-transl. Nguyen Than Xuan. Danang Publishing House, 2007
The story’s all too familiar: a man comes home after long years of war, remembering comradeship and suffering, ready for peace and love, only to find the transition far from simple. Even his blood remembers war: sweaty green fatigues, the pallor of faces marked by hunger and malaria, even the green leaves of the tapioca plant (manioc), which, fermented, could be eaten along with the starchy root.
During the war, thoughts of home and of the beloved haunt and sometimes buoy up, yet war too has its consolations, in the love of comrades, and in a deepened love of country: on patrol
You go to someone else’s village,
thinking like coming back to your own (p. 34).
While the words of the translation may vary from English usage, Thuy Kha renders his thoughts and feeling with a precision that knows no language barrier. He can be especially touching about everyday things, like the manioc, which the soldiers pulled up only to plant again, so that “manioc and / the soldiers’ heart grew with each other” – this at a time when American air fire was able to destroy ninety-nine of each hundred rice trucks on the way to the battlefield. He expresses gratitude for damp caves that gave sleepless shelter to soldiers who “Suddenly felt warm when we were seeing / each other with our eyes shining like stars” (p. 27).
The poignancy of these poems is sometimes the result of overlays, historical and imaginative. The caves once housed ancestors, who also found shelter there, without fire or food. More subtly, in “The Night the Forest Trees Died Out,” as Thy Kha hangs from his hammock, wind blowing “without any sound of rustling leaves, through trees killed by napalm and agent orange, the shape of the trees alone suggests to him “a vast lushly green forest,” and the “human-shaped trees” [wave to] each other boisterously / . . . talking and laughing” (p. 35). At the same time, in the reality of natural ruin, “Night sky was like being scratched with anguish,” and “The moon in its third quarter / was like someone’s deformed mouth” (p. 36)
The anguish here is in the suspension of Thuy Kha’s mind and heart between the remembered dream of living things and the actuality of dead ones. Come morning, he scoops water from a poisoned spring, perfectly limpid with lifelessness, reflecting only the dead trees that to Thuy Kha are now inseparable from dead comrades. Reconciliation begins when the hearts of enemies open to each other. Reading these poems, notions of friend and enemy dissolve into a larger sky.
The freedom with which Thuy Kha’s mind travels between actuality and dream and symbol is remarkable, fluid in a way that we’ve hardly experienced since the English Romantic period. Thuy Kha could be called Keatsian in this regard. Witness “Looking for the Mountainous Village”(p. 51). It begins with the speaker looking for this village, but the village is obscured in dense fog, and not only the trail but even the bomb craters around it are covered with weeds. Suddenly, we see “the burnt pillar of someone’s house.” It stands forlornly, laden with memory –warm traces of hands still imprinted on walls, the spectral appearance of a cliff “someone used to lean on in the moonlight.” Thuy Kha has been here before, “in the peaceful time between battles,” and now he shares “the calmness of the old floor and fields.” Even though the village is deserted, Thuy Kha remembers it “overflowing with human love,” and “forest vegetables.” Finally, as he scratches through a heap of ashes, he can say “I have found the mountain village right ‘ in the hearts of the soldiers” (p. 52).
The poignancy of this poem is typical in its delicate balance between ruin and warm life, and also, in the end, between war and peace. In “The Accompanying Raindrops,” a soldier in a peacetime city is “knitted to the rain,” and becomes the “kid from inside him running fast / to join the group of naked children / shouting joyfully on the street.” The children are actually there, but Thuy Kha also becomes “the peasant inside him / Happily opening his hands to greet the rain in the drought field.” And also inside him is a soldier “hurriedly wringing the wet clothes / then drying them on a fire.” The juxtaposition of these images is also a projection of Thuy Kha’s psyche with its aspects of jubilation and hardship.
Thuy Kha’s psyche is labile, nearly without boundaries. He can be other people, bound to them in compassion and grief. He can also be the very mountains he writes about. In “Ascending the Mountain,” he and his gathered war-comrades form “a mountain on top of a mountain.” In “Footprint on the Rock,” on a mountain barren even before the war, “Traces of dry blood remain on sharp cliff. / Footprints imprint thickly on the lonely mountain.” The very stone seems to utter “the names of soldier’s family members,” and the succulent raspberries are like a “young soldier’s lips.” Everywhere, Thuy Khan sees human footprints on rocks, *and the relationship between the human and natural is never dualistic, or at least, not for long. Dead soldiers are “as pure as the raindrops / Absorbed by the soil,” and their deaths are an aspect of how their country “had to [peel] of its skin to grow big.”
That is what Thuy Kha has done too, and by his willingness we also are enlarged.