A former Vietnamese foe, outspoken on love, war
By Liz Rosenberg, Globe Correspondent, 4/23/2000
How strange when an enemy speaks to us at last, in his own voice, when hatred and alienation have ended. The poet Nguyen Duy served for more than 10 years as a member of the North Vietnamese National Guard, as a squad leader, communications specialist and war correspondent for what many Americans at the time would have considered the enemy side.
Nguyen Duy is one of the premier contemporary poets of Vietnam; to some, even the premier poet of his generation, writes Nguyen Ba Chung, one of the translators, in his fine introduction to ''Distant Road: Selected Poems of Nguyen Duy.'' The book is substantial in every way, representing more than 25 years of published and previously unpublished poetry. One might name Nguyen Duy one of the premier poets of his generation, period, without regard to continent or country. His poems revolve much around the subjects of love and war, sometimes together in the same poem.
If he remains an enemy at all, it is an enemy of war, and few poets have written as powerfully, consistently, and passionately against all war - In the end, in every war, whoever won, the people always lost. And that particular war, which claimed his own childhood, youth and manhood:
I lived between the banks of truth and untruth,
between my grandmother and angels, buddhas and
gods. I remember the year of famine and the dongroughly
cooked, Did I smell the fragrance of incense and white lilies then? But soon the bombs began falling. My grandmother's
house blew away, the Song temple blew away, the people blew
away, gods and buddhas left together, my grandmother sold eggs at the Len train stop.
There are poems of bitter remembrance:
Oh god ... Yes, we had to sell our bit of gold to make it through those bad days, we had to survive that brutal time, but what did it get us, a few clumps of fast passing clouds. ...
But what amazes one is the work's overwhelming gentleness and hope: How holy a moment of solitude, a man can turn saint in that instant. Looking back unflinchingly, he nonetheless writes: What's sweet will rise; what's bitter will sink. How, one wonders, does he keep finding the sweetness: That's our country isn't it friend. The maddening agony, the honey comes from within.
Nguyen Duy's poetry is inextricably woven with a larger sense of history: I grew up on the banks of the Red River, the alluvial soil so fertile and red, red as dried blood, and history touches everything: family, old and new loves, the natural world:
Our childhood, we had no time to spend idling by rivers and seas, the war so soon upon us. In the jungle the moon's halo, our only close friend.
... Old round moon, so perfectly round, look down on this indifferent one; let your light, so calm and silent, absolutely silent, be enough to waken me.
His narratives extend beyond, beneath, and through the poems. Sometimes one lyric will take us through 10 or 15 years:
A mother holds fast to a melon torn from the vine, scattered white specks on her sand-soaked head, her son's body floats to the pier, villagers bury him, make a small shrine by the bridge. Ten years and the mother grows melons still. ...
Sometimes a single line carries us through millennia:
Down through the years the blood rolls on. Tell me what century hasn't burned its millions in war?
Nguyen Duy writes just as forcefully, just as movingly about love, so much so that the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda comes to mind:
From one lip droplets fall to another ... The wet dress pressed to your skin, your hair tangled in the wind, the wind's silk threads. Your eyes clear and innocent, sunlight in the midst of a sea of rain. ...
And he is a poet of beauty as well, of uncannily clear imagery: A hoe's small tongue swallows the whole field, or Fresh leaves and branches sway in a sky of white silk.
I cannot judge the poem's translations, though I am grateful for the presence of the Vietnamese on every facing page. Occasionally, however, there is an awkwardness one must attribute to the difficulties of translation, as in an often-repeated phrase in one poem, our potentials are asleep. Vietnamese, the translators tell us, is a monosyllabic and tonal language, and Nguyen Duy writes frequently in a form known as luc bat, or six-eight, composed with strict rules for tonal sequences across lines, as well as for rhyme sequences embedded within alternating six-and-eight-syllable lines. That so much poetry survives speaks well both of translators and poet.
Nguyen Duy has been a bravely outspoken poet, which has earned him censorship and even resulted in the closing of one magazine that dared to publish him. But poetry is for him a calling, not easily taken up or cast aside: I break my back trying to breathe life into my manuscripts. His is a rare, calm, open, worldwide voice, full of compassion for what - and who - is hardly seen: the street sweeper working quietly all night, a streetwalker greets the New Year alone beneath a tree ... a man on a wooden crutch sits by the river.
Poet Liz Rosenberg reviews children's books for the Globe and teaches creative writing at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.