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Guilt, Mortality, and Hope in 'Khát Vọng Cho Con' by Poet Du Tử Lê

“We are like fruits forcefully ripened, a generation of premature adults, a generation of misery.”
— Du Tử Lê.

Du Tử Lê started writing at the age of 21. His poems, despite his youth, read like words from a mature soul entrapped in an interstice between life and death during the American War. Moreover, as a military officer, for most of Lê’s youth, he was closer to death than life.

“In the military, I worked as an officer. In my personal life, I was against the war… I was against the war in the name of our human rights to live.” Tử Lê confesses that he lived through years of internal turmoil as a military officer and a civilian who opposed the war. His identity as a young soldier with an old soul writing from an antiwar perspective is what made Du Tử Lê one of the most popular poets in southern Vietnam in 1954–1975.

Du Tử Lê’s poems are characterized by two consistent themes: love and death. ‘Khát vọng cho con’ (My hope for you) epitomizes Du Tử Lê’s loving spirit most vividly. It depicts Tử Lê’s projection of the present and the future from the perspective of a soul that grows quickly and perhaps, perishes just as fast.

'Khát Vọng Cho Con' by Du Tử Lê. Click on the image for the English translation.

Tử Lê’s views on life and death are as chaotic as the tumultuous, unprecedented time during which he wrote. In that wartorn era, death became familiar. Tử Lê presents this matter-of-fact reality plainly:

every time I see the obituaries – I was indifferent as if they were the weather forecast
or even more unperturbed than that
these days, death can no longer surprise us
as it is always here by our side like a shadow

The war made the fragility of life and the mounting deaths commonplace and unsurprising, and obituaries became as mundane as daily news segments. He then moves from how death affects the country to how it impacts him personally: 

if I ever die, I have no regret
once I take death as the inevitable escape,
a miraculous escape
death is the prize, the last and the only one, for those who are here today 

To Tử Lê, to live side by side with death was not a matter of choice or prediction, but a reality. With that attitude towards death, Tử Lê bluntly reconstructs the vivid realities of war. He portrays himself as a financially strapped person who could “barely make ends meet” in his domestic life and on the battlefield.  

in this era there’s time for checking lottery tickets
dreaming of winning (even it’s the participation prize of 2,000 đồng)
my son, 2,000 is quite a big deal
enough to craft a detailed plan for careful spending
although 2,000 is just enough for a pair of pants

Tử Lê portrays the amount as a dream, but at the same time, it is such a small amount that one can spend it all the market on a single item. His use of contrast and exaggeration here underscores the harsh reality of the time when even dreams had to be austere.

As an officer, Tử Lê also recalled the situation on the battlefield. In the poem, Tử Lê floods readers with numerous images: an army helmet pierced with bullet holes, a rifle, barbed wire, underground mines, etc. All of these images, in addition to their representation of the war, are also a channel for Tử Lê to express his gratitude towards life.

He repeats the phrase “I appreciate it/them” to emphasize that these objects were not only weapons but also life-saving means. That said, it does not mean Tử Lê was a soldier who fully devoted his heart and mind to the war. His attitude is firmly against the violence, as in the way he recalls abhorrent images such as “barbed wire stained with human blood” or “every morsel of fresh human flesh” and calls himself “an irresponsible killer.” Despite the cruel realities, Tử Lê remains in love with life.

Poring over the lines in the poem, one may see Tử Lê as a wild individual trying to simply make it through his military and personal lives. In addition to this reckless, firm attitude, Tử Lê expresses his strong emotions via a sense of somber pessimism:

I start to feel anguished thinking about your future in this square box house
I do not know what to say to you
oh my son, the one whom I have not named and whose face I have not seen
I think I could die anytime

The conversation with his imagined child hints towards Du Tử Lê’s obsession with death, as he agonizes over the loss of a father that is as unprecedented as the birth of the child. Such feelings are elevated as the night changes and Tử Lê confesses that he still firmly holds this irritation inside.   

I am still anguished not knowing what to leave behind for you when I die
why is there nothing for you? at least I have lived half a life
without building any legacy
what a misfortune for you and humiliation on me.

The emotions are now getting clearer, as Tử Lê questions himself and the harsh truth that he had nothing to leave behind. Notably, Tử Lê writes, “I have lived half a life.” This further reiterates Tử Lê’s perceptions of death; death has always been so close to him that he felt he had lived “half a life” despite being at the peak of his youth. 

The outburst of rage is gradually eased as the poem transitions into hope — a hope for peace during a time of war. It is interesting to see how he uses the word “hope,” as the poem progresses. It is present first in reference to “a treasure” for the grandfather’s generation and then as “a fantasy” for Tử Lê’s, and lastly, as a “wish” for the future. This can be explained when putting the poem back in its historical context, recognizing it was written in the middle of the war.

Tử Lê’s poem first notes that “hope for peace” was “a rare treasure” for previous generations. Tử Lê visualizes how his own father had always desired peace even after passing away. In Vietnamese common beliefs, ancestors or family members who pass on will "look after" living members. The way Tử Lê expresses regrets for the past generation implicitly hints at his disappointment. At the end, “hope for peace” transforms into “a wish.” Tử Lê did not know if or when the war would come to an end. Therefore, in the context of when it was written, there could be two different interpretations of the ending. The positive possibility is that the son’s generation could end the so-called “eternal misery,” and the pessimistic one is that Tử Lê, like his father, might again be disappointed as the wish would not come true.

Towards the conclusion of the poem, the disappointment lingering on top of his mind slowly leads him back to the abyss of despair. There is, for a moment, a glimpse of hope in Du Tử Lê’s poem and himself. However, that hope, which is as fragile and thin as the night mist, soon extinguishes at the end: 

the night is as soft and viscous as our hope for the future
oh our hope for the future, when could it come true?
and you – will you exist when the truth manifests itself?

To read Tử Lê’s poem is to read history, a non-fiction narrative retold poetically. The straightforward but multi-layered story filled with diverse emotions can have different interpretations based on who reads it and in what context. The signature style of Tử Lê in this writing is the way he visualizes his feelings and their evolutions. In every part of the poem, there is a notable detail that is worth discussing. One could very well read into the poem the perplexing history of the American War into an analysis. But Du Tử Lê has provided enough of his own raw story to consume this examination.

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