by Trịnh Y Thư, poet
It is quite an inspirational surprise to see a beautiful book of poetry, in which not one, not two, but three Vietnamese female poets concurrently share their creative arts. Of course, I’m talking about the project immaculately undertaken by a group of authors and translators, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese, to bring forth a volume of poetry written by Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan and Nhã Thuyên, the three emerging poets whose names have become increasingly familiar with poetry lovers inside Viet Nam and abroad.
Lưu Diệu Vân, the reluctant non-conformist
You can say Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems are interesting because of her skillful and exquisite usage of imagery. In fact, it’s a tour-de-force. In almost every single poem, one could find an intriguing effect created by the peculiar choice of words that she inserts at the right place and the right time. The lyrics are song-like but abstract, a rather strange combination, thus, emitting the mystics that can be attributed to the feeling of uncertainty. There is nothing absolute here. Nothing is definitive. Nothing is consummate. The inner self is examined within the precarious surrounding for she is quite self-conscious about the relationships, not only between interconnecting individuals but also between individual and his/her environment.
Jennifer Mackenzie is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, 2012) and has been busy promoting it at festivals and conferences in Asia. She is now working on a number of projects, including an exploration of poetry and dance, ‘Map/Feet’. Her participation in the Irrawaddy Festival was supported by a writer’s travel grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.
Vagabond Press has recently issued four attractively presented volumes of poetry from the Asia Pacific region. Each contains the work of three poets and represents China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, respectively.
Moving from the aesthetics in ‘The Chagall and Leaf’, a world defined by the beauty of image and sound, we enter into a different world, a contemporary world full of noise, turmoil and extempore choice. My first reaction to the poetry of Lưu Diệu Vân (b.1979) in the selection from Vietnam was that I wanted to hear her read live:
ask a poem to a bar
leave it alone
sit at a distant table
watch its every move
take another poem home (Lưu Diệu Vân, ‘time killers for poets’)
Rich in theme, with a brave and lively selection of imagery, Vân excels at incisive observation – at times tragic, and more often than not, very funny. The poem ‘post-feminism’, coming after a crisp dissection of Confucianism in ‘dead philosopher’s apologia’, is a highlight. Here are some snippets from this tale of an unfortunate dinner-date:
he eagerly criticizes, after a few inhales of thick smoke
you have yet to possess true feminine traits …
I wear red high heels, clingy off-shoulder silk dress, and
elegant white pearls …
I widen my eyes in surprise and yawn discreetly with my
mouth covered, slowly cross my long legs, neatly fold
both hands on my lap, calmly interrupt his second
criticism after asking the waiter to bring me a separate
bill for the lemonade and crème brûlée to take home …
Feminist and political appraisal is strengthened by Vân’s awareness of neighbourhood, specifically its imagery in such poems as ‘dolls and bicycles’ and ‘the finality of peace’. This location of politics in the individual’s life is evident in ‘my 1975 story’, through a transposition of time that presents national tragedy in two short, vivid pages:
I am a young woman, approaching eighteen years of age
scrambling around the square, morning, noon, day and night
where they bind prisoners to flagpoles
under the broiling sun
offering to exchange wedding bands and keepsakes for half a
and a mouthful of cold water
Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên, the fourth book in the Asia Pacific series, presents a chapbook’s worth of poems apiece from three emerging Vietnamese writers, translated by six translators, and introduced by Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng, a Vietnamese writer living in Melbourne. There is a “they,” a noisy mass full of eyes, that follow the each of poets in this collection. Each woman interacts with these eyes in a different way: Diệu Vân flirts with her reflection, Mêlan tries to face the gaze and ends up in its maw, and Thuyên turns away, turns inward towards dreams and silence. For each of them, there is a degree of separation from the crowded, complicated social hierarchies of Vietnamese culture—some of it voluntary, some of it not.
After the heft of Lưu Mêlan’s and Nhã Thuyên’s poems, those of Lưu Diệu Vân can feel frivolous. Perhaps because she has now lived outside of Vietnam more years than inside it, Diệu Vân’s poems are the most frank about societal pressure, the most direct about sex, and most openly question the “reuniting” narrative of the Vietnamese government. The poems veer between humorous and outraged, from banal to poignant. An example: from ‘confession of an average girl’:
I am an ardent worshipper of the Brazilian wax cult [one hundred percent sleek from chin to toe]
I never have sex without a condom [of course I don’t believe in abortion]
I like to wear cotton thong [because visible panty lines are too sincere]
versus ‘dolls and bicycles’:
babies cry themselves hoarse resisting milk laced with sleeping pills the poisonous lullaby of midnight escapes by sea
Diệu Vân’s poems, at least in this translation, are the least polished of the three writers, and taken as a whole they pose a contradictory, though not necessarily inaccurate, image of contemporary womanhood. Women are entering the white collar workforce in droves in Vietnam, and Diệu Vân’s poems embody the tension between traditionally proscribed roles for women and their new place-holding in society. Indeed, her flirtations with the reader might just be her wry response to the many conflicting demands placed upon her as a female poet.
Nguyen Tien Hoang, poet
The three poets featured in this volume were born in the postwar period, their writings emerged when the set political agenda had already been gone, the old tracks of writing with an eye for the publication authority had been removed. These however are less important than the fact that their writings demand new ways of reading. The heightened language, the hidden pathos and the discernible passions may be the meeting ground for the intersecting flights, yet each poem sets its own pace, tilts its rudder in different way and brings the readers to different points of unexpectedness. The diversity of their concerns and subject matters apparently reflect the social and environmental challenges they are facing. Their responses are above all in the language itself.
Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry appeals for reason and rationality, it defies the customary tendency that looks into poetry for the assuaging effects. Like the modern poets of the generation before her (Bishop, Sexton and Plath), she considers being a woman is a centrally important fact as much as writing poetry is concerned. Her poetic persona embodies the feminist traits of a modern woman who takes on the world as it is: a field of experiences. The poem is the result of thought-process and rational reflections along the traversing-paths of interactions between the writer, who is conscious of the contemporary milieu she is in, and the outside world. A poem is a voice that names, delineates and redefines, and mediates. Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry has a strong emphasis on diction, it employs a language which address the public. Her poetry is not for the page alone, it is also for the tongue, for the performance stage. It is a spoken voice, the audience will hear the wit of the words, the exuberance of the vernacular and the energy of the speech.