt Nam today are not quiet and timid but resilient and fierce, that they are creating changes on their own behalf. I would like the privilege of standing side-by-side with those like him in this fight. I’m here to see, live, and create a narrative where Vietnamese are not the victims of both history and contemporary development, but the actor of our present and the owner of our future.

Hiền Nga
Sài Gòn, 2015

Kelly MorseKelly Morse returned to Vietnam on a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship, where she had the opportunity to meet Lý Đợi and write about her former life there as university faculty. Her translations with Nga L.H. Nguyen appear in Asymptote and M-DASH, along with her essays and reviews of Vietnamese poetry. Kelly’s creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Brevity, Flyway, Linebreak, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in poetry from Boston University, and is a Vermont Studio Center grant recipient. www.kelly-morse.com.

 

 

Nga Author Photo_optA development worker with an incurable crush on the arts, Nga L.H. Nguyen was seeded from Hanoi, Vietnam and lives across three continents. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, she works for Save the Children with a focus on LGBTQ+ and women’s rights; she will pursue a GEMMA Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree in Women’s and Gender Studies starting Fall 2015. Nga has contributed to several investigative articles for The Washington Post, and her translations with Kelly Morse have been featured on Asymptote and M-DASH. She believes in hummingbirds. http://hiennga.wordpress.com

 

Ly_Doi_headshotLý Đợi is a founding member of the underground Mở Miệng (Open [Your] Mouth) group, and has been published on webzines and in group samizdat. His own samizdat are Bảy biến tấu con nhện (2004; Seven Spider Improvisations), Trường chay thịt chó (2005; Dogmeat Vegetarianism) and Khi Kẻ Thù Ta Buồn Ngủ (2010; When Our Enemy Falls Asleep). A chapbook of his work has been translated into English by Vietnamese American poet Linh Dinh, and translations of his work have been published in Asymptote and Soft Targets.

Day of Rest

gabo-finalist_sf2015Day of Rest

Glass-fibred beings
under online drums
in the heat of the bits,
always a ringing in the ears,
more zero than one,
up tonine-one-one,
plug in the socket,
through the night, day in,
day out, night failure,
day failure

power failure.
Dead zone of the electrons.
Leave the cables where they are,
marvel at the video card of the world,
pull the plug of the scribbling,
brake the text messaging,
no yes and no, no veneer,
it’s fine to be
offline.

prose_section_divider

 

 

Ruhetag

Glaszerfasertes Wesen
unter Online-Trommeln
in der Hitze der Bits,
stets ein Klingeln in den Ohren,
mehr null als eins
bis zum Eins-eins-null,
Stecker in der Dose,
die Nacht durch, tagaus,
tagein, Nachtausfall,
Tagausfall,

Funkloch der Elektronen.
Lass’ die Kabel liegen,
bestaune die Grafikkarte der Welt,
zieh’ dem Geschreibsel den Stöpsel,
bremse das Gesimse,
kein Jein, kein Schein, pikfein
offline
sein.

Translator’s Note

I love sound poetry and I believe in the musicality of the written wordwhich is language-specific to a large extent, certainly if it’s connected with a specific sense or content. Once a translator, a nice old lady, wanted to translate one of my poems. I considered it untrans­la­tab­le myself. I told her that and she was a little offended because she thought I was questioning her abilities. Later, she admitted I was right. Then another translator said my poems were untranslatable. That didn’t surprise me but I became upset because that meant I could not be part of an interesting project for a second time.

I started translating my poems myself. A large part of my poetry is so language-specific that I am the only one who actually has the freedom to “translate” it, which in my case means writing something similar in another language most of the times. To give an example, here’s a little excerpt of “Underpass”, one of my untranslatable poems: “Unnumbered undertones, unbarred unconsciousness, / underachievers, unfertilized unless / under umbrellas, uprising unknowingly, / underpass underdogs unfold unguardedly” (published in “Borderlands. Texas Poetry Review”, 39, 2013). There is a German two-egged twin of this poem with a very similar subject and a very similar atmosphere, but it’s not a translation actually. E.g., almost all of the words are different and the English poem is a little more optimistic.

The poem you will find on these pages is actually an example of my translatable poetry. To translate this one was comparably easy, the German predecessor is written in an unbound language, no metre, no strong sound elements stand between it and its translation. So this one could have been translated by a “real translator.” But once I started to translate my own poems, I continued to do so. I discovered it’s a good opportunity to actively use the English language. It refines my senses for poetry in all its forms in both languages. Moreover, I really have the last word regarding the results without annoying anyone and I have the opportunity to only hand out what I can sign with my name.

However, there also is a disadvantage: while my English becomes better with every poem and my “lectors” find less and less faults, it is still a foreign language to me. Thus, I have to give all of my poems to English native speakers, sometimes more than once because they discover faults or passages that do not really work, then I correct them and after that, I have to give the new version to another native speaker (I could give it to the same person again, I basically do that so share the burden). The poem you will find on these pages has been proofread by Harold Nash, the comment you are reading right now has been proofread by Lawrence Nicholas. Many thanks to both of them.

Alex DreppecAlex Dreppec, born in 1968 close to Frankfurt as “Alexander Deppert,” studied Psychology and Linguistics and went to Boulder, Colorado for his Ph.D. (finished 2001). German author with hundreds of publications (both poetry and science) in German journals and anthologies, both the most renowned (Der große Conrady—since 2008) and the best-sold among them. “Wilhelm Busch” Prize 2004. Numerous English poems were accepted by Borderlands Texas Poetry Review, Parody on Impression, English Journal, National Council of Teachers of English (USA), Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, The Journal (UK), and others so far.

Five Poems

My country,
why this crazy love for you?

You got me born
so I could be your wound.

Where can I hide
on the barren hill?

My verses dog me
like old murderers.

And deep in my ice
every night
something breaks.

 

 

With your name I’ll name

the curve you lean on
like light and shadow.

Your name I’ll call the robin
on the iced creek,

and the serpent that you saw
on the wind’s path
and the flowers you trod
in summer dark,
the burned out fires
on the bare hills,
the call of crows.

All the rains in the world
I’ll name with your name.

 

 

Of those dreams nothing remains
the houses stand locked-up for good.
Under the stones
you won’t even find a key;
they brought them along, the dead.

 

 

It rains constantly
in this
country.

Maybe because I’m a stranger.

 

 

I want the pages of my books
to be what starts a fire in the cottage
of two cold lovers.

*

To turn oneself into dust,
ashes,

To feel
a little bit oneself
a little bit the universe.

To live the silence.

prose_section_divider

 

 

Mia patria,
perché quest’amore folle per te?

Tu mi hai fatto nascere
per essere la tua ferita.

Dove nascondermi
nella collina brulla

I miei versi m’inseguono
come vecchi assassini.

Ogni notte si rompe qualcosa
nel profondo del mio ghiaccio.

 

 

Con il tuo nome chiamerò

la curva dove ti affacci
come luce e ombra.

Anche il pettirosso
sul giaccio del ruscello,

anche il serpente che hai visto
nel sentiero di vento
anche i fiori che hai calpestato
al buio estivo,
anche i fuochi spenti
sulle colline nude,
il richiamo dei corvi.

Tutte le piogge del mondo
con il tuo nome chiamerò.

 

 

Nulla è rimasto di quei sogni,
le case sono serrate per sempre.
Sotto le pietre
non troverete neanche le chiavi,
le hanno portato con sé i morti.

 

 

Piove sempre
in questo
Paese.

Forse perché sono straniero.

 

 

Voglio che con le pagine dei miei libri
accendano il fuoco nella casa di campagna
gli innamorati infreddoliti.

*

Farsi polvere,
cenere,
oblio

Sentirsi
un po’ se stessi,
un po’ universo.

Abitare il silenzio.

Translator’s Note

We elude ourselves. Glancing in a mirror or hearing my recorded voice I think “but that’s not what I look like/sound like.” Worse, though I believe that home exists, I cannot seem to figure out where that home is. If this sense of dislocation is a side-effect of being human, then the figure of the exile is its highest expression. Hajdari’s mournful, limpid poems place us inside our divided lives and press on the tender spot of our own feelings of homelessness.

I moved to Italy to work with Gëzim Hajdari on the translation of his poems. Hajdari moved to Italy as a young man in flight from the oppressive communist regime of his native Albania. Hajdari traveled to make them, and I traveled to translate them; the poems themselves are the only native Italians. They stand between translator and writer, exile and ex-pat. In some ways, this atypical situation facilitated translation. Usually when I translate I must attempt to inhabit the mother tongue, the native instincts, and at times even the subconscious of the author. It can feel like trespassing. In contrast, Hajdari and I meet on borrowed ground in the fertile, liminal territory of a third language.

The special autonomy of these poems creates new kinds of translation challenges. Hajdari’s language is often deceptively simple. His poems contain many landscape elements; they evoke the earthy intimacy of his rural Albanian boyhood. But it is to a landscape remembered, not lived, that the poems speak. In Italian, the familiar names of trees and animals become strange, distant, and yet because distant perhaps even more longed for. How is it possible to convey that distance anew in a translation? What happens to nostalgiathe first languagewhen expressed in a second language?

Hajdari sometimes uses Italian to chastise his mother tongue and his country: “you got me born/so I could be your wound,” he says in one poem. There are moments in which he seems to feel permanently alienated by his existence in his second language; he and other exiles are “leaving for a country that calls not your name but your body.” In another poem he says “I’m living in place of myself now” as if the entire Albanian self were abandoned along with the country.

Yet these melancholy comments on exile are balanced by a kind of liberation (quite familiar to us as Americans I suspect) that comes with rootlessness. After he imagines, in one poem, that his books will one day start a fire in the house of two cold lovers, he says “To feel/ a little bit oneself/ a little bit the universe.” What a poignant articulation of one of the ways in which great happiness expresses itself; when that elusive, seeking self appears both within and without, present and distant. It is to remember this feeling, our human belonging and our human lostness, that I return again and again to poetry.

 

Gëzim HajdariBorn in Lushnje, Albania in 1957, Gëzim Hajdari was persecuted by the communist regime and fled to Italy in 1992 where he has since resided. He is a prominent member of the “Scrittori Migranti” movement in Italy, a group of writers who intentionally eschew their first language, choosing instead to write in Italian. Hajdari has earned acclaim both in Italy and abroad for his poems, winning the prestigious Montale prize among others. His work speaks to his experience as an exile, his deep-seated love and equally profound frustration with his native Albania, and the shifting, uncomfortable identity he inhabits.

 

Sarah StickneySarah Stickney received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. She is a former Fulbright Grantee for the translation of Italian/Albanian poet Gëzim Hajdari. Her co-translations of Elisa Biagini’s selected poems, The Guest in the Wood, was chosen by the University of Rochester for its Best Translated Book Award for poetry in 2014. Her poems and translations have appeared both in the U.S. and abroad in publications such as La Questione Romantica, Rhino, The Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Cold Mountain Review, and others. She lives in Annapolis, MD where she teaches at St. John’s College.