Friday, July 28, 2023

Red Letter Poem #170

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – Steven Ratiner





Red Letter Poem #170





For many years, I taught a workshop entitled “A Poem Is a Place to Stand.”  Playing off the diverse meanings embodied in that phrase, my idea was this: a poem is the act of creating a locus in time and space, an occasion for deep attention: this is where I am standing right now.  (And then, of course – the next day, the next poem – you must discover that stance all over again.)  But, at other times, a poem is a kind of declaration (to the self, if not the whole world) that this is the truth I stand for, the words I stand by: with this vision, this utterance, this unique orientation to experience, I claim my place in this life.  Such a poem bestows authority, jurisdiction, standing – even for those whose voices other, more powerful individuals and institutions might attempt to silence. 

All this is quite relevant to the work of Tuệ Sỹ: revered Vietnamese poet/scholar/monk/Zen master.  Making good use of the marvelous ambiguity inherent in traditional Vietnamese, his poems locate his consciousness in all the varied landscapes of his life: from that hill in Nha Trang where the Institute of Buddhism became the site of his early training; to the straw hut he built in the Van Gia forest, living for years as a recluse; to the re-education camps and prison cells that claimed 16 years of his life – because a man willing to stand by his beliefs is always going to be seen as a threat to authoritarian powers; and eventually to Ho Chi Minh City where, now in poor health, he completed the closing poems contained in Dreaming the Mountain (published in a handsome bi-lingual volume by Milkweed Editions) – the first encompassing selection of his life’s work to appear in English.  There are tremendous challenges in carrying over Vietnamese poems, and acclaimed poets Nguyen Ba Chung and Martha Collins have done superlative work in creating English versions that resonate with the originals.  Across the decades, and no matter where Tuệ Sỹ lived, there was always one more crucial place featured in his poetry, serving as a kind of dream-beacon: his fabled Truong Son, a desolate mountain peak which came to symbolize for the poet the inviolable spirit of his country which even interminable war could not destroy.

Though a part of me knew better (or should have), the very concept of language forming a place to stand implies, perhaps, more intentionality and control than any human really possesses; this is especially true for any honest poet facing the unmapped journey of a human mind in this largely-unknowable universe.  But after reading through the poems of Dreaming the Mountain, I find myself gravitating toward a more Buddhist interpretation of that phrase.  Perhaps a poem helps register the place where the physical world seems to fall away from beneath us and we sense the vast mystery underlying even the most ordinary of experiences – what the Buddhists might term emptiness.  Can we, in the West – with our all-too-material orientation toward experience – withstand such an awareness?  I think a figure like Tuệ Sỹ – both a philosopher and devout Buddhist – might smile at the question because, to his mind (and like it or not) it’s precisely where you and I are situated even now: feet firm against the earth while our unbridled thoughts rest upon. . .well, so profound and generative an emptiness, words can do little more than mark the point of our departure.



Still Wait



I still wait through long restless nights

Pale green cries sound from the forest edge

In hatred’s darkness, there is still love

A star brims like tears beside my lips


I still wait through black windless nights

The pure shimmering black of ancients’ eyes

I look deep to lengthen history’s path

A river of blood and tears over the land


I still wait, to forget the beating waves

The Pacific Ocean, people back and forth

Those who stayed ache in the tyrant’s hands

Slender reeds weighed down by the sun at dusk


Then, with a frail body, I face prison

Fingers tapping time on a mossy wall

Then, my eyes closed, I go to the dream-place

Like early dew, like lightning, like evening clouds



                              ––Tu S


                                    tr. by Nguyen Ba Chung

and Martha Collins




The Red Letters 3.0


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