First Words

Children are a constant presence in Joseph Ceravolo’s poetry. It’s clear that he observed and listened to them, and was infected by the peculiarities and genius of their speech, their dada syntax and cutesy malapropisms. They are like recent immigrants in so many ways, generally undersized, cannot vote, fresh off the forceps, sporting bright, often discounted clothes, only more huggable, I suppose, and more kissable too, without the uppity fees of these funny smelling, sorrowful, plywood partitioned Chinatown massage parlors, without glitter. (Wassup, Gary? Do you wanna touch me?) In 1988, an unusual poetry book, “Breast Bells,” appeared in Vietnam. Its author was ten-year-old Hoang Da Thi. These poems were spoken by her when she was between 3 and 5, and recorded by her mother, poet Lam Thi My Da. The father also appeared as Mr. Wall. (No wallflower or whimsical invention, “Wall” was his first name.) I translated ten:

There is a Person

There is a person riding his bike on the street
He has an entire mole under his mouth
That is Mr. Wall

There is a person who is all black and smudgy
And stands all night next to the stove
That is the kitchen door

There is a person whose nerves ache
Who writhes silently without anyone knowing
That is a guitar

A Black Mole

A person’s life lies inside a slipper
Mr. Wall walks by
His black mole falls in
He walks home
Touches his face to find the black mole gone
He runs to the slipper
But does not see the black mole
He runs out to the yard immediately
Pinches some dirt into a black mole
Then attaches it to his face
People who come by to visit
All say:
Mr. Wall has a mole made of dirt

An Elephant and Uncle Vy

Uncle Vy has an elephant eye and an Uncle Vy eye
At the zoo
An elephant has an Uncle Vy eye and an elephant eye
Uncle Vy swaps mouths with the elephant
Uncle Vy’s mouth has a trunk he eats sugarcane
When he walks on the street whoever sees him says
Hey, hey, a man who eats with an elephant’s mouth
While at the zoo
There is an elephant who eats with Uncle Vy’s mouth
That’s why he eats rice all day


Lim is sleepy
She writes a snoring poem
She does a great job
All the lines are the same
She asks mother for a piece of paper
She writes on both sides
Then she nails the piece of paper to a wall
On the four corners are four nails
She names the poem: Snoring
Whoever comes to Lim’s house
Has to read Lim’s poem
People read: zzz, zzz, zzz...

Breast Bells

Mother’s two breasts are two bells
I touch them
They go: Kreng, kreng, kreng....
I borrow the breast bells
I go sell ice cream
Whoever hears the breast bell sounds has to buy
Breast ice cream is very sweet
Kreng, kreng, kreng....

Mr. Wall Borrows a Shadow

Mr. Wall does not have a shadow
He borrows a shadow from Mr. Yes
He walks on the street
Everyone who meets him says
Mr. Wall does not have a shadow
Mr. Wall does not have a shadow

A Plastic Mask

A plastic mask
Knows how to cry
Knows how to be sad
Knows a pineapple
Knows an umbrella
Knows a bucket
Knows a mosquito netting
Knows a spider
Knows the moon
Knows a pair of shoes
Knows a flower
Knows a grain of rice
Knows a plastic face

Star Buttons

The sky is like a roof
The sky is like a shirt
A shirt has many buttons
Those are star buttons

People Make Cakes

The moon
Sleeps all day
Runs around all night
He runs and falls down
To this earth
In the morning
People take it home to make cakes

This Mother Has

This mother has
A very tasty breast
O breast o breast
Let me reach you
A fresh grass breast
A horizon breast


Anna Vitale said...

Oh man, that art is so easy, my kid could do that. Oh, but wait, a kid DID do that! Now what?

Linh Dinh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linh Dinh said...

Hi Anna,

I suspect the mother did a bit of tinkering, so it's a collaboration, let's say, between mother and daughter. Besides Ceravolo, another American poet who seems to weave the voices and logics of children into her poetry is Hoa Nguyen. Of course, artists have been fascinated by kid's drawings for a century now.


Linh Dinh said...

Hi Anna,

The bottom line is: do these Hoang Da Thi poems work if you didn't know they were written by a 3 year old? I think they do. In presenting these, I just want to highlight children's language as possible source of inspiration for poets.


Martin Johs. Møller said...

I really love it. The directness and spontaneity of children's speech leaves out mediation through superfluous contemplation completely. In many cases knowledge makes you impotent - we all know that.

Jamba Dunn said...

“The bottom line is: do these Hoang Da Thi poems work if you didn't know they were written by a 3 year old?”

Is this really the mark of good or inventive poetry—to have it mistaken for the work of someone older or more qualified? Perhaps in some traditionalist sense this is true, but I'd not take such an apologetic stance with these wonderfully alive and inspiring works. It seems pedestrian to reduce artistry to a standard of performance other than freedom of expression.

I am reminded by what Picasso said following his visit to a children's art collection, “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.” I'm with Martin on this one.

Martin Johs. Møller said...

I'm reading Robert Walser's Der Räuber (in Danish: Røveren). He writes:

"A person who has his very own way, a not quite right way that is, to view the world, as if he was a child, makes himself popular." :-)

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Martin,

One of my favorite works of fiction of all time is Walser's "The Walk." There is a passage where he railed against the car, a novelty in his days. He was outraged that a car could possibly run over the lovely children playing in front of him. I bring this up also because in the comments to Jamba Dunn's OVERHEARD, we're talking about public spaces, or lack thereof, in various societies.


Fury Anne Wayward said...
This comment has been removed by the author.