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The profundity of the Vietnamese poets in San Diego

Nam Xuyen, Ha Thuc Sinh – "it's very hard"

Nam Xuyen's poetry occasionally appears in the fortnightly Tim Tuc, a small Vietnamese newspaper published by a pharmacist in Linda Vista.

Nam Xuyen's poetry occasionally appears in the fortnightly Tim Tuc, a small Vietnamese newspaper published by a pharmacist in Linda Vista.

  • Cockcrow at midday!
  • Oh, how it makes me remember!
  • Alone in a strange land
  • Suddenly my soul flies far away
  • To my home town in the middle of the day . . .
  • Cockcrow at midday!
  • How many memories echo!
  • My home village,
  • fishing boat beyond the palm trees
  • in the blue streamlet of days gone by.
  • Cockcrow at midday Takes me to the village fields,
  • long waves of rice bobbing, spreading far. . .
  • Gold sunlight of summer, wind blows across.
  • Rows of bamboo leaves murmur like rainfall.
  • Cockcrow at midday
  • Takes me to the village road.
  • Soft cool shade,
  • I walk in the areca garden at noon
  • beneath green banana fronds waving.
  • Cockcrow at midday
  • from somewhere far away
  • Urges my soul ardently
  • for the heart of the village, hurting, feeble. . .
  • an old white-haired woman
  • walks slowly in the garden
  • seeking in a dream
  • The shadow of her child, long gone,
  • vague in the distance.
  • Like a thousand lute strings
  • Cockcrow at midday
  • Shouts into my soul at noon.
  • Memories of old, distant, vague . .

The writer of this poem, seventy-five-year-old Phan Ngoc Chau, whose pen name is Nam Xuyen, lives in a small bungalow in East San Diego. After a lifetime of teaching French in Vietnamese public and private schools, Nam escaped to the U.S. from Tan San Nhut airport just after the Vietnamese army left Pleiku to the Communists. Pictures of his wife, his three sons and three daughters, and several grandchildren adorn the walls of his small home. They haven’t yet made it out. One of his sons has been in the re-education camps, prisons really, for eight years. Nam, too, has been in a kind of prison for eight years, a place far removed from his family, with no jungles or rice paddies or villages. He survives on a $450-per-month social security check, and waits. Some day his kin will join him here, once they have undergone the slow processing through the Orderly Departure Program set up by the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. His circumstances, though tragic, are typical of the 41,000 Southeast Asian refugees in San Diego, typical in the numbing way that war makes sorrow and desolation commonplace and almost normal.

Ha Thuc Sinh published ten books, including seven translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s works.

Ha Thuc Sinh published ten books, including seven translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s works.

I came to Nam Xuyen because he’s a poet. As such I wondered if his poetry might reflect the internal landscape of his displaced countrymen and their shattered culture. In the realm of Vietnamese literature, Nam, since he came of age under the rule of the French colonialists, belongs to the pre-war era. That’s pre-American war. He’s considered a classical rather than a modem poet, and in addition to two books of his poems that were published in Vietnam, his work appeared in various periodicals. He corresponds and writes poems with other classical Vietnamese poets living in Orange County, Seattle, and Virginia, and writes two religious poems per month for Anh Sang, the newsletter for the Southeast Asian congregation at the Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon.

His tiny living quarters are crowded with stacks of manuscripts, journals, and periodicals, all written in Vietnamese, French, or Chinese. He has been honored by having much of his work collected in the Vietnamese Archives of the Southeast Asian Refugee Project at Yale University.

To My Banana Tree

  • In the garden bathed in shadows, beneath
  • leaves of green, the light from the sun was green as well
  • Remembering, oh banana tree! So many feelings!
  • Row of palm trees rises high into the dreamy sky
  • I stood dreaming beside you, green banana tree!
  • Your long and large leaves spread out,
  • filtering the rays of the summer sun
  • Loving and protecting me, your little friend
  • Oh! My youth is now far! Far away in the distant past
  • The only sound in my soul the echo of the cicada's song
  • Overcome with heat, the cicadas complain of summer
  • Do the colorful waves of light from the sun continue to
  • tremble when it is sunny?
  • Do they dance among the banana leaves as before?
  • Oh! Sunlight of yesteryears with dancing leaves!
  • Banana tree! You are my family’s best friend
  • You remain there watching the destruction of the thatched roofs
  • Who now is master of the banana groves?
  • How many times you have witnessed desolation!
  • Who do you see still there?
  • How may lives are consumed by the fire of wars!
  • I send you now vaguely my word of farewell
  • whether it reaches you or not, it is nonetheless a little of my heart
  • Banana tree of my childhood! How many years have gone by!
  • How many of your leaves have changed?
  • How many of your sheathes have withered?
  • Shattered pieces of life! Only shattered
  • The banana tree, now, is seen only in a dream
  • How the old stories have vanished in the past!
  • Alone, now, in a forgotten comer of this bleak garden
  • Banana tree! Of whom do you think, looking so anxious!

These poems were translated from the original Vietnamese into English by Jim Banerian, a writer and Vietnamese translator who lives with Nam. The poet says that, though his work was circulated on a small scale during the war, many more people read it now. In addition to its appearance in the church newsletter, Nam’s poetry occasionally appears in the fortnightly Tim Tuc, a small Vietnamese newspaper published by a pharmacist in Linda Vista. “The Vietnamese do have a lot of respect for poetry,’’ Nam says through interpreter Banerian. “Being far from their homeland, they like to read things filled with emotion about their country, young people especially. Poetry is a natural disposition to the Vietnamese, something heaven gave them. Even ignorant people, when they went out to work in the fields they came up with rhymes, and that’s how the folk songs developed.’’

Boat People

  • The boat people tell their story.
  • Hear the wind roar on every side.
  • In the heavens, on the sea there is madness, tumult.
  • Hear the sea thunder at the boat people.
  • How many times they rise and fall!
  • White sail bobbing takes them slowly across the East.
  • The white sail taut, full with wind, flying
  • Lifts the boat people over white-capped waves.
  • They do not sleep all through the night.
  • One day a storm blows — where is the shore?
  • Through the deep, obscure vastness,
  • Several times the little boat nearly sinks.
  • Weary the arms at the oars, broken the body.
  • Their food is gone, their water nearly dry.
  • The boat lists, the water gushes in like a stream.
  • Unceasingly they bail, their arms sore and spent.
  • Through the day the heat bums them.
  • By night, wind and mist make their flesh numb.
  • A baby there is delirious from hunger.
  • That old man cannot find the strength to speak.
  • The body is wasted, only a trace of a breath left.
  • Life and death are up to God — who can tell?
  • A ship there! Whose ship is that?
  • Their hungry hearts are flooded with joy.
  • Waving shirts and cloths, they shout out.
  • The ship pauses a moment, then goes on its way.
  • How great the sorrow, how harsh the complaints!
  • Each ship passes, sails on indifferently.
  • In fear they drift along.
  • Into whose hands can they commit themselves?
  • All raise their prayers to God.
  • Their strength gone, how can they be patient?
  • In their peril they pray for a miracle
  • That might take them safely to some shore.
  • Their terror now they do relate.
  • Even still it makes the soul shudder.
  • All of Vietnam is like a prison.
  • As they leave they carry a ton of anger
  • And they are called by the name: Boat People!

Nam was not himself a boat person, but another writer and refugee, Ha Thuc Sinh, who lives just a few blocks east of the poet, did escape Vietnam in a rickety boat. He and his wife and three children and a cousin set off in October of 1980, after Sinh, a former Vietnamese navy officer, had spent five years in the re-education camps. He was the navigator, helmsman, and skipper of the tiny craft, which was thirteen meters long, three and one-half meters wide, and carried 108 refugees. It took them ten days to travel south across the Gulf of Thailand to Malaysia, and on the way they were attacked by pirates who raped the women and stole everything of value.

Sinh, who is forty, wrote more than one hundred songs (lyrics and music) while a captive in the camps. Before Vietnam fell to the Communists, he’d published ten books, including seven translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s works, two novels, and a history of Vietnamese newspapers. Though he was once perfectly fluent in English, his five years in the re-education camps caused him to forget most of the language. He now writes for six hours every day in Vietnamese, trying to complete by the first of the year a 2000-page manuscript about his years in prison.

Soon after his family’s arrival here in April of 1981, Sinh was contacted by Khanh Ly, an expatriate Vietnamese singer who knew of his songwriting before the collapse of South Vietnam. She asked to record some of the songs he’d written in prison, and now one dozen of them are on Khanh Ly’s records and tapes, which are sold throughout this country in Asian stores. He received no money for the songs. “I wanted to donate these to the Vietnamese people,” he explains in broken English. “I didn’t want money for them. I wanted to popularize the bitterness of life there now.”

If I Should Live to Return

  • If I should live to return.
  • In truth here i would rather be.
  • Where there is no longer a place for a man,
  • A man such as I.
  • Sweet-smelling freedom is in my blood.
  • My soul has no love for the liar.
  • With thorns pricking my flesh
  • How can I not raise my voice?
  • If I should live to return.
  • Then surely I will travel.
  • Though lame or blind, 1 would ask to live
  • My life as a village crier, asking no pay.
  • My wife and children would be like scattered dust.
  • My luggage no more than
  • A heart baked to coal
  • And a sad song.
  • The final night, in the dim of a waning moon,
  • I will visit a country where all have died.
  • There I might hear amid the rubble of fallen temples
  • The wailing of my ancestors, enraged at the demons possessed.
  • If I should live to return.
  • Then surely I will travel
  • Far off, to live like a human.
  • To laugh and cry like any man.
  • Then I will sing songs
  • For my brothers and sisters to hear —
  • Such is my homeland, Vietnam,
  • In desolation!

Sinh knows that Nam Xuyen was lucky to have escaped the re-education camps — the old man surely would have died there. In prison he was forced to work eight to ten hours a day, mostly in unproductive hard labor, like breaking rocks. “They just wanted to kill you by labor,” he says. Many died. He himself has been left with health problems because of the poor nutrition. Seven of his brothers are still in prison.

The Poet-Bard in a Trench Full of Corpses

  • And so he sat
  • Each evening thus.
  • The filthy grave.
  • He listens.
  • He tries to listen.
  • As if reborn
  • Into a world
  • Made of rotten flesh
  • And broken bodies.
  • Blood and bones.
  • The leper moans.
  • The madman screams.
  • Someone crumbles and dies.
  • Chest shattered in wheezing fits
  • Legs still in shackles.
  • The others are silent.
  • They are but skeletons
  • With only the teeth
  • Animated
  • In a season of thirst and want.
  • Although he knows
  • A fine thread, a vague mist
  • Is all that separates
  • A man from a beast —
  • One bite of food.
  • And, too, he knows
  • They will not kill
  • By sharp knives
  • But slowly, over the years,
  • By agony.
  • There is nothing left,
  • Not even a rhyme.
  • Not even a girl
  • Seen in the dreams
  • Of the former solider.
  • One time he awakens.
  • He breaks into sobbing
  • Because he just dreamed
  • He had killed his brother
  • For his share of sweet potatoes.

Sinh is gratified to know that these songs are being heard by Vietnamese as far away as France and Germany. And though he thinks his book about the re-education camps will be an important historical and literary document, his hopes of getting it published and distributed are not overly optimistic. Most of the books being purchased by the refugees are the older folk tales and the newer Kung Fu stories. So he and his wife, Anh, have taken computer programming classes and are diligently searching for jobs. To Sinh. writing a book is both a personal catharsis and a public duty; making money from it is not a consideration. An excerpt:

  • Very often Vinh wondered if those evacuees ever thought of their fellowmen left behind in the country. And suppose those evacuees knew that their fellowmen burst into crying at the time when the president, former General Duong van Minh. commanded the whole country to surrender to the enemy. What did those evacuees think of their fellowmen’s tears? Tears from the ones on the verge of death? It was the ones staying in the country who experienced how strong their love for freedom was and what shame they felt upon seeing the enemy step into the city. Then tears from men weren’t as scarce as people often thought. Men cried out in front of familiar images. Passing Bien Hoa armed forces cemetery, seeing the bronze statue in ruin, men burst out crying like infants. Passing Doc Lap palace with rutted tracks on the grass made by T-54 tanks, they cried also. Watching children play carelessly under the sun. they cried as if their houses had been burned down by fire. No, their crying was even more bitter. It seemed that the fire had burned down the whole city, the whole beloved country, and they were the only survivors! Those children, among them their own, what was their future? Alas, who knew where their future lay?
  • The anguish of the ones left behind was of the witnesses who perceived just in a moment the decline of the past, the present, and even the future. And they had no urge to sacrifice themselves for the reconstruction!
  • Those left behind were not only the armed men! The left behind were also the others. It was undeniable that shopkeepers, truck drivers, and newsboys had experienced the changes of communism. They experienced and they suffered like any others. Their suffering was even more unbearable as they didn’t know how to describe it, how to express it.
  • Vinh never forgot the woman selling soybean sweetsoup in the block where he lived. Every day, at 1 p.m., she passed his house with the long pole heavy on her shoulders. One end of it carried a large pan of ground, cooked soybeans. The other end carried a pan of boiled sugar with some small bowls. She did the selling from the time he evacuated to the south, at age ten, until the Communists spread over Saigon. He remembered when he passed the elementary level exam, she congratulated him by offering him a free bowl of her soybean soup. When he went to the college level, she joyfully volunteered to be the matchmaker. Then he joined the armed forces, got married, and his wife gave birth to their children. She sometimes took to the shade under his house roof, chatted, and gave his eldest son a free bowl of her soybean soup the way she did to Vinh twenty years before. When the Communists took over, his unit was scattered, and Vinh returned home one afternoon. The first one he saw sitting in his front yard was the same woman selling ground, cooked soybeans with her pans and pails. He gloomily joked, “You didn’t run away?”
  • “Run away? To where!”
  • Vinh entered the house and offered her a glass of cold water. He said, “Your life will be less miserable when the Communists come.”
  • Her unexpected reaction made him feel ashamed. “Vinh, I am not well. I’m uneducated and make a meager living, really; but I was an evacuee and I think I understand the Communists better than you do. ” She seemed to be angry. Vinh smiled apologetically. “I was joking. Who can tell what’s happening next?”
  • The woman said bitterly, “You don’t know what’s happening next? I really don’t know what they will do to you officers. But myself, I know they will accuse me of being a petty merchant, afraid of labor work, and the way to the field is not so far away ...”

The last time I saw Ha Thuc Sinh, he was just returning home to the hardscrabble section of East San Diego, after taking his wife to a job interview. The children were playing carelessly in the bare yard. His family of five survives on $600 a month from the government. “We have to get jobs,” he said, “but it’s very hard .’’The night before he’d had to see a doctor because of a recurring heart problem that he ascribes to his years in prison after the war.

Do Not Die!

  • Do not die, poetry.
  • When we need poetry so much!
  • Though you are imprisoned and battered.
  • Be like a sharp knife
  • That I may yet have a weapon to fight the enemy.
  • Some rotten sweet potatoes I will share with you,
  • that we may remember . . .
  • Do not die, birds,
  • When we need birds so much!
  • Though you are imprisoned and battered,
  • Oh bird in a cage.
  • For me sing in a voice both tragic and strong.
  • I offer my heart to you
  • For nourishment while you are here.
  • On the tightrope of life. I keep my smile.
  • Death is for heaven to decide. Nurturing my anger,
  • I can only sing.
  • Sing to dispel the sorrow of a life like animals live.
  • I must not die!
  • I smile and carry on with this burden.
  • Though chained, imprisoned and battered.
  • Oh heart in my breast.
  • For me, please keep my blood red.
  • Harbor my resentment, one day destroy the sorrow.

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