In Hanoi, lots of businesses are conducted from bicycles. Here, a merchant is selling ceramics carefully tied to her bike and balanced so that she can still ride even with a load that must be a couple of hundred pounds. Most of the pottery like this is made in the Village of Bat Trang outside the city, where the industry served the court in the 18th century, then the colonial urban elite in the 19th and 20th; now, after the revolution, when there was very little production, the industry has revived in a big way, selling mostly inexpensive wares for everyday use. But the Vietnamese have a higly developed sense of style and even ordinary objects are designed and decorated with care. It’s one of the things I like best about Vietnam.
And not in a good way. It’s a shame to obscure the work of Edward Hopper with a haze of purple prose.
Three days ago, we found a luna moth sheltering from the rain under the eaves of the front porch. It had attached itself to an old window screen waiting to go to the dump. Stayed two days, then yesterday when the sun came out took off. These huge, beautiful creatures live only a week after they emerge. Profligate nature!
There’s a show at MOMA I’d like to see, of James Ensor’s proto-modernist paintings. I find my own aesthetic roots in the period of western art and literature that runs from the end of the 19th century through the First World War — the period of what is sometimes called High Modernism. The NY Times reviewer, Holland Cotter, calls Ensor “an aggrieved traditionalist with a pop culture itch,” words that I might apply to myself. Ensor also labored all his life away from the centers of culture where artistic reputations were made. Ensor strikes me as paradigmatic of modernism in his combining of high and low culture and his subversion of technique by technique. [A barely adequate Wikipedia entry here; Google image results here.] One loves the old modes and methods even when they are no longer viable and one is reduced to parody and pastiche.
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)