3/17/07

Me So Horny

In 2000, John Balaban published Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. On the cover is a bare-breasted woman, presumably Oriental, hiding her face behind a gong or a wok. Introducing her, poet, not the hot chick, Balaban writes that "for her erotic attitudes, Hồ Xuân Hương turned to the common wisdom alive in peasant folk poetry and proverbs," and that "common people [...] could hear in her verse echoes of their folk poetry, proverbs, and village common sense," but Balaban never admits that these Hồ Xuân Hương poems are really a part of the folk tradition. I should point out that the average Vietnamese is also unwilling to let go of the legend, the juicy tale of a concubine penning racy and even proto-feminist poetry, but the facts don't support it. Who was Hồ Xuân Hương?

Born between 1775 and 1780, and dead by the mid-1820's, Hồ Xuân Hương enjoys a unique position in Vietnamese literature thanks to the coy, often bawdy lyrics attributed to her. Since these poems were not collected until roughly 70 years after her death, her entire oeuvre, 139 works by one count, was circulated orally. The earliest surviving hand-copied volume was commissioned in 1893 by a Frenchman, Antony Landes, the earliest printed collection dates only from 1909. Her father was either Hồ Sĩ Diễn or Hồ Sĩ Danh. She may or may not have been a concubine. Based on the poetry, most commentators agree that she had many lovers, but then again, we all know that many wet and steaming lines are hallucinated by the sex-starved and chaste. "Wild nights! Wild nights! Were I with thee." In 1932, Nguyễn Văn Hanh hazarded that Hồ Xuân Hương was a "plain, large-boned woman" shunned by frail, officious males. Others guessed that she was dark-skinned, petite yet voluptuous. Whatever. In 1962, Nguyễn Đức Bính admitted, "I don't know anything about the poetess Hồ Xuân Hương and other people don't know any more than I do." Legends are even attached to individual poems. Take "Cảnh Thu" ["Autumn Scene"], which was accompanied by this explanation in the Landes collection [all quotations are translated from the Vietnamese. In this instance, the bad prose of the original is also assiduously duplicated]:
A long time ago Xuân Hương was caught in the rain while out strolling, stopped by Văn Giáp village, saw an old temple, Xuân Hương entered to pray to Buddha, then took a look around outside the temple. Saw a banyan tree by the side of the temple. Tilted her head up but could not see its soaring crown, so she composed this poem (this banyan tree is still there today)
A 1917 collection has a different preface:
One day during Autumn, drizzling, fairly cold, the mandarin had nothing to do, so he ordered that wine be brough out, asked his second wife to join him drinking so as to compose poetry. Xuân Hương consented, came out and sat by him to serve wine. As the cup emptied, the Autumn evening breezy, the mandarin told Xuân Hương to compose a poem about the landscape.
Legends, myths, lies and general bullshit abound in Vietnam. Many believe that Elvis Phương, a pop singer living in Orange County, California, has been adopted by Queen Elizabeth, for example. OK, back to our topic: the discovery of a batch of poems in 1964, traceable to the historical Hồ Xuân Hương, strongly suggests that all of these other “Hồ Xuân Hương” poems are apocryphal, concocted by the masses or bastardized through circulation. In short, they were not written by a single author but belong to a Hồ Xuân Hương tradition. It shouldn't matter: the faux Hồ Xuân Hươngs still constitute a remarkable body of works, a tribute to both the oral tradition and a poet whose vision changed her society, as scholar Đào Thái Tôn explains:
Among the glories of a poet is to be at the vanguard: a vanguard in viewpoint, a vanguard in deportment, leaving a deep influence on posterity, so that she is imitated and borrowed from by those who come later.
Although continuously beloved by the populace, all Hồ Xuân Hương poems were deemed too lewd to be taught in highschools by the 1960's, only to be restored to the curriculum in the 90's. Today, many Vietnamese still know at least a few Hồ Xuân Hương lines by heart. This enduring popularity testifies to the Vietnamese's need and desire for a masterfully blunt, loose-talking woman. I translate eight poems:

The Snail

My parents have brought forth a snail,
Night and day among the smelly grass.
If you love me, peel off my shell,
Don't wiggle my little hole, please.


The Jackfruit*

My body is like a jackfruit on a branch,
With a rugged skin and thick flesh,
But if it pleases you, drive the stake.
Don't just fondle, or the sap
Will stain your fingers.


*The jackfruit is related to the breadfruit and has an exterior similar to the pineapple. One drives a stake into it, leaves it in the sun, so its sap can flow out. This, one of the most famous Hồ Xuân Hương poems, has also been attributed to Đặng Thị Huệ.


Ba Doi Gorge

A gorge, a gorge, and yet, the same old gorge.
Praise to whoever has gouged out this scene:
A lurid cave with a stubby arch,
And rich green boulders covered with algae.
Now the stiff wind blows, shaking pine branches.
Dew-drops dripping from willow leaves.
You who are virtuous, or saintly, who hasn't tried,
Even with weak knees, exhausted feet, to mount it?


Ode to the Paper Fan

One ring deep enough for any rod,
You’ve been alluring from way back when.
Stretch you to three points, there's not enough skin,
But close you from both sides, there's too much flesh.
Your job is to cool down sweating heroes,
And cover the gentleman's head in case it rains.
Behind the bed-curtain, tenderly, let’s ask him,
Panting, panting in this heat, are you satisfied?


An Unplanned Pregnancy

My giving in yielded this mess.
Don't you realize my anguish?
Although destiny never raised its head,
There's a stroke across the willow tree.*
It's a century-long bond, remember?
This loveload I'll be lugging.
Whatever the world's opinions,
To have child, without husband,
Is a very nice feat.


* “Destiny” is a translation of “duyên thiên,” literally, “a match made in heaven.” “Thiên” is a Chinese-derived word meaning “heaven”. With one stroke upward, the Chinese character for “heaven” (天) becomes “husband” (夫). In line 4, the speaker is referring to the Chinese character for “finished,” homophonous with “willow,” a classical symbol for “woman.” A bar across “finished” turns it into “offspring,” which in turn is homophonous with the character for "death." Lines 3 and 4 describe the speaker's condition of being pregnant without a husband.


Sharing a Husband

One under the quilt, one freezes.
To hell, father, with this husband-sharing.*
Once in a while, twice a month, maybe,
I might as well not have it.
Trade punches for rice, but rice is moldy.**
And work's work, but I'm working for free.
Had I known things would turn out this way,
I would have settled for being alone.


*The first phrase of line 2, “chém cha,” is a curse word meaning, literally, “stab the father.”
** “Take punches for rice” is a proverb.


A Hermaphrodite

Which squabble among twelve midwives
Caused them to throw your love-thing away?
To hell with that squeaking mouse.
To hell with that droning wasp.
Who knows if it's smooth or bumpy?
Who can tell if it's stem or bud?
Whatever it is, it must do.
You’ll never be called a slut.


A Roadside Teahouse

Aslant, staring at a trembling landscape:
A twining road, a tottering teahouse,
A hut with a thatch roof, ragged, pathetic,
A slitted, scrawny bamboo beam,
Three tree clumps, bending, coquettish,
An emerald green stream, scanty grass.
Pleasured, I forget my old worries.
Look: someone's kite's spiralling.


Not to flog Balaban overly much--sorry, John--but the Hồ Xuân Hương book was not the first time he mixed fiction with poetry. In 1980, he published Ca Dao Viet Nam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry. Reissued recently, it carries this description: "During the Vietnam war, John Balaban traveled the Vietnamese countryside alone, taping, transcribing, and translating oral folk poems known as 'ca dao.' No one had ever done this before, and it was Balaban's belief that his project would help end the war." Nearly all the folk poems in Balaban's book could be found in Nguyễn Văn Ngọc's Tục Ngữ Phong Dao, however, published in Saigon in 1925, and reissued many, many times. A standard reference book, it is known to all scholars and many students and casual readers. Balaban didn't have to get off the beaten paths, risking stepping on shit-smeared punji sticks or bouncing betties, to gather poems already available in every Saigon bookstore. Further, Balaban's Vietnamese was simply not good enough to do field works, alone. When my wife and I heard him perform some Vietnamese poems in North Carolina in 2004, we couldn't understand, literally, a single word. At the back of the Ca Dao book, there are a dozen photos of weird looking Vietnamese, the supposed sources and quarries of Balaban's ethnographic prowess. These were followers of the coconut monk, a weirdo who claimed to survive solely on coconut milk, who built a tacky "peace" platform on an island in the Mekong River. Balaban couldn't very well snap photos of Bee Gees-listening Vietnamese in plastic shades, flower shirts and bell bottoms, could he? That would fall outside the script.





"George Harrison and the Coconut Monk" (Richard Avedon, 1999)

5 comments:

Murat said...

Linh,

Ripping off the Orient obviously does not confine itself to the Islamic East. I am very glad you posted this critique.

Something very similar happened in Daniel Ladinsky's "The Gift," his purported Hafiz "translations," where not a single gazel or any other poem by Hafiz was included. There also Daniel Ladinsky had some connection with an Indian guru. Interestingly Ladinsky enjoyed his new wave royalties at Myrtle Beach (is this in North or South Carolina?, where I called him to inquire about what kind of translation he was doing.Years later a German blog wrote to Penguin to alert them of the situation. Surprise, surprise, they received no answer. Penguin will acknowledge its "responsibility" after the Ladinsky book sold its last possible copy.

I wrote a review of this book when it came out. It is in the web, but for some reason I can not raise the website to get the url. I will have the text posted directly. The two will create a nice contrast.

Ho Xuan Huang's poetry (and your translations) are absolutely amazing. As I said a few months ago in this blog, in relation to translations from an earlier age or non-Western culture, Asian poetry, Sanskrit, Turkish and obviously Vietnamese, have an erotic rawness and psychological depth, quite taboo in modern Western poetry. For example, can you imagine Ho Xuan Huong's poems to be written by anyone in the West today?

Ciao,

Murat

Anonymous said...

I think you went to far in your criticism of balaban's efforts, but of course it's your opinion and blog and you have every right to.

I must admit reading his translations were dissapointing because there are just some things that will always be lost in translation. Much of the subtleties are lost in his translations simply because English lacks the flexibility of the Vietnamese language - where a word can change meanings based on tonal inflection.

At the same time I appreciate his obvious adoration of the Vietnamese culture and the fact that he has literally brought Vietnamese literature to a global stage (do you know how much attention "Spring Essence" has received?) as well as starting a movement to preserve the dying "Nom" script.

Anonymous said...

"In short, these compositions are not Ho Xuan Huong's but "poems from the Ho Xuan Huong tradition."

What? But Balaban made it clear that some of these were at least definitely her poems? The big deal about the book was that it included the poems in their original form. When people talk about the poems living on through memorization/oral tradition (and therefore being of the Ho Xuan huong tradition and not actually hers) they're obviously not referring to what remained from the Chu Nom (written) versions... there must be a large portion of the collection by Balaban actually by her since the big deal was that they were also printed in their original calligraphic form?

Anonymous said...

Dear fellow Vietnamese:

Your so-called “discussion” on poet/translator John Balaban’s translations of Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry and Ca Dao Viet Nam has nothing to do with the literary critique but rather sounds personal and reveals a sense of competitiveness and jealousy. I wonder if you are aware that Mr. Balaban’s remarkable work has been well-received by world-wide readers (approximately twenty thousand copies of Spring Essence have been printed since it was published in 1999).

While poet Balaban deserves a special thanks from us, Vietnamese, for presenting our Vietnamese verbal and literary traditions to the Western readers as well as for his tremendous efforts to preserve our Vietnamese Nom heritage, I am afraid that any sort of negative attitudes like the one reflected in your article would do him no justice, and at the same time, contribute to discourage non-Vietnamese scholars from their keen interest in our own literature. To me, Mr. Balaban is a true hero and I cannot thank him enough!

A Vietnamese reader

Le Pham said...

Dear Editor,


I was shocked to see that the VNLP would publish such an article as “Ho Xuan Huong” by Linh Dinh which is nothing more than a personal attack against the celebrated poet and translator John Balaban.

Reading his unkind remarks on Ca Dao Viet Nam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry (Unicorn Press, 1980, not the Copper Canyon Press, 2003 edition), I cannot help sharing with your readers some of my observations:

In his so-called “Blog,” Linh Dinh wrote, “Nearly all the folk poems in Balaban's book could be found in Nguyễn Văn Ngọc's Tục Ngữ Phong Dao”

1. First of all, this is not true. The majority of the poems in Ca Dao Vietnam do not appear in Nguyen Van Ngoc's book. Exactly four (4) of the poems in Balaban’s book of 49 poems come from Nguyen Van Ngoc's Tuc Ngu Phong Dao. And that 1938 book is acknowledged in Balaban’s introduction.

As everyone knows, Vietnamese folk poetry has been created for thousands of years (as old as Viet Nam itself) mostly by the ordinary people who could not read or write. As a child growing up in the countryside, I heard a lot of lullabies recited by my grandmother, mother, neighbors, and even uncles long before reading Nguyễn Văn Ngọc’s collection of ca dao in my years of study at Dalat College of Letters and Saigon University of Pedagogy. I think it would be ridiculous for Linh Dinh, due to his lack of knowledge and thorough research, to falsely accuse Balaban that he “didn't have to get off the beaten paths, risking stepping on shit-smeared punji sticks or bouncing betties, to gather poems already available in every Saigon bookstore.” If you listen to Balaban’s recordings on his website www.johnbalaban.com, you can hear gun and mortar fire in the background of some of the poems. Balaban’s 2003 introduction, page 10 and following, makes clear that these poems were recorded in the countryside of Vietnam during the war. To prove my point, I would invite Linh Dinh to visit Balaban’s website at www.johnbalaban.com and to listen to the voice of those real Vietnamese folk poets recorded on Balaban’s tape to realize that Linh Dinh is the one who is “mixing fiction with poetry,” not Balaban.

2. Linh Dinh wrote, “At the back of the Ca Dao book, there are a dozen photos of weird looking Vietnamese, the supposed sources and quarries of Balaban's ethnographic prowess.” Linh Dinh is looking at the 1980 first edition of Ca Dao Vietnam, published by Unicorn Press which includes photographs of some of the ca dao singers. The “weird looking Vietnamese” in those photographs are monks and recluses from Con Phung Island in the Mekong and clearly identified as such.

3. Linh Dinh’s also wrote, “When my wife and I heard [Balaban] perform some Vietnamese poems in North Carolina in 2004, we couldn't understand, literally, a single word.”

I wonder who among us, who speak a foreign language, do not have to deal with accent problem due to the differences between language structures. I do. For this, I can speak from my own experience. It is totally up to the native speakers to open their mind and their heart when listening to the non-native speakers who try to communicate to them. As an English non-native speaker himself, I think Linh Dinh should know better.

Regarding Spring Essence: Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong (Copper Canyon Press, 2000), Linh Dinh’s criticism is based on what I consider nonsense, “Balaban never admits that these Hồ Xuân Hương poems are really a part of the folk tradition.”

On the contrary, the introduction to Spring Essence, page four and following, and including various endnotes, makes clear Ho Xuan Huong's connection to the oral folk tradition that ..."gives her poetry a special Vietnamese dimension filled with the aphorisms and speech habits of the common people."

John Balaban deserves a special thanks from Vietnamese for presenting our oral and literary traditions to the Western readers, as well as for his tremendous efforts to preserve our Vietnamese Nom heritage, I am afraid that any sort of negative attitudes like the one reflected in Linh Dinh’s article would do him no justice, and at the same time, contribute to discourage non-Vietnamese scholars from their keen interest in the Vietnamese literature. To me, Mr. Balaban is a true hero and I cannot thank him enough!

In conclusion, Linh Dinh’s so-called “discussion” on Balaban’s translations of Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry and Ca Dao Viet Nam has nothing to do with the literary critique but rather sounds personal and reveals a sense of competitiveness and jealousy. There must be a better way to promote one’s work than attacking others.

Sincerely,

Lavendercare Dinh