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On Deep Reading the Poetic Works of Vietnamese Writer Nhã Thuyên

Reflections on Nhã Thuyên’s poem 'Traces of nothing' and other writings.

Open studio

In Hanoi, seven years ago, I remember waiting for cool days in the sunny October heat. I had visited an open-studio art exhibition in Zone 9, the short-lived creative art hub. The artists were welcoming and patient. They put up with my questions. I had planned to write about the exhibition so I stayed in touch with the curator, a well-known Vietnamese contemporary artist. Days later, he told me, “There’s someone you should meet.” This was how I met Kaitlin Rees, an American poet and translator. Later, she told me, you have to read this. Prose poems, poetry, essays. She told me about her friend Nhã Thuyên (a pen name). Pages began to circulate, and then conversations about writing, poetry, literature, gender, translation, estrangement, dreams. We functioned in various languages, in Vietnamese, in English, with the occasional French mixed in. Translation was on everyone’s lips. Lots of laughter about languages and miscommunication and untranslatable poetry. The energy at Zone 9 was uplifting. One felt a sense of possibility under the bright skies. Something was in the air.

I read these poems and literary essays by Nhã Thuyên again now, in Saigon. I read the poetry in Vietnamese and examine the translations (by Kaitlin Rees and others). The feel of the poems of Nhã Thuyên differs in Vietnamese and in English. It’s not a surprise. Vietnamese friends and teachers back in the day often reminded me of something essential for the language, “nói như hát” — to speak like (you’re) singing. It was their understated way to discipline my pronunciation. Thus the words convey the rhythms of the language and the tonalities that resonate deep and create meaning, such as when you listen to Nhã Thuyên read her poetry in Vietnamese.

Let me revisit three poems by Nhã Thuyên to convey in turn some of these tonalities and the complex ways of conceptualizing and expressing notions of self in Vietnamese. Biography is problematic in literary analysis. Here I discuss the poems on the page more than the person who wrote them. This is to encourage further explorations — for instance via interviews Nhã Thuyên recently gave about her poetry, and her collaborative work of translation and publishing with Kaitlin Rees and the independent AJAR Press. A writer’s or poet’s biography doesn’t explain words on the page. You can be mesmerized by a text without knowing who wrote it. This foregrounds the language instead of the author’s personal life. I propose an open-ended interpretive approach. You ask Nhã Thuyên about her writing and, depending on mood, she’ll say quietly, with a laugh or a sigh, “Oh, it’s just my nonsense!” or “These poems were written so long ago…” or “I don’t want to talk about this…” or “Just read the texts.”

I respect her self-deprecating humor, the private spaces she reserves for herself and from which writing emerges. When reading the poems again her voice echoes in my memory: “Read the texts.”

Photo courtesy of Nhã Thuyên, portrait by Thùy Dương.

“One has to dig nonstop”

I am watching her fingernails digging relentlessly for a long time on that vacant, barren land full of pebbles in search of any sign of a water current.

each night, her dream about an undercurrent pours into my sleep, the waterway changes its position and shape unpredictably, I still see her digging relentlessly on that vacant, barren land, she crawls on all four on the ground, a crab, bending her back, stooping her head, her ten toes and ten fingers have been stripped of their nails, the tip of each one is round and smooth, I see that she is hopeless and she dies from exhaustion.

one dawn, I witness the land suddenly fertile and it is expanding nonstop and throbbing with a powder so fine and smooth that it makes one shudder.

she says: deep beneath there is still no water, there is only an illusion of water, the illusion flows and nourishes that barren land, but one has to dig nonstop.

The poem 'a dream of water,' translated by Lê Đình Nhất Lang as part of the Asian Pacific Poetry Series and published in full above with the author's permission, explores dreaming and writing, land and labor. The voice, the “I” of the poem, observes from afar a young woman (nàng) — a double, a mirror image from a dream. The unnamed woman digs up barren land and ends up dying from exhaustion.

The poem briefly compares her to a crab, an inverted echo of the folk tale “Con dã tràng” (The sand crab) where a distraught character tries to fill the sea in order to find a lost magical pearl that enabled him to understand the speech of animals. According to the tale, small sand crabs on seashores remind people of this endless toil. By extension, công dã tràng (“labor of the sand crab,” i.e. to work in vain) is a common expression.

In 'a dream of water,' the land becomes fertile after the woman dies. Her toils enter the dreams of another woman, who now writes a poem. She has dreamt the woman and her restless digging and even when the dream ends, remembers her after her death.

The conclusion of the poem jolts:

she says: deep beneath there is still no water, there is only an illusion of water, the illusion flows and nourishes that barren land but one has to dig nonstop.

Here, Nhã Thuyên proposes a new way to interpret the landscape of memories of waking and dreaming life. Her poetic and critical writings refract these concerns in various formats. The toil of the young woman who relentlessly digs for water enters the dreams of a poet who is visited nightly by images of underground streams coursing unseen everywhere.

The woman could be an image of relentless labor. She could also figure metaphorically the obsessive work and craft of writing. The story, rooted in nightly dreams, remains mysterious. The young woman keeps digging for water for reasons that may be clear to her though they elude us. The land becomes fertile, regenerated by her death and her relentless work. Dreams gradually become more abundant and are remembered more when we start writing them down. Writing leads to more writing. The land becomes fertile and life sustained by stubborn perseverance. The relentless labor of the dream woman also briefly outlines a theory of literature. Remember: “One has to dig nonstop.”

At first glance, the digging and dreams of undercurrents and untapped streams can be read as an imaginative interpretation of the craft of writing: less inspiration than toil and repetition, and obsessive, absurd perseverance fed by dreams and inner monologues. In her poetry, Nhã Thuyên reflects on self-reflection, on dreams, daydreaming, obsession, and writing. She proposes episodes of these reflections in poems and literary essays.

These reflections punctuate what literature and the practices of writing mean to her and a new generation of poets and writers. The focus is less on uplifting moral odes than on slippery themes of fraught desire, memory, dreams, alienation, ambivalence, power, and loss. This reinterpretation of daily life and experimentation with self-estrangement, language, and form, is more realistic than love poetry. It mirrors the language games, jokes, anguished conversations, self-doubt, hope, despair, silences and outbursts that we see all around us on a daily basis, and that animate family and social life in Vietnam. Truths are contingent and fleeting. Poetic voices articulate these truths while playfully calling into question their own points of origin, located in dreams, recollections, anguish, or silences.

Which version of silence are you?

In the poem 'black rain,' a question recurs. Nhã Thuyên often uses this technique. Repeated sentences and questions become obsessive refrains that animate inner monologues. This poem on dreams, nights, rains, and love is punctuated by a recurrent, anguished query:

tôi hỏi: người là phiên bản thứ mấy của Im Lặng?

I ask: which version of Silence are you?

Silences animate dialogue, which is another basic observation from daily life. With practice, one notices the different tonalities and uses of silence in various cultures and languages, certainly a key source of cross-cultural misunderstandings in Vietnam. This complicates our task: when translating Nhã Thuyên’s poetry or Vietnamese more generally, we silence the complexity of interpersonal communication, gender relations, and notions of female selves embedded in Vietnamese terms of address. Translation flattens these complexities, which in Vietnamese, as in this question, are not a simple matter of “I”(who’s asking) and “you” (who’s silent). The female voice here does not say “em” but “tôi” — meaning that the “I” of the female voice asserts a power of autonomy as “tôi,” by not using the term “em” that always places women in a symbolically subservient position, as “younger sister” (em) to men, who are addressed as “older brother” (anh).

In an echo of Samuel Beckett and of discussions in Vietnamese literature (e.g. by Trần Dần, Bùi Giáng, and Phạm Thị Hoài), the man is referred to as “hắn” — a neutral, unmarked “he” as opposed to the “he” of sentimental attachment, which in the Vietnamese language and love poetry would be “anh” (older brother). In addition, this is not the term for “he” that would usually be used in daily language. English or French or other Indo-European languages simply cannot convey the subtle and complex interplay of gender and kinship roles that is built into the language and that speakers and writers of Vietnamese hear and play upon in a sentence or verse.

In her Paris Review interview in 1993, Toni Morrison notes that one of the difficulties of writing for her is to work carefully with what is in between the words, what is not said, with measure and rhythm. One then would have to imagine the blank spaces in which the subtleties of the Vietnamese language have been erased in translation. Here, the speaker gazes upon her sleeping lover and asks, “What version of Silence are you?” In Vietnamese, it is not clear who is addressed and could include herself in a dissociative process of self-othering, as when one silently addresses oneself.

“I ask person/persona/you [người], which version of Silence are you?” The question in Vietnamese adds another layer of complexity: silence here is akin to the successive numbered versions of a draft or software, i.e., which draft of Silence are you? Which version? We reach the moment of untranslatability. In Vietnamese, the feel is quite different and more complex and nuanced than the flat “you” and “I” of English. This is a lot more than a poem of unrequited love, making love, or love dreams.

The female voice continues her silent and lonesome nighttime meditation:

i look at many eyes that are not his eyes 

i look at stars looking whimsically aslant at me from afar

a dissolving presence, two deserted houses, enclosed in wind, scattered in wind, beset by wind 

and i without happiness like night, i with happiness like night, i a clown in a tragic play of darkness

Simply to reduce these silences to expressions of alienation would be mistaken, since the poem alternates ambiguously between dream, fantasy, and (possibly) reality. The female voice here is intensely alive, in tune with her self-contradictions and psychological dissociations, and with cosmic forces of distant stars, wind, and night. This hints at something else we know: there is no silence. There is always background noise, the distant sounds of the city at night, or the rustle of the breeze. The silence of the unnamed “he” is in fact an endless series of questions, a silent tragicomedy shrouded in night shadows.

Nhã Thuyên's book "Words Breathe, Creatures of Elsewhere" (Vagabond Press).

Traces of nothing

… no one meets ghosts anymore, even in their mother’s stories

What would it mean for Vietnamese, for any society, to stop meeting ghosts? What if this was happening under your eyes, here and now? The long poem 'traces of nothing' gives a fragmentary answer. What would it mean for the authority and the roles of mothers, teachers, and stories? Do mothers still tell stories to their children today? What is taking place when people tell stories – and not only to children? 

In this poem, the voice takes a different perspective on confusion and loss. Spatial and temporal markers dissolve. Eerie spaces surface from recollections of childhood:

i am used to the graves around me here, i am silently still, they teach children to love

the knowable, no one meets ghosts anymore, even in their mother’s stories

The subtle social critique stems from a nostalgic reflection on a newly disenchanted world. (The Vietnamese text says, “they teach children to love science.”) A sense of the abyss of time emerges from fragmented recollections and peaceful images of a rural childhood, quieter times and now irretrievable intimations of one’s past. Graves here are not threatening. They are the silent abodes of ancestors that dot a familiar landscape, animated by the cycle of life and rebirth. The contrast is sharp with the uncanny urban scenes that open the poem, to which I now turn briefly.

i read the marks left by the train rolling over my skin. a poem, a trace etched into the tracks, imprinted and smoothed by sunlight, wind and misfortune, traces enamored of a place without people, floating traces that self-destruct and vanish before any reader appears.

The poem begins innocently enough. At the end of the afternoon, the sun declines. It’s not a scene of daily life, of sunsets and days calmly passing by. Dusk and sundown mean the return passage of the evening train through the neighborhood. Literature and language are not glorious flowers. They are signs etched in the body and in the sounds of the city. The trains inscribe themselves on the prone, immobile body of the narrator. She lies face down on the train tracks, an immobile offering more than suicide. She becomes the train tracks. The train rides on, depositing invisible writing, signs, and traces on her skin and in her eyes.

This is a remarkable and challenging theory of literature: focused on invisible signs, breezes and floating traces, disappearance and self-destruction, and the spectral presence of imagined readers. It jolts you into awareness that here we have moved decisively beyond earlier, post-war literature. One can think for comparison about the successive articulations of literature by contemporary, post-war Vietnamese writers. One thinks of the work of Nguyễn Huy Thiệp, for instance, in the prologue of the faux folk tales of Winds of Hua Tát where eerie mountain mists and breezes suggest metaphorically the forgetting and erasure inherent in writing, reading, and recollection — a theme reprised in his short story 'Run, River, Run' as well.

One thinks of the haunted characters and ghostly memories that figure so prominently in the work of Bảo Ninh, in his novel The Sorrow of War or short stories such as 'Savage Winds.' Most importantly, one thinks of the short stories and novels of Phạm Thị Hoài, her bittersweet reflections on love and power, and her use of the obsessive image of the train, as the line, the link that connects post-war Hanoi to southern Vietnam and to disappearance. One thinks as well of other contemporary Vietnamese female poets. Just as Nhã Thuyên does here or in her recent volume of literary essays Un\\martyred, they foreground the embodied nature of literature and the struggles to express oneself from within the confines of language.

Memory, an old gate full of shadow and rusted green

A rhythmic, trance-like chorus repeats like a refrain throughout 'traces of nothing.' This long poem jumbles usual notions of time. It calls into question common assumptions that progress and economic development lead to happiness or that language neatly speaks, describes, and reassures. Future, past, present (called “big dead words,” in the poem) are articulated anew and become unmoored. Repetition here sounds like stuttering and spewing out slogans one barely understands, like promises compromised by time and forgetting, by hope and the relentless grind of daily life. The refrain hints at the struggle of articulating a vision or perspective on the enigma of time’s passing.

One distinctive feature of Nhã Thuyên’s poetry is that it scrambles our ability to determine the person or persons who are addressed in poems, as “you” or as “we” and perhaps most of all as “I.” This multiplies the interpretive possibilities. It opens up multiple voices through ambivalent repetitions, metamorphoses, or the joining of opposites in the same sentence.

we will seek every route to come back to the beginning and discover our origin, a promise to the future slips from an undulating tongue and i will never have reason to return.

i will regularly pass through here and talk to the dead, a promise to the past slips from an undulating tongue and i will never have reason to return. 

we will be two faces who look at each other swooning in the vast night, a promise to the present slips from an undulating tongue and i will never have reason to return.

Akin to memory flashes that focus on one image, or repetitive hallucinations or recurrent nightmares, memory here is a green gate. Memory acts as a strobe through flashes of childhood images that arrest and disassemble movement.

memory: an old gate full of shadow and the rusted green absent presence of my childhood 

The sense of haunting – absent presence – is real yet ungraspable. The past surfaces in fragmented memories and distant black mountains rising from the mist across the river. 

i am used to the graves around me here, i am silently still, they teach children to love the knowable, no one meets ghosts anymore, even in their mother’s stories 

(…) now i draw a circle in the sand, and i sink forever down into the deep wet sand, until it is a complete and silent desert and i will not return.

Time to end with the end of the poem, and to send readers searching for Nhã Thuyên’s poems and literary essays. My own fragmentary observations barely hint at the beauty and haunting complexity of this new literary voice. It speaks from the night mists, from sounds and smells of the city, from dreams and memories, and from the relentless desire not to fall silent. Indeed, “one has to dig non-stop.”

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