“…to release the fire inside my fingers”*


I imagine ways to reach into the poems, to the authors, to see the more possibilities of (making) poetry.

Here is one path: I know the poets; the authors’ biographies might help. Something I can tell you: on the one hand, they were boat people, they bear the fates of exiles, they are immigrants, they are Vietnamese Australian; on another hand, they choose to be exiled, they choose to be immigrants, they choose to keep writing in their mother tongue, they choose to write in another language, they choose to be translated, they choose to be the untranslatable, they choose to be transnational authors, in terms of their languages and living spaces. The languages would carry the weight of their lives and deaths.

If there is a fate for each of us to live, we can choose to live the fate we choose.

We can bear the unbearable.

Here is another path: I do not know anything about the poets; biographies don’t matter, only the poems and the authors in the poems. Something I can tell you: the poems speak for themselves, not for the authors outside the space of the book, the poems bear their own fates. The poems cannot reveal anything but their own languages, their lives and deaths inside those languages.

If there is a fate for each poem of the book, the poem cannot choose but be whatever it is.

It is unavoidable to bear the unbearable.


Lê Văn Tài

A poet, a painter, a human being exiled from his homeland, with his restless heart forever seeking for a land to which he can belong and attach himself, even as a grain of dust in the universe, even as the illusion of belonging and of possibilities of not falling apart too soon in the dreaming journey of becoming a human.

Traumatic memories are transformed into poetical experiences, through words and images, that become poems and paintings. Or vice versa, poetical experiences embody traumatic memories. The process of imagining personal experiences, traumatically and poetically at the same time, can be seen not only as a personal visual/verbal therapy by distancing the past, extending time and space of a lost home – so that the memories become more durable and safe in a space of illusions, but also as a way of home-landing the present, closing-up time and space of an adopted home – so that the present becomes more possible and be embraced in the arms of creation.

Lê Văn Tài’s poetry to me reveals a beautiful way of living in-between all borders: of words and images, the visual and the verbal, here and there, the past and the present, the possible and the impossible. He shows a world that makes me sense of every breath of existence, through a beautiful surreal imagination and sensual rhythm of words and images. The unutterable can find its temporary refuge in poetry. You can read them with your eyes, in silence, and let the memory of reading the poems fall into your heart and mind, and let the (memory of) poems be saved in the permanence of the impermanence.

“We’ll come back to ourselves, to migrate our human Spirits,

Our lips will be lengthened to a stream of musical instruments.

So, the sun of the day time on stretched canvas will be stopped,

from wandering.”

(The Sun Stopped Wandering on Stretched Canvas)

The desire to dwell in our own identity, in our real self, in our subjectivity leads us to an infinite path of seeking. “Where can a seed take root?” – the question that bears an obsession of existence is an unanswerable one. Yes, somewhere. Yes, nowhere. In our dreams. In the immensity of skies and oceans. In the immensity of a breath. In our silence. All you can do breath, and nothing but breath.

However, even if you choose to be silent, the echoes of your being are always somewhere, echoing from primitive calves, quivering in the dust that has covered the paintings for centuries. You cannot simply deny your own being even as a grain of dust if you’ve tried to make this effort:

“Make a live this world

And make it alive in art,


(A Man Lonely, Dumb and Free (1))

Recreating the world, your own world, is one way to land somewhere, to ‘homeland’ your own space, to enter into your heart, wherever you are.

“Tell me… tell me… please


Anywhere… a place

Which way: to enter a strange garden

Or into your heart


Let the seed take root, and me.”

(Where can a seed take root?)

I know the poems can take root by themselves, in the land of love and creation, and so the poet does plant roots.

Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt

In the poems, Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt presents his concerns, even his obsessions, with politics and poetry, or poetry as political response and participation.

Writing poetry as response to events that have happened and are happening in his homeland, Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt tells me the story of an exiled person who can never leave his home, Việt Nam, though the homeland might only be an image created, a discourse imagined, a subject interpreted, a geographical area framed, a memory remained and restored, a knowing known only from afar. Here a body writes in his anger and hunger, in a non-nostalgic longing for seeing a better country than the one that has seemly been destroying by historical storms. It may be necessary to clear out here, in Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt’s poems, that the historical storms are not come from nowhere abstractly but visibly caused by the very complex conflicts of authorities of the country, by the dumbness of the people, by the blind leaders and a lot of various concrete reasons. In some point, the poems are remarkable in their strong criticism on the different realities of the country with the effort of telling the truth.

What is the Việt Nam and Vietnamese people represented in these poems? Việt Nam is (not) like this. No, telling the truth is perhaps not only an ambition, but also a personal salvation, and a hopeless hope for a better place. So the poet in the poems must face these struggles: the need for truth telling and the awareness of the incapacity of truth telling, writing as response and participation and the hindrances to participation from afar. Poetry becomes a witness of historical events, but can also fail by the very effort of witnessing.

The long poem that is a long conversation/biographical interrogation titled “Sleeping overnight wherever it’s dry” can be read not only as a self-integration into a history of an individual, but also a history of a nation, a country, a land, a people. Seeking the facts of his own life means accepting the truth of a factless life. The poem becomes both a parody of his own adversity as well as a representation of a (non)fictional history of Việt Nam. No one can be excluded, no one can escape their involvement, no one can escape their own homelessness, and the biographical details filling official papers giving evidence to an existence, of an individual or a collective are just fictions written and erased and rewritten and re-erased again and again by stormy events of history.

Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt’s huge effort of demystification of a country – Việt Nam, particularly its seemly mystificationalized history and tradition – often come along with some distinguish techniques in the poems: parodies, meta-fiction techniques, chaotic narratives among others. Writing becomes an act of critically destroying the myth of truths that lie in the outdated beliefs and the harmful propaganda, and at the same time an act of showing another side of the truth, maybe the darker one, maybe not easy to be accepted by the people. Techniques of the writing also become a tool, a poetical strategy of that action. Some can be seen as action-poems that might need to be read aloud.

But one has to demystify the myth of very poetry: poetry does not own any power as pioneering revolutionists. At most, it just can show some possibilities than speak loudly any affirmation. Because the world could not be clear in any binaries of the right and the wrong. Because the world always changes. Because there are, always, ‘pending gaps’, to remind of a poem by Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt, and these pending gaps can become poems that forever seek for a certain truth and never reach it.

Therefore, it is not easy to deal with the situation that Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt, as a poet, not only as a citizen of his lost country recognized and realized in a beautiful poem titled “Poetry: something pending”. The poem is one way to understand and re-understand about the nature of poetry. I see there: writing as sometimes the need of vomiting, of ejecting “saliva forcibly down onto the page”, of seeing the drops of saliva “fly out of my mouth”, of writing the self “straight down onto the page” and the awareness of the illusion of that writing action. A significant aspect of writing poetry can be revealed: it’s something that “pending between me and the page”, and “the pending moment” is where poetry borne in a way that the poet still have to write down and could not just copy it down “in words onto the page”, because a pending moment is always changeable as light and it is necessary to be transformed in words, in tangible objects, so its intangibleness can be seen, so its fragility can be last, so its ephemerality can be remained. The effort of representation in poetry somehow can be beat by the very non-representational nature of poetic languages, but therefore, it does exist.

Phan Quỳnh Trâm

It seems to me Phan Quỳnh Trâm is living in a world of confusions and anxieties. How to live, how to (not) write poetry, or how to just be in the life, these questions seem never cease to bother her mind and heart. Questioning of “having and being”, as a title among her poems, seems just lead us to a hopeless hope for a right answer. The being tries to expose its existence, its having, “this is my life”, and aware of its confusion, “I don’t know how to live it”. The being wants to write poetry, and can hear its rhythm, but also does not know “how to fill it with words”. The being wants to follow the rhythm of its heart and voice but also, does not believe it can lead to somewhere better than this being, than the moment, because the everything-ness and the nothingness, as joy and pain, are “both unbearable”.

Phan Quỳnh Trâm’s poems own the merit of a strong rationality. I always can hear a lot of rational questions and analyzation, I can see a lot of “but” “but” that come from a nonstop-questioning mind rather than “and” “and” of a person who just enjoys living the life as it is. Here comes the difficulty of the existence, the unbearable of the being, as the mind works so intensely.

One way of understanding Phan Quỳnh Trâm’s writing style  is that she writes poems about poems: the poems expose their author as a keen reader inside an anxious poet. The poet knows the hopeless attempt to define “what poetry is” and still, couldn’t stop questioning about that. All the definitions can be destroyed by themselves. And in some ways, definitions are just the (im)possibilities of (non)defining things. Poets can be forever stuck in the chaotic net of these (im)possibilities.

Choosing a language only can become a matter of creation as it is something personal essentially, and no one can decide but you, the author. Phan Quỳnh Trâm seems wants to be resided safely in language, but also, she is aware of its temporality, its fragility, its vulnerability and she is aware of herself as an uprooted being who though reads thousands of poems still could not find a poem that can trace her journey from the beginning to the end, who though writes thousands of poems still could not know what is the poem becomes nor where the poem comes from. Words can be just memories of words. Love can be just memories of love. I do not know if it can be enough by itself, with its ephemerality, while the life to live is somehow so long, and so hard.

Phan Quỳnh Trâm is on the beginning of the road, or forever on the road, I do not know. But she is showing me some possibilities of dealing with languages. The action of reading and writing, of more and more being committed in reading and writing can be seen as a learning process of that on-the-road status, of (re)understanding the way we live, the things we choose with a deep awareness of the incapacity of returning to the beginning. All we can do is just be, and be.


Ultimately, we can bear the unbearable. We cannot avoid bearing the unbearable. We can survive. We keep being alive. At least in poetry. In languages.

Nhã Thuyên

Sydney&Hanoi, 2015

Note: * the title of this piece is taken from a poem by Lê Văn Tài.
my deep love&gratitude to Michael, Kaitlin, Phùng Hà Thanh for everything in&out the book.

About the book:
Poems of||Thơ của Lê Văn Tài, Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt, Phan Quỳnh Trâm.
Edited by|| Biên tập bởi Nguyễn Hưng Quốc & Nhã Thuyên
Cover art by|| tranh bìa của Nguyễn Hưng Trinh
Vagabond Press, Sydney 2015.

Get a copy || Mua sách

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