Tran Vang Sao

Today’s headline on Yahoo: “She’s not that innocent.” The teaser: “What drove a pop princess to rehab and unusual hairstyles?” I don’t know, do you? David Larsen has asked, What do you call a man who ignores the cares of others. The answer: Unperturbed. In certain geographies, it’s a little harder to be dazed and carefree, to be a cool, hip yahoo, simply because your own neck and ass are on the line. Poet Tran Vang Sao was born in Hue in 1942. Soon after, his father was killed by the French during the First Indochina War. During the Vietnam War, he was a contributor to the underground newspaper Thanh Niên Chống Mỹ [Youths against America]. He joined the National Liberation Front in 1965, lived in areas under its control, broadcasting propaganda until 1969, when he was injured and removed to the north. In spite of his allegiance to the Communist cause during the war--his pen name, "Vàng Sao," means "Yellow Star," a reference to the national flag--he has been blacklisted since 1972 for his candid depictions of social conditions inside Vietnam. He’s been harassed constantly, even imprisoned, his manuscripts confiscated. His poetic voice is bemused, ironic, deliberately banal, a reaction against the dogmatic bombast of many of his contemporaries. I translate four poems:

Taking The Wife To Give Birth

a morning in May I took you to give birth
it was during rice harvesting season it had drizzled
I'm happy you had an easy birth
and a boy
the trees on both sides of the road were still wet
mother lit a bunch of incense sticks to thank
    the sky the earth and our ancestors

my wife lay breathing on the birth table
her belly big and round
I'm a man with nothing to do I stood outside
smoking a cigarette and peering in
I can't remember anything
two upturned metal dippers by a water tank
a few pebbles beneath the eaves
it won't rain anymore
I squatted I stood up I smoked a cigarette I looked back and
my wife lay breathing on the birth table
her belly big and round
a window opened brightly before her face
the banana leaves in a nearby garden showed drops of water
I heard the voices of two women from inside the room
a truck's engine crackling on Thuan An Street
and the sound of a child crying
I stepped onto the threshold
the two women looked at me and smiled
I walked home
there was a light breeze among the leaves
I said out loud to myself
it won't be sunny for a while yet

I Get To Eat Meat

I let myself imagine a day when I get to eat meat
I laugh and talk cheerfully
a piece of meat with a hunk of fat
    slips down my throat
my two eyes are wide open
I squat on the floor and
   a plate with lots of meat in front of my face
long stalks of green onion floating
   in grease
hand holding chopsticks mouth chewing
the sun blazing through the leaves
an afternoon in summer with no wind

I wake up and scratch my neck
the river water is salty
I go to the end of the alley to smoke a cigarette
then say out loud to myself
it will thunderstorm this evening bringing cool weather

   (August 19, 1982)


this one croaked
named Nguyen Van He
eight years old
cassava poisoning
dead three days before his mother knew
   rites performed by neighbors

Tran Van Ha
forty years old
four children
hoeing in the mountain
hand grenade blew up
wife and children could not get there in time for funeral

person lying here
a man without known
name age home village
died wearing a Puppet-Army shirt
a pair of brown woman's pants
lain face down five meters from railroad tracks
face beaten flat no eyes nose hands or feet

dead person here
twenty six years old
a bullet through the head
first and last name: Pham Van Te
reason: committed a robbery then ran
did not stop when called

Nguyen Han
thirty nine years old
stabbed self in throat
   with a broken bottle of orange soda
some said because of madness
did say before death
there's not even shit to eat

Nguyen Thi Lun
thirty four years old
Le Van E thirteen years old
Le Thi Muon ten years old
Le Van Thuoc six years old
Le Thi Ly two years old
suicide by pills
in kitchen
nearby a few warm worm-eaten sweet potatoes
   were found inside a rimless woven basket
note left behind said
too much hardship can't stand it
me and my kids must die

Tran Thi Lan
two and a half years old
sick with no medicine

Nguyen Van Lon
forty five years old
starved for too long then ate too much
no close relatives

Nguyen Van Thu
twenty six years old
died shirtless on a pile of garbage
in the middle of the market

Nguyen Huu Thuc
fifty years old
died at a banquet table
could not be rushed to hospital
more than a thousand people at funeral

Phan Ngoc The
died during cholera epidemic of 19..
lived to be forty two years old

buried here are four children
approximately six to nine years old
dengue fever
lain dead in market

Pham Huynh Thuong
died at fifty six years old
popped blood vessel
while reading a speech
near the end

   (November 1982)


night of screams flowing through the brain stabbed suddenly
   in the throat
rain streams down
then silence
no winds
no sounds of dripping water
emptied out thwarted

night sneaking behind back in front of face left right over
   head below feet
hats worn snugly
outside windows
in corners of rooms
behind a rotting bamboo partition

night oozing blood from fingertips
clawing through garbage
a plastic bag
a torn rag
lumps of rice
pieces of bone
broken bottles rusty cans copper wire

nights of rats and men burrowing inside sewers
under a bridge
in the middle of a market
on a sidewalk

night of flares in the sky men holding flags
   running over blood
teeth grinding
faces green with fright
assault slogans
arms thrusting skyward
K57 DKB F105 B40 AR15 AK M113 T54
people dying
people living
people laughing
people crying


night of demonstrations on the streets
tanks hand grenades concertina barb wires
masks and hunting dogs

night during war staying up to watch a corpse

night of B52 vomiting chemicals

night in 1968
night of espionage
night of conspiracies
night of assassinations
night of suicides
night of kidnappings
night of executions
night of hurrahs
night of denouncements
night of prison
night of blood
night of hunger
night of escaping overseas
night gouges the eyes of a mute man
night of Satan chewing the Eucharist
   face turned skyward laughing absolving sins

night of a number eight storm
night of hands clasped together in prayer
night of escaping overseas

night and morning after misty rain over a pile of human shit
night of getting up in the middle of sleep to watch night
night with last night's ghosts hovering before door
night of mice squeaking in someone else's house
night of cats fighting on roof
night of male grasshopper having head bitten off
night of whores chasing bad luck
   in front of the Teacher's College
burning raw salt glue and a stub broom
obscure night of adultery
night of you fragrant and intoxicating
night of one who has lost his mind wearing a mask of a saint
   hiding in the dark to scare children just for fun
night calm without winds
night and me alone in night
night not yet over
already the sounds of children banging on drums
   the unicorn dance

   (October 17, 1990)


Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


These are wonderful poems.


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

I just received this response to Tran Vang Sao from Nguyen Qui Duc (subject: my compatriot from Hue):

"what a dark fucking tortured soul
who ever invented Hue should be shot, stabbed in the neck with broken
soda bottle

tonight the caregiver forgot
to take care of my mother
let the dog off the leather leash
let my mom wander out
my mom forgets things
all alzheimer's patients do
lets the dog run out the gate
i lost my dog
my mom could have fallen on the wet concrete
i could have lost my mother
now the caregiver is sitting on her bed
and my mom is ranting about a million things
i stayed home all day and kept the dog company
tonight went out to meet some chinese visitors
and a french journalist and now the dog is gone
and my mom is yelling at the caregiver
"how come you know my husband is at a meeting
when i don't?"
mom thinks i am her husband
tonight my dog is gone
and a friend just called to ask
could i ride my motorcycle over
she is afraid of ghosts, had a dream last night
full of ghosts, always white these ghosts
and you people in philadelphia think
i cooked the tiny little thing
i bought the dog for 700 thousand dong
35 dollars to keep my mom company
tomorrow i may have to buy another dog
or keep my mom company all the time
myself, i can be a good dog
please don't cook me
my mom needs me
i need her
that's what i told the caregiver
she was out in the rain
looking for the dog
my mom was home alone
i told the caregiver
i can replace the dog
but i can't
my mom

jeezus who ever invented people from Hue should be shot
or please shoot the dog next door
it whines just the same way
mine did whenever it wanted to
run out the gate
now it's gone and my mom is still
at it on her bed"

You can wiki "Nguyen Qui Duc" to find out more about this fascinating character. A radio broadcaster, writer and translator, he was raised in Hue and now lives in Hanoi. In between, he spent many years in San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

Hey Linh, I heard Nguyen Qui Duc for years on KQED's "Pacific Time." Is this characteristic of his poetry, or was that in emulation of Tran Vang Sao? Knowing him only as a broadcaster, I never guessed at his satirical streak. I'm learning a lot from this blog, keep it up --David

Linh Dinh said...

Yo David,

When Duc speaks with that tired British accent, you'd think he's some uptight wanker, but the guy's completely laid back and a boozer. I haven't read many poems from him but the few I've seen, I liked. The dude lived in London for a while, and even had a British wife, so the accent is actually kosher, sort of.

Linh Dinh said...

Speaking of Hue: in my anthology "Night, Again: contemporary fiction from Vietnam," there's a story about a Hue prostitute. Written by Mai Kim Ngoc, it's translated by--surprise!--Nguyen Qui Duc. There's also a poem, "Hue," published in 1997 by Hanoi's Phan Huyen Thu. I translate:


Night slithers slowly into the Perfume River
an elongated note breaks under Trang Tien bridge

A Nam Ai dirge of widowed concubines*
fishing for their own corpse from a boat on the river

To be king for a night in the imperial capital
go now, make a poem for purple Hue

Shattering symmetry voluntarily
with a tilted conical hat
an askew carrying pole
eyes looking askance
Hue is like a mute fairy
crying inside without speaking.

I want to murmur to Hue and to caress it
but I’m afraid to touch the sensitive spot on Vietnam’s body.

*lines 3, 4, and 5 allude to the prostitutes plying their trade on sampans on the Perfume River. They are “widowed” because their kings, the johns, leave them after one night.