Disrupted Diction(s)

It’s a truism in the poetry world that the big New York publishers don’t support poetry. The exception is W.W. Norton. I was thinking about this recently when I noticed that three books of poems stacked together on the corner of my desk were all published by Norton. (It’s oddly lovely the way objects collocate into meaningful constellations.) The books on the desk are: Alice Fulton’s Barely Composed, Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior1, and my old grad school friend Marilyn Chin’s Hard Love Province. Another collocation: All women. I don’t tend to read books of poems straight through, so I have been leafing & loafing through these three books from Norton, with great pleasure & enthusiasm. Not only is Norton publishing poetry, it is publishing very good poetry indeed.

I only came to know Hahn’s work recently, while looking at everything I could find by contemporary writers having to do with Basho. The book is in the form of a journal, shifting from prose to poetry. Of the three books, Hahn’s presents me with the most problems, formal & emotional. It’s not easy for me to get a purchase on Hahn’s forms–she seems to bend Basho to the breaking point–nor on the emotional tenor of the work: the writer turns Basho’s subtle monochrome into high-chroma abstractions. Where Basho is personal, Hahn is confessional. (The great American “confessional” poets of the mid-twentieth century were very important to me as both reader & writer.) The voice speaking in Hahn’s Narrow Road is ruthlessly honest & difficult. But not likable. Sometimes hectoring, sometimes confessional, it is also, like Basho’s voice, caught between the extremes of home & travel–both poets ill at ease sitting still while understanding, too, that movement from place to place does not solve the problem of how to live.

Marilyn Chin’s poems are more accessible than Hahn’s, at least in terms of syntax & lexicon, both of which are more stripped down in Hard Love Province than in Chin’s earlier work. (We were both students of Donald Justice, whose insistence on precision & surface clarity influenced a generation of students with widely differing styles.) Chin, like Hahn & Fulton, happily mixes high & low diction, the intellectual & the confessional, the confrontational & a capacious & compassionate generosity. In reading through Hard Love Province (right next door to Hard Luck Province?), what I feel most acutely is a wild & sometimes violent series of mood swings–from tender to angry. The tenderness tends to be directed at particular persons, whereas the anger is more general, more “political.”  Continue reading

Got My Visa for Vietnam

I’ll be heading for Hanoi later this fall. On my early trips to Vietnam, beginning in the mid-1990s, I was mostly interested in the American War & it’s effects on the country. I read a lot of history. But you can’t really understand the war without understanding Vietnam whole. (This is certainly true of any country & makes writing history in the conventional sense impossible, I suppose.) Still, it is possible to work one’s way backward in time & outward in space (both physical & cultural) from the war. All the while hurtling into the future. After that early study of history, I mostly wanted to forget the war–or at least to quit framing the place I had come to love–in terms of the war. I forget the exact figure, but I think something like 70% of the population of Vietnam has been born since 1975 when the war ended & the country was unified.

Rainy evening in Hanoi (2012)

Over the last couple of weeks, though, I have listened to the audiobook versions of two books about the war, one I’ve read more than once & have used as a text when teaching a course on Vietnam, the other new to me: Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History 1 , and Lien-Hang T. Nguyễn’s recent (2013) Hanoi’s War. Neither book is a “straight history”–Karnow’s is a journalist;s history, with frequent first-person interjections into the narrative; nor is Karnow’s book a history of Vietnam: it spends part of its first chapter sketching in the long, long history of the country, but its focus is the twentieth century wars in Vietnam. Nguyễn’s volume covers essentially the same period, with even more focus on the American phase of the war, with the additional narrowing that a specifically diplomatic history requires.

Note: Before going further, I want to remark on that narration of these two audiobooks. Karnow’s text is narrated by Edward Holland, Nguyễn’s by Hillary Huber. Holland is a fine narrator, with good tone, pacing, and timbre, whereas Huber has few of these qualities. Still, Huber is the superior narrator because she took an hour or two to learn how to pronounce Vietnamese–not perfectly, but adequately. It was very difficult to listen to Holland pronounce “Ngô Đình Diệm” as “No Din Dee-em” some 500 times. There is a difference between a barred Đ and an unbarred D: the first is pronounced as in English, but the unbarred D is pronounced more like Z. This is only the most egregious of the narrator’s errors, which accumulate until anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Vietnamese will be tempted to stop listening. This is not the snobbery of one who has learned a little Vietnamese–I would not expect either narrator to try to pronounce the tones 2 of Vietnamese, but basic phonetics is, well, basic.3

The two books complement each other. Karnow’s account has helped to shape the conventional wisdom about the war while Nguyễn’s account self-consciously sets about to revise that same conventional wisdom. Karnow relies on interviews & journalistic sources for the most part while Nguyen makes extensive use of Vietnamese archives that have only recently become available. 4 The conventional view of the war is that Hồ Chí Minh directed the North’s efforts until perhaps a year before his death in 1969. Nguyễn’s research makes clear that Hồ Chí Minh & his general Võ Nguyên Giáp were largely sidelined in the early 1960s by Lê Duẩn & Lê Đức Thọ (the “brothers Lê”). Furthermore, Nguyen argues persuasively that Hồ Chí Minh & Võ Nguyên Giáp were, at least within their peculiar historical context, moderates who might have shortened the war by negotiating with the US years before Lê Duẩn was prepared to make that move. Continue reading

This Poem Seems Appropriate Today

Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto

For certain people there comes a day
when they are called upon to say the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has
the Yes within him at the ready, which he will say

as he advances in honor, in greater self-belief.
He who refuses has no second thoughts. Asked
again, he would repeat the No. And nonetheless
that No–so right–defeats him all his life.

–C.P. Cavafy [Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn]

Andrs Neuman’s Traveler of the Century

Just finished reading Andrs Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’sprotagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19thcenturyEurope & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattvawho dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog areimpostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that isprogrammedto make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man