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Nguyễn Đức Sơn, Eccentric Poet and Pillar of Southern Literature, Passes Away at 83

On the morning of June 11, poet Nguyễn Đức Sơn, pseudonym Sao Trên Rừng (Star Over The Forest), passed away at the age of 83.

The poet was famed both for his bizarre personality and the boldness of his works, which often explored the theme of sexual desire, a topic seen as taboo in his era. In Sơn's twilight years, he also gained fame for planting tens of thousands of pine trees on Phương Bối Hill, where he lived.

Modern poet Lê Thiếu Nhơn offered his condolences by quoting from Sơn's poem, 'Hoài Niệm' (Reminiscence), which Sơn wrote when he himself was mourning the death of Quách Thoại, a fellow poet:

Không biết từ đâu ta đến đây
mang mang trời thẳm đất xanh dày
lớn lên mang nghiệp làm thi sĩ
sống điêu linh rồi chết đọa đày.”

Not knowing from where I came
lost in a bottomless sky and thick, green soil
grew to find myself a poet
lived in agony, only to die in torment.

Nguyễn Đức Sơn's Life

Sơn was born in 1937 in Ninh Thuận Province, but his paternal hometown was in Thừa Thiên-Huế. In his lifetime, Sơn was hailed as one of the three masters of the era by pre-1975 southern patriotic poets (the other two being Bùi Giáng and Phạm Công Thiện). He was also named among the four pillars (tứ trụ) of southern Vietnam's art and literature circle, along with Bùi Giáng, Thanh Tâm Tuyền and Tô Thùy Yên.

After 1975, he soon discovered that teaching English was no longer a viable source of income as Russian was on the rise, dominating every high school and university. As a result, teachers of English and French were out of jobs and found themselves with reduced salaries or transferred to other positions, such as working in offices and libraries.

In 1979, Sơn took his family to Phương Bối Hill in Lâm Đồng Prvince. They became vegan, and while Sơn was never officially a Buddhist, he often read and followed Buddhist teachings. The influence of Buddhism can be seen in many of his poems. Along with his family of nine children and a sickly wife, Sơn made a living through farming. During a particularly difficult period when food was scarce, one of his sons passed away after accidentally eating a poisonous mushroom. It was a wretched and miserable life.

People in the region spread rumors that Sơn was a freak: a well-read man, yet he treated his family harshly; a teacher and a poet, yet he let his children grow up illiterate. It was said that at night, his loud screams could be heard throughout the pine forest. They described a conceited man who cursed whenever he spoke, who liked to make faces — stretch his mouth, bare his teeth, and roll his eyes. Sơn lived alone in a small wooden retreat that no one ever dared entering, as he had urinated on all the corners, supposedly to kill termites.

This bizarre behavior in the later years of Sơn's life reflected the unconventional nature of the works he produced during his time as a poet. His pieces deviated from the contemporary norm in that they were often crude and salacious, evoking images and emotions then considered taboo.

In chronological order, his published works include Bọt nước (Bubble) (1965), Lời ru (Lullaby) (1966), Đêm nguyệt động (Lunar night) (1967), Vọng (1972), Mộng du trên đỉnh mùa xuân (Sleepwalking on the peak of springtime) (1972), Tịnh khẩu (Noble silence) (1973), and three short stories: 'Cát bụi mệt mỏi' (Tired dust) (1968), 'Cái chuồng khỉ' (Monkey barn) (1969), and 'Xóm chuồng ngựa' (Horse barn village) (1971).

Additionally, in 2019, calligrapher Hồ Công Khanh and Sơn’s children, especially Nguyễn Đức Yên, jointly amassed and published Chút lời mênh mông (Some Ample Words), a collection of Sơn’s previously unreleased works. This was the poet's first official comeback after nearly 50 years of retreat.

Obscenity in Sơn's Poems

The images evoked by Sơn’s poems are often obscene and graphic, though many consider his writing worthy of worship. His reverence for sexual allure was evident in poems such as 'Monism,' 'Puddle of Holy Water,' 'Noble Silence,' and 'In Lunar Night.'

From In Lunar Night (1967):

Năm mười bảy có lần anh ngó thấy
Em ở truồng ngoe ngoảy cuối vườn trăng
(Nhất nguyên)

At seventeen, I once saw
You naked, squirming at the edge of moon garden
(Monism)

Ôi một đêm bụi cỏ dáng thu người
Em chưa đái mà hồn anh đã ướt”
('Vũng nước thánh')

Oh one night, a silhouette crouching in the bush
You haven't yet pissed, but my soul is wet
('Puddle of holy water')

The concept of Monism states that all of the world stems from a single source, and thus there exists no duality or distinction in our reality. Sơn likely approached this concept from a Buddhist perspective: in Buddhism, the idea of “sunyata” has a similar premise. Sunyata refers to a state of emptiness that an individual achieves upon attaining enlightenment. Specifically, this emptiness speaks to the realization that all that exists is without any inherent self-nature.

“Noble silence” is another Buddhist concept that Sơn used to title a poem. In a broad sense, it means to avoid telling lies or speaking hurtful things and to only say words of truth, love, and solidarity, which are constructive and beneficial to yourself and others. Many mistakenly assume “noble silence” as not saying anything at all. In fact, this concept does not advocate for absolute silence, but for the minimization of speech — speaking only when necessary, and always with mindfulness.

From the collection Noble Silence (1973):

Củi
Để chẻ
Gái
Để xẻ
('Tục ngữ')

“Wood
To split
Girl
To screw.
('Proverb')

The profound history behind these titles clearly reflected Sơn’s level of intellect. What is more, considering Buddhism’s vehement abstention against sexual desire, it is ironic that these Buddhist concepts were used as titles for such sensual and graphic writing. In fact, in Noble Silence, Sơn even wrote a poem to acknowledge the obscenity of his own writing:

Rất nên nói thơ tôi dở nhất thế giới
Nhưng tuyệt đối chẳng thể nói thơ tôi tục tĩu
Mặc dù thơ tôi quả vô cùng tục tĩu
Đứa nào nói thơ tôi tục tĩu
Đéo mẹ nó ăn mồng què máu giặt đồ dơ
Còn mong chi cảm được chút nào thơ
Dù rằng tôi cũng ăn mồng què máu giặt đồ dơ
('Cửa tử')

It should be said that my poetry is the worst in the world
But it absolutely could not be said that my poetry is obscene
Although my poetry is truly quite obscene
Whoever said my poetry was obscene
Motherfucker must have lost his mind eating bloody pads while doing laundry
I just hope to feel somewhat poetic
Even though I, too, lost my mind eating bloody pads while doing laundry
('Death’s Door')

Themes of Nature and Death

The more conventional of Sơn’s works sometimes concern itself with natural scenery. His appreciation for nature is also seen through the names of his children: Thạch (Rock), Thảo (Plants), Thủy (Water), Vân (Cloud), Yên (Fog), Lão*, Không (Air), Phương Bối (Fragrant Leaf), and Tiểu Khê (Small River), and through his pseudonym: Sơn Núi (Mountain), Sao Trên Rừng (Star Over The Forest).

*For the name “Lão,” while the meaning that comes immediately to mind is “old,” an entry from Từ Điển Hán Nôm (Chinese-Vietnamese Dictionary) suggests that the name might actually stem from a homonymic word meaning “flood” or “wave.” This would be more in accordance with the theme of nature which prevailed over the naming of Sơn’s other children.

From his early works, Sơn had already strongly expressed his marvel at the transcendent beauty of nature, such as in Lullaby (1966):

Nắng tà đã ngập lũng sầu
Bước nhanh tôi sợ ngày thâu ánh vàng
Giao mùa sớm lạnh thôn trang
Run run còn ngợ mấy hàng cây xanh
('Cuối thu')

Slanted rays of sun flooded the sorrowful valley
I quickened my pace, lest the golden light retreat
The season’s change brought cold air to the village
I shiver, still wary of the green trees
('Late Autumn')

He sometimes wrote about himself as a part of the scenery, often depicting nature with phrases one would use to describe a lover:

Những hàng cây mới lên xanh
sáo vương khi nắng đã thanh giữa mùa
chiều êm hơn cả gió lùa
tôi ra cuối bãi tôi đùa với trăng
tay choàng lên với môi hằn
tôi mơn gió lả tôi măn vú đồi
có hương có nhạc trên trời
tóc tôi se gió mắt ngời ánh sao
có con chim rủ tôi vào
ở trong giấc mộng tôi trao ái tình
ngày trong xanh nắng trong thanh
tôi ôm cỏ dại ấp tình thiên thu
('Trên rừng khuya')

Across newly green rows of trees
a flute amidst mid-season sunshine
in an afternoon quieter than the gusting wind
I went to the end of the beach to play with the moon
hands wrapped, and lips pressed
I felt the swaying wind, I caressed the voluptuous hills
a pleasant aroma, a music in the sky
my hair cold in the wind, my eyes shimmering with starlight
a bird invited me in
within my dream, I offered my love
under the clear sunlight of a clear blue day
I embraced the grass, cradling an eternal love
('In the late night forest')

Another major theme in Sơn's poems was transcendental consciousness, which stemmed from a sense of impermanence in the vast cosmos.

Tôi dòm đời khi tuổi sắp hai mươi
Nhìn trước nhìn sau thấy rõ ràng
Những người đi trước sầu đeo nặng
Những người đi sau sầu không tan
('Bọt nước' - Bọt nước)

Looking at my life at almost twenty
Glancing forward and back, I see clearly
Those ahead of me wear a heavy sorrow
Those behind me, an unyielding sorrow
('Bubble' - Bubble)

“Chiêm bao lớp lớp chập chờn
Về đâu cỏ mộ xanh dờn chân mây”
(Nửa đêm thức dậy hỏi con - Chút lời mênh mông)

I dream flickering layers
Where to return, a grave with grass green as the horizon
('Waking up in the middle of the night to ask my child' - Some ample words)

Some other well-known lines of the poet include:

Mẹ chết từ thu lá rụng vàng
Con về đất cũ vấn khăn tang
Mẹ ơi con điếng người bên mộ
Trằn trọc đêm dài con khóc than
...
Hai cõi bao giờ được gặp nhau
Tóc xanh dù trắng đến bạc đầu
Làm sao quên được sao quên được
Mẹ ở đâu rồi trên bể dâu
('Mây trắng' - Bọt nước)

Mother, you passed in an autumn of falling yellow leaves
Your son has returned to this ancient land in mourning
Mother, I am sorrow-stricken at your grave
Sleepless nights spent weeping for you
...
When can the two realms ever meet
Though I am young, my black hair has grayed
How to forget, oh how to forget
Where are you, mother, in this tumultuous life
('White Clouds' - Bubble)

Về đây với tiếng trăng ngàn
phiêu diêu hồn nhập giấc vàng đó em
trăm năm bóng lửng qua thềm
nhớ nhung gì buổi chiều êm biến rồi
('Ngàn sau' - Lời ru)

Return here, to the sound of the moon
feel this euphoria, let your soul enter a golden sleep
for a hundred years, your shadow lingered at the doorstep
still reminiscing for a long-gone tranquil afternoon
('Thousand later' - Lullaby)

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