A Long Slog

I’ve been sitting in the Vancouver BC airport for four hours after flying in from Ottawa. My flight to Hong Kong doesn’t leave for another four hours and lasts thirteen hours! Yikes! Then I have to hang around the HK airport for several hours before flying to Hanoi. I’m unlikely to have a working brain cell by the time I get there. Had a lovely drive to the airport with Carole today — we left early enough to stop on the Black Dog Cafe in Manotick for lunch. It’s one of our favorite places and it set me up nicely for my flight. I had a window seat for this leg of my journey and the approach to Vancouver over the Cascades was breathtaking — sheer snowy ridges receding into the distance, then giving way to the green lowland plain. Breathtaking. I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen on my iPod and reading a Patrick O’Brien sea novel, “The Truelove,” which has the virtue of holding one’s attention without taxing it. also picked up a volume of Margaret Atwood short stories that I’m looking forward to.

A couple of disappointments to report: The workshop on political poetry I was going to give at the University of Minnesota was cancelled for lack of students — I’m consoling myself that it’s the tough economy. I had also just sent off a book proposal to Oxford University Press for a little book about Vietnam and got a response today saying that it’s a great idea, which is why they recently accepted a similar proposal. I’ll send it elsewhere, but I think it would have been perfect in Oxford’s elegant series of Very Short Introductions. I have only myself to blame — I thought of this a couple of years ago but only recently typed up a proposal and sent it off. Poor timing is in some ways the story of my life.

Vietnam Diary 1 (Nhat Ky 1)

Yesterday was the day the Vietnamese officially* celebrate the founding of the nation by honoring the Hung Kings and so I am starting my VN diary on — or at least near — an auspicious day a week before I leave the US. The goldfinches have begun turning gold here in South Colton, but yesterday rain mixed with snow splattered out of the sky all day and then last night turned to snow. It is still snowing. We have about six inches of heavy wet snow on the ground this morning. I’m ready for some warm weather, which will really be getting going by the time I arrive in Hanoi, though I’ll also be heading into the summer monsoon season, so it’s going to be wet. But it will also be green, which will be a relief after the long winter and recent brown thaw here.

So what is it about Vietnam? The history with the US makes it an interesting place, of course, fraught with analytical and moral peril; but for me that’s not really the center of my interest. Dana Sachs says simply what I have tried to say in various complicated ways over the years, that Vietnamese society is different and appealing even while it is strange and sometimes difficult for an American. I wrote a diffuse and impressionistic response to Vietnam during my second trip to Hanoi ten years ago, but rereading it now I have the sense that I was skating over the surface, imposing my patterns of perception on the my experience of the city. [That page of diary entries is, I see, a hodgepodge of things written at different times over two trips — not sure how that particular document came into existence: I was writing for a now-defunct poetry magazine. –jd] I touch on some of this nystery† in a light-hearted way in my recent interview with Ly Lan.

What draws me? Something that seems at once completely clear and at the same time obscure. There is one paragraph from those earlier diary entries that I would keep:

With Dao Kim Hoa Iíve just finished translating five poems by Huu Thinh and I may have learned more about Vietnam from this process than I did in my two months in the country. What I learned, however, seems impossible to describe. Literally impossible. I can tell you about the tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter, and I can tell you about the riverside cafes of Hoi An; I can even have a shot at describing the sense of holiness I felt visiting a little pagoda of no particular significance out among the orchards of the central coast. I could tell you how the older monk laughed with me when we managed to piece together a few sentence in “Vietlish” about the beauty of the evening, and how the two young monks stood smiling among the fruit trees in the courtyard in front of the sanctuary. I could tell you about the lunch prepared by the boatmanís wife on the Perfume River outside Hue. But the mental and spiritual world I have just begun to see into by learning the language is completely beyond my powers of description. Every time I open my Vietnamese dictionary I feel as if I have been granted access to a world that until three years ago might as well have been in another galaxy.

In recent weeks I have been intensifying my study of Vietnamese and over the last few days have begun to understand sentences. This makes me very happy and I think represents a new set of possibilities for my understanding of Vietnam and of Vietnamese poetry.I’m going to try to write something here nearly every day during my travels in the coming weeks.

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*The festival itself is scheduled according to the lunar calendar, but the national holiday occurs on April 6th each year on the Gregorian calendar for the convenience of businesses and government offices.

Travel & Ambition

Carole left for ten days in Budapest today, driving through a snowstorm for three hours to get to the Montreal airport for her Swiss Air flight. We kept in touch by cell phone, with me acting as her navigator a couple of times by pulling up Google Maps & making sure she was on the right track. She’s doing a book-binding workshop with a colleague & scouting the scene for interesting art. One of the perks of her job as a gallery administrator is travel. She’s also been to Berlin this year, gets down to NYC regularly & has been to Nunavut — twice, I think. I used to travel a lot more, but haven’t been much of anywhere the last few years. I used to run off to conferences a couple of times a year, but got tired of the hassle around the beginning of this decade. I made several trips to Vietnam in the late 1990s, culminating in Fulbright year in 2000, have stuck close to hearth & home since then. I’m making plans to do a bit more travel in the coming year, a development that coincides with a bit of renewed ambition to promote myself & my work. In fact, during the last several years I have turned away from my earlier desire to go to conferences, give readings, & make influential friends in the service of my art. My only conference the last few years was in Portland, Maine! It turned out, I came to see, that I was driven by the wrong sort of ambition, which is something I think I learned in Vietnam. Vietnamese poets & scholars have often led public lives, served the government, advanced themselves socially, etc. But there is also a tradition of withdrawal in which the poet returns to his native village to write, meditate, perhaps teach the young folk a bit about literature, & grow a garden. That is what I have been doing the last few years. I even stopped — for the most part — trying to publish my poems. Over the last few months, though, I have begun assembling manuscripts, sending work to editors, reading literary journals & generally working to face outward again. Tonight, however, I’m home alone with the dogs. One of the odd things about my life with Carole (yesterday was our 20th wedding anniversary) is that we almost never travel together. When we were young we spent several months in Europe together, but that was before we had dogs & jobs with different schedules. Since then, we’ve only had a few brief trips together. Our friends marvel sometimes at the extent to which we lead our own separate lives, but it is something we have done consciously. We like being at home together & we like our separate travels. Carole is listening to the roar of jet engines right now & I am listening to dogs snore. So, I’m looking forward to some trips — perhaps back to Vietnam — during the next year, but tonight I am content.