(On “Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên”, edited and introduced by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng, Vagabond Press, Asia Pacific Poetry Series, 2013)
It is quite an inspirational surprise to see a beautiful book of poetry, in which not one, not two, but three Vietnamese female poets concurrently share their creative arts. Of course, I’m talking about the project immaculately undertaken by a group of authors and translators, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, to bring forth a volume of poetry written by Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan and Nhã Thuyên, the three emerging poets whose names have become increasingly familiar with poetry lovers inside Viet Nam and abroad. Being unable to follow the circle of many Vietnamese writers and poets living in the United States, let alone the world, who over the years have produced a significant amount of fiction and poetry written in English (an inexcusable culpability that you can blame entirely on me), I have the uttermost pleasure reading this book, a pleasure stemming not only from its extremely rich contents but also the circumstances from which it arises. I’m forced to ask myself some basic questions. Firstly, all three aforementioned poets were born after the war – two in their 30’s and one in her 20’s. So, are they too young to write such verses? I guess not, talent and mature age don’t necessarily go together. Secondly, since each one is residing in a different part of the world, can they find a common theme and sing the same song? Yes, they can. Today the world is just a small village, congeniality can be found in any field of humanistic interest. And third, what is the ultimate goal they all strive to achieve in their impeccably complex voices? The answer cannot be simpler: Imagination.
The poems found in this anthology are neither profound nor philosophical in the most uncompromising sense of the terms; rather, they represent the deep feeling of the self and the sharp-witted awareness about one’s own surrounding and condition. They are very modern in the sense of expressing oneself with the utmost intimacy and giving the insights into the different varieties of the artistic temperament. They don’t lack the lyrical quality that has long established as one of the pillars of Vietnamese poetry, but at the same time, they exhibit a tremendous endeavor to go forward trying to escape the cliché of platitude and banality that for so long enfetters its entrance into a world of extraordinary and fantastic imagination. Reading these poems, one can certainly perceive the sort of freedom and iconoclasm manifested in the poetic expression and forms. Here, poetry is written mainly for the sake of poetry. Whether it emerges out of aesthetic temperament or cultural repression is quite irrelevant, the point worth to mention is its attempt to de-canonize all previous notions that poetry must carry on its back a sacred mission or serve as a catalyst to cleanse human life. (Fortunately, today many of those who had lived in Utopia were either dead or proselytized.) Instead, it focuses on the emotive and imaginative aspects of the human content, which, in any case, should be considered as the most sublime intent as far as literature is concerned.
This anthology, thus, could very well be considered as an unequivocal divergence from Realism, Romanticism, Socialism, Patriotism, Sentimentalism and many other isms that had for so long predominated Vietnamese poetry. The trend has actually taken shape for awhile, becoming more noticeable in the Diasporas at first then gradually permeated back to the country in the form of samizdat since it is strictly forbidden by the Communist authority, any violation would be ruthlessly persecuted. There are many compelling reasons for that renaissance in poetry, both subjectively and objectively, but it would take some young talents, like the trio in this book, to get the messages through.
Lưu Diệu Vân, the reluctant non-conformist
You can say Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems are interesting because of her skillful and exquisite usage of imagery. In fact, it’s a tour-de-force. In almost every single poem, one could find an intriguing effect created by the peculiar choice of words that she inserts at the right place and the right time. The lyrics are song-like but abstract, a rather strange combination, thus, emitting the mystics that can be attributed to the feeling of uncertainty. There is nothing absolute here. Nothing is definitive. Nothing is consummate. The inner self is examined within the precarious surrounding for she is quite self-conscious about the relationships, not only between interconnecting individuals but also between individual and his/her environment.
Except for the poem “my 1975 story”, which sounds almost like an autobiography, most of Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems touch many facets of the intricately multiple-sided prism of life, from romantic relationship to ideology, from feminism to politics. As she confronts what Milan Kundera called the existential problems, she would make no attempt to hide her true feeling of frustration, indignation, vexation, and even rage. In the poem “ultraconservative”, what the whole nation had worshiped for thousands of years, she took down as “a sprinkle of pink blood” on that nasty “white cloth of chastity.” What’s more, along with the poem “dead philosopher’s apologia”, she declared war against the ideology that had oppressed women throughout history in her country. She is now enraged at the stupidity that nobody seems to care or notice. What is she going to do? Will she blow the trumpet and reach out to her allies to engage directly in that Quixotic fight to tackle the impossibility? Will she stand up to be in the frontline of the battle against gender discrimination that has lasted for centuries in her fatherland? Well, I don’t know, maybe not . . . Why not? Because I see her as she is standing there alone in that ancient capital city wondering about her identity, her place in the landscape of forgetting. She seems to be lost. To her, the question about one’s identity seems quite troublesome since she is tormented by her cultural heritage and at the same time unable to find any empathy with the present. She just can’t understand why people “worship the preserved giant turtle like dear ancestors.” Ah! Please stay right there, yes, precisely, at 11 Ramie street. That must be it! That absolute, undiminished, unbreakable, indestructible symbolism, the abyss between her and the historical heritage forever separates her inner self from reality. Irreconcilable. At variance. Absolutely incompatible. How can you intellectually connect to the people who worship idol, especially that idol is a murderer? How can you communicate and interface with those who possess what Czeslaw Milosz called “The Captive Mind?” Perpetual capitulation, right? Exactly. Poor Milosz, the poet of the century; he wrote that fabulous book in 1953, but nobody in Viet Nam at that time (and even now) seemed to care, and because of that headstrong and impetuous ideology, more than half a century later poor Lưu Diệu Vân found herself unconnected, totally detached with her own root right at the heart of the thousand years old fortress. Her idiosyncrasy is at odds with the land, where “the smiling leaders shake hands on giant billboards”, where the ugly thugs have been shamelessly “extolling a victory that no history book validates” (except for those written by them). The poem “dolls and bicycles” is not a political statement; rather, it’s an aspiration longing for the judgment day that may never come.
Many of Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems in this book deal with the inner self. Fathoming the self ultimately leads to sensuality. As far as she is concerned, self-consciousness must count sensuality as the central theme in the symphony of life. That theme dominates her outputs to a point where almost all allusions to love have something to do with the way she would feel as a woman. But there exists a paradox in her view of love. The poem “falls” starts out with some nice, innocent images like, “diaphanous petals stem auburn sun wings” and ends with an orgy, where the act of love-making is explicitly spelled out, “virile ink / her body / ejaculates his imprint” in the last stanza. The trouble here arises from the fact that in the same poem, she expresses her indifference to love, “the presence for love should never be questioned / or the lack thereof.” Obviously, it’s quite frustrated for her to find love, and frustration becomes exasperation in other poems like “post-feminism” or “dual therapy.” One might wonder: Is there a paradox here or it’s just one of the inscrutable and inexplicable facets of modern times? Are we currently living in an epoch where love no longer exists? What’s wrong with this world now? No, no, relax, my dear friend! Listen, there is nothing to worry about, these question have been asked since the dawn of mankind, and you’re not going to get a satisfied answer now or anytime soon from anyone, not even the poet. Perhaps, you’ll never have the answer. Or, just calm down and listen to Woody Allen, who said: “Love is the answer, but while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty interesting questions.”
Next time you see Woody Allen, perhaps you can show him some of Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems.
Yet, Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems are full of humor and sarcasm. But it’s not the kind of humor or sarcasm to amuse or to entertain someone. It’s her artistic temperament toward the paradox of things, and the emotional content in the humor is always intense. Even though the language in these poems at times can be a little more cheerful, it’s not something light-hearted or trivial so as one can take it as a joke. The little whimsical poem “introducing a new product” is quite amazing. At almost every single line, I couldn’t hold back my laughter, especially, at the lines “a woman’s vagina / is for inspecting quality.”
As we can see, Lưu Diệu Vân is a versatile poet. She’s at ease with almost any topic that touches her heart, and one should not be surprised to see her exploring many aspects of the human condition with emotion and sensitivity. Her thoughts may not be deeply profound but her feeling is intense, and that is the most important quality of a true poet. The prominent Vietnamese writer Võ Phiến, who just recently passed away at the age of 90, once said, “A writer is the one who falls in love with life.” Lưu Diệu Vân is a poet who is passionately in love with life; but at the same time, she is repulsed and alienated by the conventionality and morality of the norms. What else could she be but a reluctant non-conformist?
Nhã Thuyên, the incurably melancholy dreamer
If Lưu Diệu Vân is an extrovert then Nhã Thuyên can be considered as an introvert. If Lưu Diệu Vân explores the inner self against the backdrop of her own seemingly realistic environment, Nhã Thuyên is doing it against the unrealistically immense space of emptiness. The eyes are seeing nothing but darkness; the voices are sucked into the expansive void without any echo. In the poem “body menu” reality is depicted as a dream-like landscape, where “the road is like a chunk of fish cut lengthwise, holes and mounds filled with blackened, variegated fish blood.” Almost in every single poem in the book, imaginations are stretched out but they always allude to the limitation of the self, which is inherently fragile and feeble. How can it be strong and devoted in an “absent existence,” where “some face like yours is conversing while scraping itself empty so that a bunch of eyes panic in search of each other”? The absent existence looms so vast and frightful that darkness seems to be everywhere, from here to eternity, in which, only dreams are perceived. Dreams after dreams. She would dream of Death and Love, as if only in dreams one could live up to his/her utmost desires. An air of melancholia pervades the lines and suffuses into the soul of the words, creating an undeniably lugubrious and doleful state of mind. Even in dreams she could not escape from the sadness, which seemed forever affix to the interminable solitude. Ironically, it attracted the inner self forcefully, it’s “something fierce and worth waiting for more than death.” I wonder, will something-worth-waiting-for-more-than-death bring joy and happiness or it is the most dreadful thing that one can come up with? In any case, Nhã Thuyên is not looking for an answer whatsoever. Dreams are delusional. Yes, you know that and I also happen to know that. Everybody knows that. But to Nhã Thuyên, it’s the most important thing to help life flourish. Whatever buried in the sub-consciousness must awake and be fruitful. You’ve got to dig yourself out of the limbo. In the poem “a dream of water”, she wrote: “deep beneath there is still no water, there is only an illusion of water, the illusion flows and nourishes the barren land, but one has to dig nonstop.” And what about the solitude that she adores? To answer your question, I’d like to quote Mr. Octavio Paz, the most preeminent Mexican poet, who said, “Solitude is the profoundest fact of the human condition. Man is the only being who knows he is alone.”
Imagery in Nhã Thuyên’s poems tends to be dream-like. In the poem “unfamiliar appearances”, some innocent raindrops poured down in the garden from the autumn sky had become “faces and faces pour impetuously down on the streets.” View of life as commonly discerned in the everyday activities doesn’t exist in her poetry. In fact, it’s almost like meditation, a poetic meditation, if I can use that phrase. “black rain” is a beautiful poem written in this sense. Much of her typical thematic materials and motifs are encountered in this poem – dreams, darkness, solitude, silence, fear, to name just a few – but it’s not the despair that drives the human content, not the hopelessness, but the belief in oneself, the self-consciousness, the self-determination that finally prevail. What else can you ask for from a poet, my dear friend?
The poetic texture in Nhã Thuyên’s poems tends to be dense and convoluted, particularly in the prose-poems. In addition, the imagery and the metaphors seem to allude to something dream-like, rendering the notion that her words could have come from the sub-consciousness. But can we call her a Surrealist?
Many Vietnamese literature critics, and scholars alike, labeled the two famous poets Hàn Mặc Tử and Bích Khê – who were immensely popular in the so-called New Poetry Movement [1932-1942] in Viet Nam – as Surrealists.
I found it quite unconvincing.
Surrealism, as defined by the pioneers of the movement in the early XX century, defies the literal meanings given to objects; rather, it pivots on the poetic undertones or undercurrents of things that matter. Then, by means of incongruous juxtapositions, it emphasizes the overtones and the connotations, which “exist in the ambiguous relationships to the visual images” to depict reality at “a higher level.” I fail to see any of these features in the outputs of the two revered poets. Moreover, their poems might have had some fantastic, dream-like images, but they had absolutely nothing to do with automatism, which is the foundation groundwork for Surrealism. I also doubt the beautifully rhymed verses in their poems come from the sub-consciousness, let alone the unconsciousness. Rather, they are the imaginations of the consciousness, and calling them Surrealist poets is just flat wrong. They were wonderful poets, who possessed excessive literary talents, pioneering in a sense, and whose poems had remained forever in the heart of any Vietnamese poetry lover. Period. Labeling them Surrealist just doesn’t make their beloved poems any better.
The same is true with Nhã Thuyên. In the set of the prose-poems, one is confounded by her staggering effect of the language. I did not read her original poems in Vietnamese, never have, (frankly, this is a regret that I couldn’t forgive myself), but perhaps one would think the language used in this form of artistic expression is the best tool to bring out the procession of thoughts buried deeply in the sub-consciousness. Actually, it was the poet Hoàng Trúc Ly, who experimented with this form of poetry with high degree of success before 1975 in South Viet Nam, and lately it was brought to a new level by the poet Nguyễn Hoà Trước. Here, the shaping of the Vietnamese language is pushed to its farthest limitations in terms of innovations and colorizations. It’s a metamorphosis, a tour-de-force of language transformation, where it is culminated to the purest form. However, the question is: Do we have any hope deciphering the meanings behind the seemingly mesmerizing lines in these poems, or rather, it belongs to the realm of metaphysics (or something like that for the lack of terminology), and the door leading one to enter its world is through intuition, without any conscious reasoning? I have the tendency leaning toward the latter, although I do know that the raw stuffs coming out of the sub-consciousness – not filtered, not artistically altered by the consciousness to carry some weight – are interesting only to the psychiatrists or the psychologists; they can hardly be called poetry, let alone art. Some people within the Vietnamese literature circle called it Language Poetry, but I found the term misleading. The poetics attributed to a “Language” poet is to relegate the task of interpretation his/her poem to the readers so as it can achieve a sphere of multiple dimensions, while in those prose-poems, mixed with Vietnamese flavor, the meanings, albeit ambiguous, are quite subjective and non-oblique.
All these arguments take me back to the prose-poem entitled “traces of nothing” by Nhã Thuyên in the book. To read it is to enter the world of imaginations. But beneath all those fantastic imageries and allegories, all that seemingly convoluted language, all those interior monologues, her stream of thoughts are perfectly clear. Here, once more, all the familiar thematic materials come into view like a recurring nightmare, and against that backdrop, loom memories, love, loss, and the endless reasoning for existence, or more accurately, non-existence. There is a sense of despair here, quite negative compared to “black rain.” The poem ends with the line “and I sink down forever down to where it’s wet, until all is absolutely empty and I will not come back.” And below the line there is a circle drawn out that could symbolize a situation of entrapment. Or, perhaps, a noose? In any case, one could only think of it as a sense of hopelessness.
The poet Dylan Thomas once said: “Poetry makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering are forever shared and forever all your own.” And that is exactly the point I want to make about Nhã Thuyên’s poetry.
Lưu Mêlan, the pitiful idealist
Lưu Mêlan looks at life around her through a magnifying glass, she must see something horrifying, for she turns around toward us with a grimacing countenance out of disgust, eyes wide open, and voice trembling. Yes, the world is an ugly ugly ugly place. Welcome to the club!
Compared to Lưu Diệu Vân, and particularly Nhã Thuyên, the poetic texture in Lưu Mêlan’s poems is rather thin. Also, while the semantics of the other two companions at times can be multi-layered, hers is one-dimensional. Her poetic language is straightforward and direct. She would deal with objects literally, not attempting to get into their souls, but borrowing the circumstances as some sorts of connotations to express her feelings. “The Ants” is a typical poem in this fashion. In the poem “Day”, she would take the role of a vigilant observant, using all five senses to explore her environment, then, while sounding like a guarding angel, she would give us a warning about the clear and present dangers of this world. A similar scenario is encountered in the poem called “A Grain of Rice.” Here, she tells us a fairy tale about one of the most beloved items in the ordinary life of a Vietnamese, a grain of rice. But it is a sad fairy tale and at the end she just wants to hide behind the rice plants because “the world was burying human lives.”
With Lưu Mêlan, one is in direct communications with her soul; whether it’s the fear for the world or the disgrace she would feel for the land she calls home. Yes, like many of us, she is lost in her own country, totally detached from the “people who walk on four legs.” Many of Lưu Mêlan’s poems express her desperation and sorrow for a place that’s supposed to be her birthplace, her beloved country. It has got to a point, where she couldn’t hold back her agonizing anger and pain. This is significant. For a young woman as she is, someone who still has a long path to go in the supposedly productive life, but already loses all hope for the future of the country. Now, that’s just unbelievable! How pitiful! But somehow, her piteous voice is lost, being drowned out by waves after waves of ugly ugly ugly noise.
Because of the poetic talents that these young poets possess, the book, although not very voluminous in its physical appearance, should have an impact in the ever evolutionary development of Vietnamese poetry in the modern times, and serve as an excellent introduction to those who are interested in Vietnamese literature. The three poets represent a new generation of Vietnamese writers, the so-called 8X generation. Although they have no direct linkage to the war, it is not correct to say that they’re not at all affected by its ramifications. There are huge issues in the aftermath of the war. And even now, with the path the country is taking, the bankruptcy in morality, the political systems in total decay and corruption, the lack of freedom to express oneself, the vacuum upon an interactive intellectual domain, the inertia against progress and new ideas, to name just a few, all those are implacably shaping their voices as poets. But, more important, what makes each one of the trio stand out in the crowded field is her unique self-consciousness that would help leveraging an ordinary quotidian stream of thoughts and transforming it to an art form. After all, that’s what poetry is all about.
Their gender not in the least hinders their achievements. This should not be a surprise to anyone who understands the tradition of Vietnamese literature. Although the Vietnamese society in the ancient times, and also in modern times to some extent, suffered the great gender bias and discrimination – you can blame it on the Chinese culture – Vietnamese female writers, from generation to generation, never had much prejudice from their male counterparts or the general population. This can be attested by the fact that, while the Brontë sisters of England had to resort to male pseudonyms in order to publish their poetry and novels, the Vietnamese female poets of the XVIII and XIX centuries like Đoàn Thị Điểm, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan (literally, Lady of The Thanhquan-shire) and particularly Hồ Xuân Hương with her ever fascinating allusions of erotic imagery, were very much respected and held in high esteem by their male contemporaries.
Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan and Nhã Thuyên, the three names I should mark in my note to remember to catch their latest opus. This is the book of the month for my reading. Kudos to the people who had conceived and made it into reality. I know I would go back to it, not once, but many times since it is quite addictive. To me, the habit is dolce sweet.