A portrait of the young poet as an old man, or perhaps the old man as a young poet. In any case, here is an admiring profile of Leonard Cohen in the New Yorker.
This is my last day in Hanoi and the truth is I’m ready to go. I haven’t done much this last week except walk around the Old Quarter and buy presents for friends at home. Playing the tourist. It is of course very difficult if not impossible to get inside another place, another culture; but these last days I have felt mostly as if I’m just bouncing off the surfaces of the city. I am solitary under the best of circumstances, finding it difficult to throw myself into social rituals either abroad or at home, and I have not tried very hard these last few days to see people or go places that would require testing my language skills. The exception to this is in a few shops where I use Vietnamese to buy things. When I first came, I was adamant about using Vietnamese even in places where people speak English, but this last week, I have simply gone along with the English spoken by the waiters at my favorite restaurants. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been feeling very well until the last few days, but I think I’m just culturally worn out. I don’t know how anthropologists who spend a year doing fieldwork can take it — I can adapt for a while, but then I want to get back inside my own assumptions about the world.
So, I’ve been bouncing around, bouncing off of things. Literally, in one case. A couple of days ago I was crossing a street near my hotel in the established manner, walking slowly and letting the traffic flow around me, when a young woman on a new Honda Dream (with granny on the back) came barelling around the corner while talking on her cell phone, hitting me a glancing blow and knocking me backward a couple of steps, though I stayed on my feet. She stopped, said “Sorry” in English, then sped off, granny giving me a dirty look as they drove away. The traffic is perverse, drivers’ behavior apparently calculated to extract maximum short-term advantage at the expense of safety and order, to say nothing of simple courtesy. Among family and friends the Vietnamese are deeply cooperative and supportivcce of each other, but in the broader public spehre, such as driving, there seems to be no sense of an abstract set of rules to which one ought to adhere. Even walking on the sidewalk, there is no standing aside to let another pass, but always the pressing of individual advantage.
This attitude shows up in economic relations as well. Twice in the last week, I’ve been cheated by street hawkers. It embarasses me to admit that I was an almost perfect victim in both cases. In the first case, I decided to finally give in and buy a couple of tee-shirts from one of the hawkers who work the streets around the hotels south of the Old Quarter. The shirts have pictures of Uncle Ho or a cyclo, with Hanoi or Vietnam under the image. The shirts should cost about three dollars, five for one with embrordery. I bought one shirt and went to dinner. On my way back, I was approached by another hawker who had missed the sale. “I saw you before,” she said. “You work in Hanoi. Why you buy from that other girl, not from me?” she asked, putting on a big pout. That’s when I should have walked away. For one thing, I was tired; for another, I’d already let her begin to manipulate me. I wanted to be a nice guy. She was pulling out shirts and handing them to me and talking a mile a minute and I was asking how much for this one how much for that one.* Did I mention I was tired? By the time we were finished handing shirts and money back and forth I had paid eleven dollars each for two shirts, a fact that only fully came into focus for me when I got back to my hotel room and my calculator. When I saw her a couple of days later she tried to tell me I had agreed to pay her another ten dollars! I told her I could have bought two silk shirts at one of the big shops for what I had already paid her and she asserted that “Those shirts are fake — real silk shirts are very expensive” and offered to show me. But when I told her I was going back to the hotel to get the shirts she had sold me so I could give them back to her, she disappeared. Haven’t seen her since. I gave the shirts to one of her competitors, gratis.
I’m in Hue now. This morning Lan’s friend (now my friend) Tran Thu Mai took me to a beautiful pagoda in the mountains northeast of Hue, then on a tourn of the Nguyen court’s citadel, where many of the palaces and temples have been beautifully restored. After a brief rest and cool down at my hotel, I took a walk around the city on the south side of the river. Only mad dogs and Americans go out in the early afternoon sun of Hue, but I went slowly and drank lots of water as I walked. I came back with my clothes soaked through with sweat and gratefully absorbed the hotel’s air conditioning for a couple of hours before heading out for dinner. Went to a little neighborhoos place Mai recommended for pho, then wandered to a sort of western style cafe where they have American movies on a big TV with Vietnamese subtitles. They turn the sound off on the movies and play western pop music, most of which is a generation or two recent for me to have heard it, but the have very good taste and it’s a weirdly enjoyable place to have a drink and bend one’s mind around the cultural complexities of globalization.
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)
As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:
- Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
- To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
- What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
- Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
- What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
- Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
- Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
- To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?
Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.