Eating & Speaking

I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.

The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.

The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.

When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1  When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.

I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.



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

Cranking Out Sentences

How come cranks, who are full of bunk, so often take a “debunking” tone? I’m interested in sentences & where they come from & I was hopeful that Verlyn Klinkenborg’s little essay in the NY Times would shed some light on that deep question. But all that we find out reading the essay is that sentences come from inside you & that they have a mysterious quality called rhythm. Now, I’m a poet & even more interested in sentences’ rhythm than in their origins, but rhythm too remains undefined. So why did I then buy the Kindle edition of Mr. Klinkenborg’s book? Well, I’m always looking for little nuggets of writing wisdom for my students & I suppose I thought I might find out more about where sentences come from in the book than in the newspaper essay. The book, called Several Short Sentences about Writing, more than lives up to its name — it ought to be called Several Hundred Short Sentences about Writing. I didn’t actually count them, at least in part because I could not read more than about twenty pages. This book is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps if you aspire to develop a sort of hectoring version of a Mr. Rogers prose style, you will find this book helpful. It is, quite literally, a series of short sentences that purport to be about writing but which are more about the author’s belief that everything you learned in school about writing is wrong. Except that you should learn to diagram sentences.1 There is, as far as I can tell, no actual argument ion the book, no sequence of ideas that add up to anything like an actual idea. Klinkenborg strives to be aphoristic, but just sounds peeved. And why is the text presented as lines of “poetry”? In the Kindle edition, at least, the series of sentences are each given their own typographical paragraph, but then first letters of lines that are not first letters of sentences are capitalized as they would be in some presentations of verse. This is not verse, so what is the point of this weirdly misused convention.

Someone once said that writing a bad review is like swerving so as to intentionally hit the chipmunk crossing the road in front of you & in general I no longer bother to write such pieces; but the author of this book is on the Editorial Board of the NY Times & people might actually think he can help them learn something about sentences. He can’t. Get Stanley Fish’s little book on sentences if you’re looking for advice from a Times writer. Fish can be a twit in his column, but he know more than a little about writing, including the writing of sentences. Or if you are really ambitious about your sentences, you could take a look at Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, or the even more elegant The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt, though this lasttitle, by a poet, is aimed more at poets & readers of poetry than the other books noted here. In any case,2 there are plenty of alternatives to the hectoring, “debunking” & ultimately boring advice of Several Short Sentences about Writing.

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