It’s the middle of November, a time when we often have snow, but it must be nearly 70 outside this afternoon. Carole & I are going to meet a friend and go take a walk in the woods with the two boy terriers.
Gardening: We’ve been having alternating days of sun and rain, which has been good for the stuff growing in the yard — both the stuff we want growing there and the stuff we don’t — but I’ve been finding the cool rainy weather a little depressing as I begin to recover from the Upper Respiratory Infection, i.e., cold, From Hell. But today it’s sun and I’m feelin alright, as the old Joe Cocker song has it. Yesterday during a break in the rain I hauled all the bonsai and indoor plants outside and put them in their summer quarters. Today I ought to pull weeds and put a few herbs I bought last week into pots.
Reading: I read The Idiot in Hanoi and I’m trying to write an essay about it that works with the idea of being beside one’s self. When I got home and had the bad cold, I plunged into the last three novels in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubury-Maturin series, which I’ve now completed over the last three summers, though I think maybe I missed one volume somewhere in the middle. I’ll probably read through the series again at some point, but not for a while. I read O’Brian’s books the way Carole watches certain kinds of HBO shows, because they are respectable, intelligent entertainment that still don’t demand complete concentration. Then — and this is weird — last night — without even realizing that today would be Bloomsday — I picked up Ulysses and began to read it for perhaps the fifth or sixth time. I’ve never gotten more than 100 pages into it, but I think this time I’ve caught the music. Stephen’s symbol for Irish art, “the cracked looking glass of a servent,” strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for modernist art in general, including Dostoevsky’s novel. The image in the glass is doubled and displaced; that it belongs to a servent might at first seem to devalue it, but we know that servents are often more free of illusion that their masters.
Update: There was a good short essay by Colum McCann about Ulysses in yesterday’s NY Times.
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.
*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.