We are the people, the thousand rivers of Việt Nam.
Through rough water and huddles we still flow back
to the heart of our sea.
— Nguyen Phan Que Mai, “Being Vietnamese”
IN VIETNAM, secrets are intrinsic to geography. They run deep through the Royal Citadel, and continue on through the rice fields; they persist in a mother’s search in Quảng Trị for her children, whose names “fill her eye sockets.” In this once-vital place, where red gạo blossoms rim bomb craters, there is an undeniable destruction to be discovered, to be acknowledged between generations. Nguyen Phan Que Mai explores this history of violence with great sensitivity in The Secret of Hoa Sen, a collection of 52 poems that affirms her place as one of Vietnam’s foremost contemporary poets.
Que Mai was born in a small village of northern Vietnam in 1973. She was two years old when the Vietnam War ended with the fall of Saigon, the southern capital captured by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong. These poems leave no doubt, though, that the events before the fall and during the reunification of Vietnam profoundly influenced Que Mai — her pages are dedicated to “Over twelve thousand days of tears. / Over thirty-five years of pain” (“Babylift”). She has written three poetry collections and translated six; The Secret of Hoa Sen is her first full-length collection published in the US.
The collection is bilingual, translated into English by Bruce Weigl, a contemporary American poet who served for three years in the Vietnam War. Shortlisted last year for the Pulitzer prize, he has written more than a dozen books of poetry, the majority centred in the personal traumas of war where “thunder is pounding mortar” and “burning bodies so perfectly assume” (“Song of Napalm”). Weigl is also co-translator of the collection Poems from Captured Documents, which preserves the words of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers over 20 years of conflict.
In his own work, Weigl does not shy away from the grisly details of battle. Que Mai, however, chooses to complement the gritty with the beautiful. “I have seen veterans of the Vietnam War — Vietnamese and Americans — who were former enemies, embrace each other and find consolation in each other’s words,” Que Mai said in her speech at the 23rd International Poetry Festival of Medellin, Columbia. There is a similar, marked reconciliation in this book, as Que Mai and Weigl collaborate to tell the stories of those uprooted or left “adrift at sea.” Instead of a single survivor’s viewpoint, we see the war from multiple perspectives — with complicated victors and infinite casualties. There is even the soldier, suspended in “The White Time,” quick to be forgotten in the midst of transition:
I find him
standing patiently as an exclamation mark
amid the crowded stream of vehicles,
people getting stuck in their own hurry.
He is alone, silent and small,
time flowing through his palms.
Que Mai’s world ripples with contrast. Here the contradiction is striking: there is little patience in exclamation marks. By nature, they demand reaction. Like the punctuation itself, the former soldier calls out, requires attention. But in this poem, the poet keeps him wordless. The soldier does not move — he is only moved by, moved through, a vehicle in his own right. This soldier is no longer an agent of action, nor even one of time. Que Mai alone finds him and gives him room to speak, which, for him, is to grieve (“who will remember Trường Sơn”). Resisting the external hurry, she does not allow her subject’s fears of anonymity, however “silent and small,” to pass unnoticed. The first person speaker of Que Mai is indeed present, but in poems like these, she is simply, and faithfully, a listener.
And while here the horrors of war are hushed, implied rather than spoken outright, Que Mai also offers the starkness of the realities of battle, especially in the realm of the domestic. Of her mother-in-law, Que Mai writes, “[…] you cried / when the leftover bomb in the forest / took your seven-year-old brother. / War makes human lives dwindle.” Death is reported in no uncertain terms, both at large and in the fragments of a family left alive. There is no skirting around the loss or “the leftover bomb in the forest.” None are exempt from the spilling over of warfare as Que Mai takes us through the aftermath. Throughout her poems, children search for the remains of their fathers and are “imprisoned” by Agent Orange. Her poems place us in the midst of action, a vacuum in itself. The poem “Quảng Trị” takes its name from one of the bloodiest battlegrounds in the Vietnam War and brings us into the scene brilliantly:
The mother runs towards us,
her husband’s name carves a hole in her chest.
She’s screaming “Return my husband to me.”
As in “The White Time,” the poem’s first line joins the subject to the writer, the mother to “us.” Despite this initial unity, though, we’re struck fast by the disintegration of the body, violent in its exactitude. Disappearance “carves” into the mother, a veritable void in her chest. And yet, a voice remains. It is the voice of this woman, which attempts, however unsuccessfully, however desperately, to find a solution. And once again, Que Mai is the listener. It is the poet to whom questions are addressed, of whom answers are expected.
The Secret of Hoa Sen eschews the win-lose roles of war in exchange for a wider view. We follow Que Mai’s own father in a bombed and bullet-ridden village, the father who “still believed, still plowed and hoed.” We see her mother, too, who prepared rice and sent her daughter “away among raindrops.” And then there are the outsiders, as if quarantined from war, even from time itself, like the lover who sits in a sampan and the women who sell guava. The latter appear vividly, hauntingly, in “Stars in the Shapes of Carrying Poles”:
The women carry the seasons of guava, mango, and plum to me,
the seasons of lotus, green young sticky rice on their shoulders,
I hear their faint singing:
In difficulty, the poles press heavy on my shoulder
but I find ways to feed my mother, ignoring people’s laughs
These latter lines echo Vietnamese folk poetry. By embedding a culture’s bygone songs in her poem, Que Mai carries both the weight (and gifts) of mango and plum to the reader, along with the wealth of a native literary tradition. The voice of the past shadows those of our modern-day street sellers, who draw strength from the words of ancestors, like water from the well. There is a collective here, of women who struggle to feed families, who must tolerate great physical strain. The past sings, and Que Mai shares it with us — a token of hope.
Weigl observes that Que Mai’s poetry is a “global poetry, necessary for our troubled times,” an observation that resounds in her poem “The White Sky”: “I close my eyes, / not yet dreaming, night / already smeared with the dreams of others.” Weigl also notes that Que Mai follows a “Vietnamese version of romanticism”: she does not hesitate to use evocative language. Her voice is strong in compassion, controlled in turns of phrase. Her lines are often complete in themselves, and her stanzas are compact: three to four lines at a time. It is rare that her poems, a well-balanced blend of narrative and lyrical, exceed one page; scattered throughout the collection are what we might call sketches — small poems of two or three stanzas. “Freeing Myself,” for one, is less than half a page, but in that short space, it speaks volumes through mythical language and simple repetition: “One day the wind lifts me high; / the wind hands me a pair of wings / and tells me to free myself from wings and / fly above my thoughts.”
While there are dark, gritty elements at play, Que Mai’s work does not lose itself to despair. She crafts subtleties in sentiment without being overly sentimental. At times, she does tend toward rose-colored language, as in “Night’s Whispers”: “I will come, and I will be the tender grass, / spreading myself to sing you to sleep, / and I will grow myself into you, making us one.” Yet, as Weigl reminds us, “these are poems fiercely loyal to the sentiments they gracefully express.” While there is emotion, there is little pretense in these poems. Sentimentality, we should not forget, does not necessarily equate with falsity in intent or intensity. Indeed, one gets the sense in reading The Secret of Hoa Sen that if Que Mai could not speak honestly, devotedly, she would not speak at all.