The Tiniest Poems

In 1973, W.S. Merwin published “Asian Figures,” a slim, fascinating anthology of Asian figures of speech. I bought it for 12 bucks, sold it for a dollar a year later when I ran out of pennies, even, for a packet of (Asian) Ramen Pride instant noodles. Minus this book, I’ll use Vietnamese figures of speech to discuss these tiniest poems. It has often been remarked that East Asian languages are monosyllabic. Well, not quite, since many words have two, although most of these are actually compound words. The Vietnamese for “affection,” for example, is “tình nghĩa.” “Tình” means “emotion” or “passion,” “nghĩa” means “devotion.” Two-syllabic, tình nghĩa means passion plus devotion. It’s both terser and more illustrative than the English “affection.” This brevity allows for even figures of speech to approximate the scope and ambitions of poetry. Within four or six syllables, you can have thesis then counter thesis, a jab to set you up, then right cross, snapping your head back and popping some sense into you, right after caesura, or a funky, quirky syllogism. Check these out:

Giấu đầu, lòi đuôi.

Hiding head, exposing behind.

Sai một li, đi một dặm.

Off by an inch, walk a mile.

Ngủ ngày, cày đêm.

Sleeping during the day, plowing at night.

Múa gậy vườn hoang.

Swinging a stick in an empty garden.

Bán trôn nuôi miệng.

Selling ass to feed mouth.

Bán mặt cho đất, bán mông cho trời.

Selling face to the earth, ass to the sky.

To đầu mà dại.

Large head, stupid anyway.

Một miệng, hai lòng.

One mouth, two stomachs.

Một cổ, hai tròng.

One neck, two nooses.

Già dái, non hột.

Old scrotum, young testicles.

Làm đĩ chín phường, để một phường lấy chồng.

She whores in nine different neighborhoods, keeps reputation in one.

Bảo trời thấp, phải đi khòm.

Saying the sky's too low, has to stoop.

Nửa người nửa ngợm nửa đười ươi.

Half man half beast half orangutan.

Thợ may ăn giẻ, thợ vẽ ăn hồ.

Tailors eat rags, artists eat paints.

Con lên ba, cả nhà học nói.

Child turns three, whole house learn how to talk.

Cha ăn mặn, con khát nước.

Father eats salty food, son's thirsty.

Con đóng khố, bố cởi truồng.

Son in loin cloth, father naked.

Râu ông nọ cắm cằm bà kia.

Planting his whiskers on her chin.

Vẽ rắn, thêm chân.

Drawing a snake, adding legs.

Chuột gặm chân mèo.

Mouse gnawing on a cat's leg.

Mẹ gà, con vịt.

Mother chicken, son duck.

Ông nói gà, bà nói vịt.

He said chicken, she said duck.

Người cười ba tháng, không ai cười ba năm.

Laugh for three months, no one laughs for three years.

Khôn ba năm, dại một giờ.

Smart for three years, stupid for an hour.

Khôn nhà, dại chợ.

Smart at home, stupid at the market.

Người chết ba ngày, người quay về chợ.
Cáo chết ba ngày, cáo trở lên rừng.

Man, dead three days, shows up in the market.
Fox, dead three days, shows up in the forest.

Thằng chết cãi thằng khiêng.

Dead man argues with his pallbearers.

Lâu ngày cứt trâu hóa bùn.

Buffalo shit, after days, turns to mud.

Nói với người khôn không lại, nói với người dại không cùng.

Argue with a smart man, can't win, with a stupid man, can't stop.

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