Small Demon
Aug 112012
 

When I went out to catch the taxi to the airport in Hanoi, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone, which continues to tick off seconds even when the phone is powered down. I hit “stop” when Carole pulled into our driveway in South Colton. Forty-eight hours, two minutes & fifty-three seconds: that’s how long I was in transit. In Hanoi, before being allowed to check my bag, I had to split it into two because it was too heavy. Fortunately, the Vietnamese are prepared for this eventuality & I was able to purchase a zippered plastic bag that, once filled, is wrapped tightly with wide plastic tape using a machine I have seen nowhere else. Okay, so three hours to Singapore, then a six-hour wait for the flight to Frankfurt that continues on to JFK. Had a very good Chinese dumpling (well, two, actually) for dinner & walked around looking at the amazing displays of consumer goods. The whole place is designed to make you feel bad if you don’t buy something, but other than my dumplings, I didn’t buy anything.

Singapore has very careful, though friendly enough, security procedures. The gate area is enclosed & all carry-on bags & documents checked. Once aboard, we taxied out & took off for a nearly twelve-hour flight over Southern & Central Asia & Eastern Europe. Most people try to sleep, but it is a miserable flight. Singapore Airlines is very good about distracting passengers with food, but twelve hours in an economy class airline seat is not much mitigated by even the very good food they serve. The woman in the seat next to mine solved the problem by sipping red wine throughout the flight, keeping, I imagine, just a light buzz of contentment. I listened to music — mostly Dylan & Leonard Cohen, with some Bunk Johnson & Blind Willie McTell mixed in, then shifted over to an audio version of Tristram Shandy I’d downloaded to my Kindle before leaving. Sterne’s novel is structured much like a dream & was the perfect choice: I drifted in & out of sleep for nearly five hours with Peter Barker’s droll voice enacting the scenes of the story in my mental theater. But while the audio version of Tristram runs nearly twenty-four hours, I eventually tired of the drollery with more than half the flight to Frankfurt remaining.

I read, I dozed, I watched the little figure of the airplane crawl across the video map of the world on the seatback in front of me. I tried to meditate but found it impossible. I should have tried harder, given the ordeal that awaited me in Germany. We touched down in the early morning & as we were rolling toward the gate, there was an announcement to the effect that those of us continuing to JFK would reboard the plane at the gate next to the one where we were disembarking. I’ve been on this flight before & this was a new wrinkle — we’d have to clear security again. Everyone is directed down a very long, featureless hallway and along a ramp in which all the doors are closed & guarded. Where the hell are the restrooms? I always thought Germans were fanatical about toilets, but apparently not for airline passengers. We arrive at a security area, get our boarding passes & passports checked, put our bags on the conveyor, walk through the metal detectors . . . & then we’re on our way, right? Well, some of us are, but quite a few of us have our bags slid over onto the far side of the outflow table, where we have to go retrieve them.

In front of me, a beefy female security cop is going through the bag of a middle-aged woman who has had the temerity to smuggle a six ounce jar of some kind of cold cream into her luggage. The cop tells her it is “a violation” & tosses it in the garbage. Now it’s my turn.

“Is this yours?”
“Yes.”
“You will have a special check. Please follow my colleague.”

I am led into a little room where another beefy cop, this one male, tells me to take my camera bag out of my backpack, then has me open the bag & take the camera out, which he then swabs for explosives. After he puts his swab in the machine & it comes out negative I am allowed to repack my stuff & go on my way. But no, as I am hiking back out to the gate — still no god damned toilets — everyone on our flight is stopped for another document check, which is badly organized,  mean spirited, & just simply idiotic, since just ahead of me they let a family get back on the airplane even though mom seems to have lost half their boarding passes.

And my trip home was only half over. I spent another hour watching German security cops swagger around the gate area with their pistols on their hips, joking with each other & scowling at everyone waiting to resume their trip to New York. So was their some kind of threat? A piece of luggage without a passenger? Maybe, but I think it much more likely that it was merely arbitrary. As a final insult, it was real easy to log on to the “Free Wifi” in the boarding lounge; unfortunately, the wifi wasn’t connected to the internet.

The rest of the trip was long, but mostly uneventful, with the exception of how well I was treated at JFK by the check-in folks at Jet Blue — remember my heavy bags? — & by the crew on the plane up to Burlington. Everyone was really nice & went out of their way to be helpful. Carole met me in the afternoon, we took the ferry across Lake Champlain, then drove home, where, as I mentioned, I arrived almost exactly forty-eight hours after setting out from my hotel in Hanoi.

Aug 032012
 

Hữu Ngọc asked me yesterday on the way to lunch whether I had written any poems about Hanoi. “Only one,” I told him. This appeared a while back in the Beloit Poetry Journal & it is the second poem (currently) in the book manuscript I’m trying to finish putting together:

A Dog in Hanoi

Maybe Ngoc Ha is nothing
but a vivid dream & here
I am nothing but an animal
who does not understand

the higher order of things.
Maybe the traffic is only
a tumbling hallucination
& I am nothing but one of

these charming, silent dogs
who watch & listen with
detachment—the way that
I listen to the language of

my fellow creatures. Maybe
only quiet dogs survived
the war. They walk along
the curb but seldom speak.

 Posted by at 11:45 pm
Aug 012012
 

Through the @VietnamBlogs Twitter feed, I came across the  Antidote to Burnout blog, written by American architect Mel Schenck, who lives & works in HCMC. I was fascinated to read this description of why he came to Vietnam. Though he has come here to live & I only return obsessively & though he is drawn to HCMC & I am drawn to Hanoi, we share an admiration for the energy & creativity & openness of Vietnamese society.  From his architectural perspective, Schenck writes:

 I believe the Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design that creates sophisticated vibrant colors, patterns, sounds, smells, and tastes in the urban environment. Yes, there is messiness and chaos in Vietnamese urban life, but I sense that is a manifestation of the high energy level. By the time the Vietnamese make the urban environment more orderly and convenient, it is likely the energy level will have decreased with that progress.

This strikes me as both true as description & insightful as analysis. Schenck the architect is naturally naturally interested in Vietnamese modernist buildings whereas Duemer the poet is more interested in the amalgamation & layering of old & new structures & the inventiveness of the vernacular. There a lot of gorgeous pictures of new buildings on Antidote to Burnout. I admire them (both the pictures & the buildings), but I don’t love them. Here’s what I love, at least from the outside:

Vernacular Architecture

Americans in Vietnam seem to be either “northerners” or “southerners,” preferring either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Personally, I much prefer Hanoi, with its old trees, many lakes, twisting streets, & admittedly crazy traffic; but I know plenty of people who prefer HCMC, which is certainly more cosmopolitan (Westernized) & international–it’s a port city, after all. The usual formulation is that Hanoi is the political & cultural capital & HCMC the commercial capital & that’s true as far as it goes. There are no doubt deeper differences–HCMC is more Catholic though at the same time more open to the wilder forms of the Cult of the Holy Mother (though come to think of it this makes sense.) In the south, perhaps it’s the religion that is vernacular & layered, like the architecture in the north.

 Posted by at 8:45 pm
Jul 282012
 

Vietnamese poets—this may be common in everyday speech, but I haven’t run across it—will pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet Tô Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase “Lớp lớp địa tầng” in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both “Lớp lớp” and “địa tầng” can straightforwardly be translated as “layers” or “strata” in English. I don’t know whether I should render this as just “layers” or “strata” or something more like “layers of strata.” Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.

Jul 272012
 

Daniel Bowling really ought to do this study with Vietnamese speakers. In Vietnamese, there is a long tradition of interaction between the six tones of the spoken language & the (mostly pentatonic) music used to accompany songs & poems. Last weekend, I was invited to the home of a family of very talented traditional musicians & treated to an informal concert of various forms of Vietnamese music. In most of these forms, because the language itself is tonal, the poet or songwriter has followed forms that place rising or falling or level tones in particular places in the verse line. The instrumentalist(s) & vocalist, also following a set of conventions, but also improvising within the conventions, perform the text so as to emphasize & play with the composer’s intentions. My sense is, though I’m not entirely sure of this, that, contrary to the Western art song / lieder tradition, the music is driven by the vocal text rather than the other way around.

The musicians I listened to played the đàn tranh & the đàn đáy, stringed instruments with a pentatonic tuning & the ability to bend notes in order to suggest the tonal slides & glides of the Vietnamese language. There is also a two-stringed lute that has no natural tuning & can be tuned to any of the other instruments. Half-way through the concert the other night, a young man showed up who was a virtuoso on this instrument, playing incredibly complex runs of notes on the raised frets. In the south, I have seen Western guitars with the spaces between the frets scooped out in order to play microtones.

 

 Posted by at 7:53 am