Sunday, December 28, 2014

Black Stars Poems by Ngo Tu Lap Translated by Martha Collins

Black Stars
Poems by Ngo Tu Lap
Translated  by Martha Collins
and Ngo Tu Lap
Milkweed Editions
Minneapolis, Minnesota
ISBN: 978-1-57131-459-8
110 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Sometimes old memories and the ephemeral present don’t collide; rather they embrace in a rhythmic dance through a dream-like planetarium where these celestial bodies both repulse and attract. This phenomenon manifests itself elegantly in Black Stars, poems by Ngo Tu Lap as translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins in collaboration with the author.

Lap’s words evoke the Vietnam conflict and his childhood in that country gently and in a circuitous but insistent way. His memories seem to emerge from a rich Manichean darkness, take on the shine of life and then submerge to invisibility again. At times the metaphoric landscapes become the only tangible reality, absorbing not only sadness and suffering, but the persona’s self.

Early on in the collection the poem entitled Women from the 1960s (1) conjures up remembered images of childhood, both basic and affecting. A bit of background: Lap was born in 1962 and lived in a town sixty miles from Hanoi. The poet says,

The first women I ever saw
Were huge and dark, with warm breasts
And tired eyes like sad stars

While I played with a snail
In a bomb shelter flooded with rain
The women disappeared without a sound

Thirty years later I still see them
Millions of breasts cut from suffering bodies
Fallen to earth like young coconuts
Full of milk even in the grave

In Lap’s poem Darkness he develops a textured geography redolent of sweat and filled with life. The wording (read lively translation) drips wonderfully and sensually onto the page. Darkness, as used by Lap, delivers freedom of memory and imagination and acts as a life giving prod to continue toward whatever end we seek. Here’s the heart of the piece,

Though ravens flock and thieves prowl
Though wicked intrigues hover above me
Though droning insects sadden my heart
I still choose you, darkness, as my companion

With you, the snails of childhood crawl out again
Eyes, both strange and familiar, close together—
Like heat suffused with the odor of sweat
Darkness quietly honors my faithful smile

Lap appends invisible heavenly pulsars to his own body and gives them substance in his title poem Black Stars. The circularity of the self and its subjective infinity appear and reappear from childhood memories of war time. Lap creates a tension between present and past. They orbit and, quite often, inform one another. The poet’s field of view expands exponentially,

There, in the village, a rooster is crowing
In the scent of burning rice-fields, dew is sparling
Over there is my mother
There, my country

On guns and plows, millions of diligent stars
Are flying in silence
Black stars, black stars

One life might have drifted away
But one has returned

In many of these pieces I’ve noticed a continuous rising and falling motion as if to offset life’s vertigo and develop direction. Tears, coconuts, rain, friends, leaves, years and hair succumb to gravity, while wind, blood, stars and the road rise to the heavens. This lyrical motion mimics breathing and gives the collection its magical momentum. Lap’s poem Viet Blood opens with this versified rush,

Sometimes it rises excited on lips
As red as the sun of Vietnam
Sometimes it flows silently
Like mud, dark in veins
While I travel this vast land, these long rivers

Clouds spread white mist through the border sky
My sweat flows into deep chasms…

And later in the same poem, Lap’s flow of words fall again,

It didn’t choose me, I didn’t choose it
Viet blood
Is like life, love, death
Sometimes hardening into resin

Green leaves keep flowing down the hill
Where my friend has fallen

Lap employs a “well” metaphor to get at the nature of mortality in the poem entitled Empty Well. Everything collapses into non-existence and silence and the silence is deafening. Yet this well cannot be quenched. Is it circular? Does it give up its dead? The poet seems to meditate on this conundrum,

Like eyes in a decomposing skull
Black wells
Look into the earth
Black wells filled with silence

Beneath the acacia tree
Cai flowers withered long ago
Onion stalks have yellowed
Cannas have gone wild

Rainwater keeps falling

Lap delves into war’s horror in his poem Praise for the Dead not with squeamishness but with distance. His response to vulture-like demons feasting on dead carcasses is one of thoughtful sadness. War’s glory and nobility rots in the frozen past, along with unfinished dreams and squandered potential. Lap handles his remembered and imagined goblins with not a little irony. He concludes the piece this way,

I used to be very sad
And afraid
Of their sharp white teeth
Their drunken eyes gleaming like mercury
Their frozen kisses sharp as bamboo knives

I used to be very sad
But who knows, maybe I’m lucky

Thank you, stinking corpse:
Because of your nobility
I now have fewer friends

Lap’s poems flower into movingly phrased English in this not-to-be-missed collection. Martha Collins and Milkweed Editions deserve much praise for this inspired poetic collaboration.

No comments:

Post a Comment