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 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:



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


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


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



(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



By bail of water

Runs down the field





In the Sounds of Fireworks


A few young fruits







First Morning of New Year


I find a child’s sock


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







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







Dried wood
My hands warm up







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







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







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







For so long that
Rotten wood spawns flowers







When fields are vast

Seem more transparent





Spring Morning


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





Stretching a Bow


An entire spring






Spring Still in Earth


Peach flowers

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







Water fills up the garden

Peach flowers drift
As if running away





Overcrowded Flowers



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







A leaf of spring
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






After My Bath


The sky

Moves to another season
The magnolia tree grows older







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






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


Never been bothered





Clearing the Way



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.








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



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








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


Sparrows on a tree

And I

Have fallen asleep







A bird flaps its wings

Four or five neighbors

Open their doors to look





Lychee Season


Trees full of fruit

While walking I count

My steps





Stepping Calmly


In the rain

The road