Nguyễn Hưng Quốc and Nhã Thuyên (editors), Poems of Lê Văn Tài, Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt & Phan Quỳnh Trâm, Vagabond Press, 2015. 108 pgs.
Released under Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Poetry Series, Poems of Lê Văn Tài, Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt & Phan Quỳnh Trâm is a much-needed update on the work of these three Vietnamese voices in Australian poetry, bookended by overviews from the co-editors, Nguyễn Hưng Quốc and poet/writer Nhã Thuyên. Thuyên’s words breathe, creatures of elsewhere was also released by Vagabond, in 2016. Quốc is the author of, among much else, Vietnamese Literature in Australia: Politics and Poetics of Diaspora (in Vietnamese, 2013), and without question politics, poetry and diaspora are the themes which together resonate throughout the poems in this collection.
If I had to identify another theme which unites the works over all, I would have to describe it as a sense of being “under.” Not wallowing in lowliness—”under” need not be low—nonetheless each poet finds ways of delivering us to places close to personal experience of subjection. As if deliberately confirming this reading, the book’s final poem (by Phan Quỳnh Trâm), just two lines and undoubtedly echoing the concrete poetry of Lê Văn Tài, begins halfway down the page and climbs upward like two rails of a ladder propped against a fence—or against the side of a pit—each word a new rung: “we cry into the void of silence / dog barks at the moon,” silence and moon promising a new starting point if we can stop being dogs. There are also notes of abjection, as in “A hundred years in the places of people” (Nguyễn Tôn Hiệt), where the first part (on places) begins with “abyss,” the second (on people) with “abductor” (both parts use the full range of the alphabet, although the places stop at “wilderness,” not venturing on to “zoo,” perhaps barred from going further by X). Hiẹt’s poem “Things to remember before making a trip back to your native land” recalls the abjection felt by many Australian Vietnamese when advised to “have folded a $100 bill ready between the pages of your passport,” which after so many decades must surely be a deliberate policy reminding everyone arriving just who it is that is in charge on the other side of the barrier.
Speaking of barriers, the three poets approach we who turn to their words via startlingly different modes of address. Confessional for a moment, Hiệt says “There’s something pending between me and the page / I try to write it down,” but in the main he addresses the reader (“you”) with direct requests and suggestions. Commencing with “Speech of a Poet,” he begins “Ladies and Gentleman / Today I come here not to talk to you. Today I come here to talk to myself” and ends “Now I only request you to patiently and quietly listen to my voice until my talk finishes. / Respectably thank you.” This asking us to listen as he speaks to himself not only resurrects an old question about lyrical poetry, it sets the stage, ladies and gentlemen, for poems that serially instruct, plea and goad. A poem can be an instruction manual, as with “Demystification,” where in the micro-discipline of flag painting “You may allow yourself 10 blinks in 24 hours.” North or south (their flags sharing the same yellow and red colour scheme), or … here the poem reminds readers of their own Althusserian subjection, “choose a flag you believe is the genuine symbol.”
It is Hiệt who draws most attention to the site of enunciation, but it is no less important for the poets either side of him. Tài is the elder of the three, and he’ll talk to just about anyone: “Tell me … tell me … please / Anywhere / Anywhere … a place (“Where can a seed take root?”); “Trees, birds answer by their silence” (“Homeland”); “Bird, hey!” (“Thinking of the creation”). And if words don’t get your attention he’ll get you with pictures—his remarkable concrete poetry commonly resorting to birds, sky or suspension. Urgency in being heard or not being heard harks of testimony, and testimony always arrives from a form of life deprived of speech.
Trâm’s “I had a dream” and “Metapoem” are attempts at acknowledging forms of temporal deprivation (as lack or misalignment) as the very source of a poem, and whether prose-poem or verse, there is constant self-commentary in her work, as well as a knowing, tinny irony. The constant note of irony—minority “playing” with mainstream—will be difficult for non-migrants to “get” and risks misreading. References to forgotten European classics in “Variety of Song,” for example, must be appreciated in the context of colonial and post-colonial experience in Asia, and also in the confusion of settlement in Australia, a land devoid of all classical metropolitan bearings. The poet’s tinniness recalls, therefore, the late John McLaren’s comments on “the bitterness of exile” that are noted in Quốc’s introduction: “Does ‘Room in New York’ / make her feel the way she feels now / or should that be the other way around.”
This back and forth of metacommentary is also a feature of Hiẹt’s poems, and indeed all three poets bear witness to a struggle to manifest out of the immediate concerns of the poet the fundamentally poetic challenge of bearing language, or entering the space of language/art, concerns which inevitably entangle address, audience and self-translation … once we as readers move beyond the initial political question of their catching our attention. It is this tangle of theory and theatre which binds the three poets together.
Note on Vietnamese names: Where persons are first mentioned, their full name is given, with the family name first. Personal names are used subsequently, as is Vietnamese custom for authors and artists.
Mark Stevenson is Adjunct Associate-Professor in Anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Honorary Fellow, Victoria University, Melbourne. He is co-editor and translator of Homoeroticism in Imperial China: A Sourcebook (Routledge, 2013), and co-editor of Wanton Women in Late-Imperial Chinese Literature (Routledge, 2017).