Kelly Morse reviews Vietnamese poetry from Vagabond Press


At a Southeast Asian translation conference in Bangkok a few years ago, I heard writers complain that their collective focus on the English language market left them knowing little about their own region’s literatures. Conversely, it can be difficult for English readers to access contemporary translated work from Asian countries, especially when those countries lack a strong relationship with the West. Enter Vagabond Press, an imprint based out of Australia and Japan. With their Asia Pacific Writing Series readers are introduced to contemporary writing from the Philippines, China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Burma.

The books’ small dimensions remind me of City Lights’ Pocket Poet series; these editions, with their slim design and beautiful covers, beg to be tucked into a purse or pocket. Their transportability underscores Vagabond Press’ mission “to create an open space for the sharing of cultural knowledge, understanding and enjoyment across national, political and language boundaries.” An additional plus is the large selection of women authors published by Vagabond Press; as noted recently, in the global market only twenty-eight percent of translations are of texts written by women.

Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên, the fourth book in the Asia Pacific series, presents a chapbook’s worth of poems apiece from three emerging Vietnamese writers, translated by six translators, and introduced by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng, a Vietnamese writer living in Melbourne.

There is a “they,” a noisy mass full of eyes, that follow the each of poets in this collection. Each woman interacts with these eyes in a different way: Diệu Vân flirts with her reflection, Mêlan tries to face the gaze and ends up in its maw, and Thuyên turns away, turns inward towards dreams and silence. For each of them, there is a degree of separation from the crowded, complicated social hierarchies of Vietnamese culture—some of it voluntary, some of it not.
when truth arrives with its jaw of teeth
and bites into this flesh
I don’t feel the pain
I only see its eyes
its anger.

  • Lưu Mêlan, from the poem ‘Ninh Thuan’

To encounter Vietnamese poetry is to meet with the diaspora; online literary websites reveal a lively mingling of expatriate, exiled, and domestic writing, since on the web one can evade the censorship of Vietnam’s government. Lưu Mêlan’s poems in particular reflect a people and country fractured by diaspora and cyclical migrations from an agricultural life in the countryside to the industrial revolution churning up Saigon. Her narrators struggle with feelings of isolation, and in her poems humans are described in animal states. If society is constantly watching her narrators to see how they act, she in turn is observing the source of that gaze; in her poems, “to act” takes on nuance.

From “Country 2”:

small fences expose their colors like dried fishes
that’s the only thing that makes me remember my country
here people don’t wear clothes
they don’t even have faces, their bodies being a solid
they move fast and have thoughts [for sure]
but they don’t have smiles and their eyes are so deep as though ripped away

The simplicity and preciseness of the language in this this translation of Mêlan’s work adds a fable-like strangeness to the texts. While she writes about quotidian events, over time the subject often becomes unmoored and drifts into darker, choppier waters. Events take on a mythical quality, in the sense that myth speaks to a common truth not easily or rationally explained.


in the night, in your tight skin, I sleep, a gaunt and safe prisoner. I say things in a flutter that you don’t understand, I wait for a curse, and so quietly, in the night, in your tight skin, I slip through the cuticle and escape into immense fear.

The translations of Nhã Thuyên’s prose poems, like the one above, come at the reader with the pressure of the white page surrounding them; the poems feel hemmed in by a greater outside force, through the spare language and repetition of words and phrases. Longer poems lose some of their urgency, but not the dreamlike contradictions and haunted quality.

Thuyên repeatedly evokes a beloved in the images of sleep, rain, mirrors, and silence: a membrane that separates her from the world. Although that lover is translated as “he” in these poems, the index notes that the pronoun actually used in Vietnamese is “han”—a neuter subject that means “human being” or “other.” Like Rilke’s Beloved, the other in these poems is otherworldly, with an expansiveness poorly contained in a simple English pronoun. She is a poet to watch.

From “black rain”:

a dream, it was a dream, go ahead and look, the two of us, with him I waded in the deepest of mud, the black guilty darkness overflowed with happiness, a black fluid was pushed out from the blind cat’s eye hit with a stray bullet
I ask: what version of Silence are you?
After the heft of Lưu Mêlan’s and Nhã Thuyên’s poems, those of Lưu Diệu Vân can feel frivolous. Perhaps because she has now lived outside of Vietnam more years than inside it, Diệu Vân’s poems are the most frank about societal pressure, the most direct about sex, and most openly question the “reuniting” narrative of the Vietnamese government. The poems veer between humorous and outraged, from banal to poignant. An example:

from ‘confession of an average girl’:

I am an ardent worshipper of the Brazilian wax cult [one hundred percent sleek from chin to toe]
I never have sex without a condom [of course I don’t believe in abortion]
I like to wear cotton thong [because visible panty lines are too sincere]
versus ‘dolls and bicycles’:
babies cry themselves hoarse
resisting milk laced with sleeping pills
the poisonous lullaby of midnight escapes by sea

Diệu Vân’s poems, at least in this translation, are the least polished of the three writers, and taken as a whole they pose a contradictory, though not necessarily inaccurate, image of contemporary womanhood. Women are entering the white collar workforce in droves in Vietnam, and Diệu Vân’s poems embody the tension between traditionally proscribed roles for women and their new place-holding in society. Indeed, her flirtations with the reader might just be her wry response to the many conflicting demands placed upon her as a female poet.
The one complaint I have is the monolingual nature of Poems: the original Vietnamese texts are absent. I’m sure this was a practical decision—the book would have swelled from its pleasantly small proportions if they had been included—but some of the translations left me guessing about original word choices, especially in the case of Lưu Mêlan, who appears to be playing with a multiplicity of meanings that are simplified in English. Similarly, the project could have used one final edit. However, overall this book is a success, and I look forward to seeing how the Asian Pacific Writing Series expands.

-Kelly Morse
 Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên
Asia Pacific Poetry Series 4

Edited by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng. Translated by Lê Đình Nhất Lang, Thúy Anh Nguyễn, Kaitlin Rees, Jacob I. Evans, Lưu Diệu Vân & Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng.
Vagabond Press
ISBN 978-1-922181-09-1
$22 dollars, 112 pages


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