FROM JANUARY (Collected Poems) - Mai Văn Phấn. Translated from Vietnamese by Nhat-Lang Le. Edited by Susan Blanshard

Mai Văn Phấn

Translated from Vietnamese by Nhat-Lang Le

Edited by Susan Blanshard

 

 

 

 


Translator - Poet Nhat-Lang Le

 

 

 

 


Poet Susan Blanshard


 

 

 

FROM JANUARY

(From the poetry book “The Selected Poems of Mai Văn Phấn”)




The Secrets of a Moment: A reading of from january by Mai Văn Phấn

                       

 

 

 

By Lê Hồ Quang

Translated by Nathan Le

           

 

 

1. At first look, the title from january(1) seems rather simple. It is a little bit different from the titles of Mai Văn Phấn’s previous volumes, which are often somewhat special, sometimes mantra-like: Calling the Blue, Water Wall, Firmament without Roof Cover, and suddenly the wind blows, face-hiding flower, Just Born There… (The collection titles from january, and suddenly the wind blows, face-hiding flower are not capitalized by Mai Văn Phấn). Is it a random choice? I don’t think so. This writer is known for his careful choices of words. On the other hand, considered within a complete work, the title is a very important element, usually a guiding signal worthy of notice about the work itself. Indeed, in this collection, January is a meaningful starting point. It is a real point in time in the present, concrete and fresh with the life that each individual is living, experiencing. However, with the endless passage of time, that point in time is quickly buried on the universe’s perpetual, constant circumvolution without origin and without end. Thus, one can take from january as an insinuation of time according to Mai Văn Phấn—time of the moments. And at the same time, from january is also the beginning of a journey to commit more deeply into the vague and vast realm of spirituality and creativity, in order to search and uncover the secrets of those moments.

 

2. Inspired by time, the collection is organized essentially in linear order, along the flow of seasons, beginning with spring (and mostly about spring and summer, the most beautiful seasons in the eye of the poet). There, spring is associated with Tet Nguyên Đán—which is the lunar new year; to the Tomb Sweeping festival; to pilgrimage journeys; to cherry blossoms, plum blossoms, and seeds soaked in mud bursting into life. Summer is associated with the ocean, an image of freedom and liberty, sunlight, the wind and the rain as warm and strong as the very soul of seaside inhabitants… That is a journey of time as well as one of the human mind, in all its diverse expressions from Everyday to Spiritual and Creative. Therefore, with careful observations, next to the order of time, one sees that this collection is also organized into clusters of poems, into patches of themes and imageries. There are patches about spring days, about flowers, about the rain, about the dew, about bells, about the ocean… It can be said that for the same event or thing, the poet does not stop at fixed, immobile forms. He wants to observe it from many angles, in all of its own dimensions, nuances and liveliness and with the most succinct expressions, in order to maximally preserve the beauty of nature and the human mind. Thus, there are 20 poems about spring days, 20 about the rain, 23 about flowers, and 52 just about the sea. Just by looking at the titles of some poems about the sea, one can notice very clearly that the writer’s purpose is to capture life’s realistic beauties: Morning at Sea, Darkening Sea, Sea Blending into Night, Silent Sea, Rolling Sea, Sea Rain, Sea Breeze, House by the Sea, Drinking Tea by the Sea, Crowded Beach, Waiting for a Wave, Rising Tide, Putting My Cheek on the Sands, Lighting to Fish for Squids… In a very natural way, this descriptive method reminds me of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s set of paintings, 36 Views of Mount Fuji, or a little further away, French artist Claude Monet’s more than 250 paintings about lillies. Just the one thing, at different moments, will express different beauties. And it is beautiful in every moment. Nonetheless, if in previous collections, Mai Văn Phấn describes events and things in a symbolic fashion, here it seems he just wants to “preserve” all those everyday moments and shapes in their simplest, clearest and most natural beauty. A tendency to chronicle, a presentness and a naturalness are the distinguished characteristics of this work.

 

3. Pushing events to the textual surface and maximally limiting the use of the first person pronoun create an easy-to-observe objectivity for the world of poetic imageries in from january. Nevertheless, one still sees rather clearly the face of the I-subject behind that painting of life. That is the self mostly expressed through actions of direct physical cognizance, such as by hands, feet, mouth, ears or eyes. Keen physical senses allow the poet-self to perceive life so quickly, fiercely and subtly. That explains why life always is recreated with such freshness and richness of feelings in Mai Văn Phấn’s poetry. On the other hand, that is due to a self which is extremely sensitive to Beauty, especially Beauty of the Present, in everyday’s life, around each of us. That self in particular is always aware of looking for and aiming at those moments where human beings exist in understanding of and in deep harmony with nature, and with various down-to-earth yet pure expressions; and where the present, or the moment, also wakes up our awareness of Infinity or Eternity. One can see this clearly in poems which seem simply to recreate scenes, for example:

 

Rain


Water fills up the garden

Peach flowers drift

As if running away

 

Here, the feeling of running away seems to belong to the poet. Such personification is especially clear when he writes about nature, trees, flowers, small animals or pagoda bells… But even when he writes about everyday activities of individuals, that sense of mutual understanding and blending still exists prominently.

 

With a mindset prudent and, at the same time, so light, the poet looks to turn up the folds of life, wakes up the mysteries hidden within them—life’s unblemished beauty. It is absolutely not the objective beauty, which opposes and is separated from the subject, but in contrary, a beauty born out of intimate interfusions between the subjective soul and all things around it. Like pagoda bells that can shake a bush of water wisteria / immobile / throughout Spring and create an extraordinary sympathy among all things, this beauty and this strength may very likely come from a soul that has attained the Tao. However, although he always believes and determines to look for wonders in every moment of existence, regarding the moment as something sacred and of great capacity to transform and purify human lives, Mai Văn Phấn doesn’t mystify or deify it in an extreme way. In this poet, there exists a mindset of life and creativity that is somewhat aestheticist, yet very open and realistic.

 

4. Regarding the organization of the text, each poem in from january has 3 lines. Each line usually corresponds to an independent image, creating ample space for associations. But at the same time, the poet often organizes his imageries and words according to a most natural form of expression and presentation. That coherence is expressed foremost in the syntactical order of the poetic lines, which are often connected to each other grammatically and semantically, so that many poems can be read continuously from the title to the last line. In those cases, rhythm is essentially created through enjambment. The title exists as an inseparable, or even syntactical, component of the first line, which splits off and is promoted as a title. Nevertheless, titles still have their relative independence. Most of the times, titles are words or phrases that serve as the “key” for a poem. From a certain perspective, one can see that this special formal cohesion between the title and the lines also represents the concept of the world as a living body with organic bonds among all the constituent elements. It is quite a pleasure to read many poems with that straightforward and cohesive impression.

 

Of course, this three-line poetic “form” demands the poet to have proper techniques to execute, regarding themes, language, imageries, etc. because without those, instead of an aesthetic structure, the poem is very likely only a descriptive statement broken mechanically into three lines. Let me take the poem “First Morning of New Year” to analyze this in more details:

 

First Morning of New Year


I find a child’s sock

Soft

As a ripened fruit

 

The poem tells of a very simple event: In the first morning of the lunar new year, the writer finds a child’s sock which is very soft. The sock evokes the presence of a child and wakes up feelings of tenderness and endearment. The event happens on the first day of a lunar new year and it is well-meaning in the poet’s heart. In fact, previously, the poem has been organized differently than in the version being analyzed. The previous version has the following enjambment: I find / A child’s sock / Soft as a ripened fruit. Three events are simply placed next to each other, with no significant point of emphasis, eventual information superseding emotional information. But behold the current version, where the adjective “soft” is separated into its own line. The poem, therefore, has found its center of gravity. The word “soft” becomes the “keyword” of the poem, the radial point of impressions and feelings.

 

Apparently in poetry one cannot disregard the organization of textual structures, where changing one element may mean changing the whole. Especially in this aspect, one can observe clearly the writer’s awareness and diligence in searching among possibilities. It is worth mentioning that in many three-line poems, scenes appear very fresh, like a spontaneous verbalizing of reality itself, as though there is no trace of any painstaking effort, and that is evidently a success as far as poetic craft is concerned. However, in some cases, a too obvious dependency of the title towards the first line makes the poem not quite a “three-line poem.” On the textual level, one can condense further to create high indepency of the poetic lines, in order to exploit more thoroughly the ideas and probably to stimulate a strong “explosion” in a reader’s associations and imagination.

 

5. Observing and explaining human lives and the universe in general depth has become the poet’s familiar line of aesthetic thought, and this affects rather clearly the thematic formation of the poems. The poet usually organizes his imageries and words in a rather centralized, associative field. The center of a poem is often a very specific, impulsive image at first look. However, in some cases, it quickly becomes a productive “meanings generation structure.” The following poem is a typical example:

 

Sowing Seeds

 

In decomposing mud

As I’ve made just a dozen steps

The fields grow full of fog

 

The poem discusses sowing seeds, with three consecutive actions—sowing, walking and growing—illustrating nature’s extraordinary reproductive force. The subject of description here is “seeds.” Seeds grow in mud like human souls grow in nature. In another words, human beings are also seeds growing amidst the crops of the universe. The poem, thus, is a metaphorical structure, which relies on the similarity between feelings and things to reach a symbolic awareness of the harmonious relationship between humans and nature, a rather familiar theme in Mai Văn Phấn’s poetry. Many other poems are also constructed on such similarity association mechanism. Some of them are simpler and more direct, such as Moutain Climbing, Wakened at Midnight, Looking, The Root

 

On the other hand, there are many other poems constructed based on the field of contrast association, such as: Overcrowded Flowers, From a Murky Puddle, A Fleck of Dust Clinging on a Hat, Passing by a Neighbor’s, A Thunder, A Bean, etc. The poem Overcrowded Flowers, at first glance, seems simply the retelling of an event:

 

Overcrowded Flowers

 

Overcrowded
Someone says

Fake apricot blossoms

 

A paradox is contained within the method of retelling which seems cold and objective. While flowers are “overcrowded” and offering their beauties to human beings, we are indifferent and dub them “fake apricot blossoms.” Is it because we have been satiated with the pretentiousness of fake flowers to the point of being blind in front of real beauty? Or is it because the real and the fake are now so similar and so difficult to distinguish? Anyway, the disadvantageous party here is not flowers but humans.

 

Many poems by Mai Văn Phấn has a coordination of several different points of view and different descriptive correlations and rationalizations. In observing and describing reality in particular, there are plenty of moments in which the poet reveals an insight that is humorous, naturally so mischievous: Sounds of Drilling on a Wall, Falling Asleep While Watching TV, A Tree and Its Shadow, Stopping in the Pagoda, A Piece of Watermelon, Passing by a Neighbor’s, etc. Sometimes his poem is a covert parody. Typical examples include the hesitation in deciding “whether to bite from inside or outside”(A Piece of Watermelon), or the noises from a street sweeper’s broom evoking crowds’ calls in an august afternoon (Sounds of a Bamboo Broom), or the sounds of a pestle crushing meat evoking the sounds of a frog jumping into a remote pond (Sounds of Meat Crushing), etc. Although the poems that follow this path are not numerous, they have really brought more personality as well as modernity into Mai Văn Phấn’s three-line poems.

 

6. An awareness of the universe and human conditions in their substantial relationships, interconnectedness and harmony, the extraction of word meanings to the core, the objectification of figures to a high degree, etc. are characteristics that stand out from the structure of Mai Văn Phấn’s three-line poetry. Of course, in order to create three-line poetry’s tight structure, it not simply a matter of techniques. Knowing which words to cut or keep, where to cut, and where to jump to the next line always requires the guidance of one’s intuition and verbal sensitivity, both of which are crucial in distinguishing a poet from a “poetic laborer.”

 

With the concise three-line poetic form, the control and envelopment of a sense of nature, the construction in accordance to “principles of seasons” and duo-imagery correlations, from january by Mai Văn Phấn very easily suggests that the reader associate it with the Japanese haiku. However, with this writer, studying and inheriting always go hand in hand with a strong sense of creativity and innovation in forming his own writing style. (That’s why he calls his poems “three-line” instead of “Vietnamese haikus.”) Even classical poetic materials, when touched by this Vienamese poet’s hand, bear new, unique modern aeasthetic aspects and meanings. Let us reread the following poem:

 

Sounds of Meat Crushing


A big frog

Jumps out of a cave opening

Already tight

 

A jumping frog is a too familiar image in haiku after the zen master and poet Matsuo Basho: The old pond; / A frog jumps in — / The sound of the water (trans. Robert Aitken). Mai Văn Phấn also describes the action of a frog that jumps out of a cave opening and this intentional closeness has created an obvious intertextuality. But reading has only become special when, upon glancing once more at the title, the reader suddenly realizes that the real subject being described here is not Matsuo Basho’s classical frog, but the sound of a pestle crushing meat. Thus, with intertextualy, the poet has put a common people’s food from his country up to the level of the the world’s poetic delicacies in a so lively, humorous yet no less elegant way! One can also observe the difference between two philosophies, one leaning to the deep, the discreet, and the mysterious (usually seen in Eastern classical poetry) and a whole daily life way of thinking leaning to the concrete, the realistic, and the lively (which is presumably inherent in Vietnamese culture). Along with those is a series of correlations of contrasts between the lyrical vs. the mundane, the poetic vs. the unpoetic, the traditional vs. the modern… The interesting impressions about the unexpected relationship between the sounds of a big frog jumping out of a narrow cave opening and that of a meat crushing pestle, therefore, is thus multiplied. One can see by this treatment of classical poetic materials that accepting outside artistic values is a familiar concept for Mai Văn Phấn—to accept means to innovate, in order to create domestically-generated aesthetic values instead of to depend on “imported” forms.

 

7. Keenness, calmness and elegance seem to be the dominant aesthetic shades of from january. Here, I mean the Keenness in observation, the Calmness in mood and creative state of mind, and the Elegance in verbal expressions. A keen observing eye, an ability to discover hidden relationships among things, a power to generalize, a prudence in word usage… are easy to recognize on the textual level. Yet the factor that really links all of the above is still an abundant, prolific poetic instinct and the sense of righteousness of one who finds himself in deep sympathy with trees, crops, creatures, the living and the dead, both in the present and in faraway places. This dulls the sharp sense of rationality from some of his other collections, rendering a warm feeling—regarding sentimentality; while at the same time, rendering a naturally symbolic style—regarding poetics. from january reveals a rich, sensitive, keen soul, although it sometimes leaves traces of techniques and is partly aestheticist. Therefore, not every poem in this volume reaches the beauty of innovation on grounds of tradition as a goal that the poet aims at. Besides, the objectivity, the conciseness and the suggestive power of three-line poetry are on one hand a value, a notable creative beauty, but on the other hand no small “challenge” to the reader: it requires the reader to really co-create.

 

Afterall, the moment is really Mai Văn Phấn’s philosophy for life and art. The moment allows human beings to penetrate secrets of the universe and those of the spirit. In the moment, one can see Infinity. Living and creating in each of those moments are not easy. It requires the artist to never let up doing what Mai Văn Phấn does: Using the tips of my shoes / I throw sands / Forward. But perhaps, that challenge is the very thing that makes up beauty and the real meaning of existence and creativity.

 

Vinh, May 5, 2015

L.H.Q

 

_______________
(1) Afterwards, Mai Văn Phấn says that the title
from january is suggested by his friend, the poet Pham Long Quận. This also explains why there
are certain differences between the title of this collection and those of previous collections by Mai Văn Phấn. However, this does not affect in any way on the wholesomeness of from january,
but in contrary, as analyzed above, this title is an element compatible with the content structure of the work. 



 


In a Goat’s Words

 

Open the pen

Drop your knife and cutting board

Let me go back to the mountains

 

 

 

 

With Toes Digging in the Soil

 

Without looking up

I still know

Young leaves are budding above

 

 

 

 

New Year Coming

 

As well-wishers gather

The sea out there

Doesn’t know it yet

 

 

 

 

New Spring

 

Bail

By bail of water

Runs down the field

 

 

 

 

In the Sounds of Fireworks

 

A few young fruits

May

Fall

 

 

 

 

First Morning of New Year

 

I find a child’s sock

Soft

As a ripened fruit

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Day

 

On the road

Picking a dried blade of grass

I touch the old year’s tail

 

 

 

 

The Splendid Spring Air

 

I rest

After collecting a full bucket of water

Not knowing what to do with it yet

 

 

 

 

First Night of New Year

 

Hearing waves

I shine a candle

Towards the sea

 

 

 

 

Choosing a Sofa

 

To place a vase of rhododendron

In the middle

Of Spring

 

 

 

 

Leisure

 

A cup of tea

Contains enough scents from

The new year

 

 

 

 

New Year’s Aspirations

 

I crave bird songs

Of any kind

From the sky

 

 

 

 

Young Buds

 

Lay underneath Spring

Fully stretched

Choked of their own breath

 

 

 

 

Spring’s New Grass

 

A buffalo calf

Is busy sniffing young grass

Its mother departing farther and farther

 

 

 

 

Midst of Spring

 

Strong winds

Paste peach flower petals
On the ground

 

 

 

 

Still Celebrating New Year

 

After my last piece of preserved fruit

I stand up to wind up the clock

Gladiolus flowers in full bloom

 

 

 

 

Spring Sun

 

Drops its breasts

Dangling down

To newly budding seeds

 

 

 

 

A Glimpse of Spring

 

A buffalo calf has passed by

A patch of young grass has disappeared

A boy has spilled honey

 

 

 

 

Late January

 

Spring rain has yet to come

Peach flowers fall

One petal at a time

 

 

 

 

Spring Rain Has Come

 

The air is moist

And cold

I have just taken a bath

 

 

 

 

Drizzle

 

Breaking
Dried wood
My hands warm up

 

 

 

 

Purification

 

A rain
This early in the season
I go wash my face

 

 

 

 

Getting Lost Watching the Drizzle

 

When I look down
A snail and I

Are touching the start line

 

 

 

 

Inserting Beans

 

In straight furrows

Once it’s done

The sky is laden with stars

 

 

 

 

Sowing Seeds

 

In decomposing mud

When I’ve made a dozen steps
The fields grow full of fog

 

 

 

 

Waking Up

 

At night I dream of being in a forest

In the morning
I select the seeds once more

 

 

 

 

Repaying a Favor

 

I lie face down near the  foot of a tree

Let leaves fall

On my back

 

 

 

 

Ahead

 

It’s more beautiful
I keep walking
Diving into an abyss of light

 

 

 

 

Crop

 

As I finish sowing a bed of beans
The calls of a Radde’s accentor remind me
Of the sky above

 

 

 

 

Fog

 

Hovers
For so long that
Rotten wood spawns flowers

 

 

 

 

Feelings

 

When fields are vast
Dewdrops

Seem more transparent

 

 

 

 

Spring Morning

 

Flower buds
Listen to children
Call each other to go dig worms

 

 

 

 

Stretching a Bow

 

An entire spring
Pulled

Backwards

 

 

 

 

Spring Still in Earth

 

Peach flowers
Fall

On apricot and plum flowers

 

 

 

 

Wild Rose

 

Blooms first
So that the nearby trees

Bloom later

 

 

 

 

A Trellis of Blue Trumpet Vine

 

Droops down
I stand on tiptoes

To see if any flowers remain

 

 

 

 

White Plum Flowers

 

As it grows dark
I lean close to them
To finish the page I’m reading

 

 

 

 

Rain

 

Water fills up the garden

Peach flowers drift
As if running away

 

 

 

 

Overcrowded Flowers

 

Overcrowded

Someone says
Fake apricot blossoms

 

 

 

 

Alone Brewing Tea

 

Waiting for water to boil
I sit and count cherry-apple flowers
Only to the sixth

 

 

 

 

Coming Winds

 

Push the chrysanthemums

To bend
Towards the weeds

 

 

 

 

In the Garden

 

I gather

Nine flowers
Forgetting to count the one just held

 

 

 

 

Botanical Love

 

Some of the peach flowers
Are falling
To the foot of a tree nearby

 

 

 

 

Where a Flower Falls

 

I put my face close to the ground

And look up
The flower has been there

 

 

 

 

A Flower Fallen into the Well

 

Dropping a bucket
I have to draw most of the water out
To reach the flower

 

 

 

 

Old Man

 

All his teeth gone

He smiles next to the plant
With scattering flowers

 

 

 

 

Target

 

A leaf of spring
Falls
Right on summer

 

 

 

 

End of Spring

 

It’s so moist

As I shake a cushion

Spring goes by

 

 

 

 

Spring Leaving

 

I cannot catch up

Only a thin

Streak of smoke remains

 

 

 

 

End of March

 

Red cotton flowers blooming

I cannot guess

How many steps to reach the tree

 

 

 

 

Night Between Seasons

 

Almost morning

In deep sleep I was not aware

Of lying next to summer

 

 

 

 

This Morning

 

I forget to peel off a calendar page

A pot of water

Takes longer to boil

 

 

 

 

Early Morning

 

Going out to open the gate

I feel dazed

Between two worlds

 

 

 

 

Going into the Garden

 

As I pull out weeds

Dawn comes

Earlier

 

 

 

 

After My Bath

 

The sky

Moves to another season
The magnolia tree grows older

 

 

 

 

Luck

 

Still with a mouthful of coffee

I see a pair of sparrows

Copulating in a longan tree

 

 

 

 

A Cup of Apple Juice

 

After the drink

I look up to the hills

Apple trees begin to blossom

 

 

 

 

Eating an Apple

 

I bite on it vertically

Then horizontally

And see myself growing younger


 

 

 

A Sip of Tea

 

Not yet swallowed

While I watch a branch of guava

Fructifying

 

 

 

 

A Cup of Coffee

 

I drink half of it

And wait for the wind

To shake all the branches

 

 

 

 

Sounds of Drilling Behind a Wall

 

Perhaps my neighbor is hanging a painting

At the very place in my house

Where I hang a lamp

 

 

 

 

Falling Asleep While Watching TV

 

I wake up

Seeing people laying on a beach

While I am fully clothed

 

 

 

 

In a Dream

 

I have lived through many regimes

Yet

Never been bothered

 

 

 

 

Clearing the Way

 

Sweeping

The ground clean

So more leaves can fall

 

 

 

 

Earth Shaking

 

I sweep again

The road in front

Children run through it

 

 

 

 

In a Barbershop

 

I hear the wind

Stroking in waves

From the roots to the top of a tree

 

 

 

 

Passing Cars

 

Covered with dust

A gardenia on the side of the road

Turns into an earthen statue

 

 

 

 

Waking Up and Seeing Gardeners

 

They have cultivated more trees

I volunteer

To scoop water to irrigate.

 

 

 

 

Resting

 

Pigeons

Landing on the roof

Playing their games

 

 

 

 

In Front of a Hair Styling Shop

 

Roots of a curtain fig drop

And swing

Beautifully in every way

 

 

 

 

 

A Fluffy Cloud

 

Stops

On the ground where

A mother is breastfeeding her child

 

 

 

 

Unfamiliar Feeling

 

New sunlight

All over the garden

I stand up to narrow a door’s opening.

 

 

 

 

Isn’t It the Moment

 

Many people

Wait for night to come

Why am I so unconcerned

 

 

 

 

A Champion Martial Arts Fighter

 

Sits alone

Singing softly

A vaguely sad melody

 

 

 

 

New Day

 

I peel a calendar page

And write

All over the other side

 

 

 

 

Fishes

 

Resurface

Knowing the seasonal wind

Arrived last evening

 

 

 

 

Night Rain

 

Not wanting trees to dry

This morning’s sunlight

Is also wet

 

 

 

 

Waking Up in a Hurry