I hesitate to post this poem, written just this afternoon, fearing that it is insufficiently respectful; but whatever disrespect it exhibits is only an attempt to express a more profound respect. One never gets entirely outside the lecture room, of course; but one chafes. The seat is hard, the oscillating fan insufficient to ventilate the musty smell of old books in a tropical climate.

A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture

The professor tells the visitors that today they will learn about the betel leaf and the areca nut, which is the history of Vietnam

in one small package, he says, and then recites a song for his audience, who have been brought captive by a guide

to listen, though they would be walking the narrow streets lost in the heat blinded by the haze of burning paper

from the temples, the sidewalks filled with families eating soup and gossiping, but they will never be allowed outside --

today it's the betel leaf and the areca nut and slaked lime for them, Vietnam as a quid pro quo, their being here to hear

the lecture, offered many times to others and polished smooth as a Buddha's toe kissed for centuries, rubbed for good luck.

They are allowed nothing else. Not the State's music spilling from the loudspeakers nor the singing from the Cathedral

punctuated by the air horns of tourist buses and the tinkle of cyclo bells, the calls of women hawking fish and fresh bread.

Tomorrow it will be coconuts and when they are finished with nuts they will move on to fruit and flowers. And if they come

every day, before long they will be allowed to discuss weather and international relations, which are very like the betel leaf.

(Hanoi, April 2009)

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

2 thoughts on “Poem”

  1. Lovely lecture. Thanks!


    Leaves are the only language I’ve got left
    it’s a small mentally-enlarged yard
    in a nation that has lost its name
    in a brain that has lost
    its capacity for scorn.

    Finally the Greeks realized Apollo
    and Dionysius were the same creature
    but my fellow prisoners disdain
    both equally in complete denial
    of their own precarious position.

    Sometimes they come so close
    to my face I can hear
    the beating of their wings
    orangeness singing
    you’re up next.

  2. I must remember to come here more often. Your posts are quite interesting.

    Best wishes for your Vietnamese adventure.

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