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“When Rain Blackens the Sky”

War Poets From Viet Nam

By Fred Marchant | HUMANITIES, March/April 1998 | Volume 19, Number 2

There is a Vietnamese legend that in times of distress the nation will be blessed with the arrival of a child poet. During the years of the American war, in what Americans then called North Viet Nam, there was such a young poet. His name was Tran Dang Khoa.

Born in 1958, he grew up in a village fifty miles south of Hanoi in the rice-growing Red River delta. Near the village was Phu Luong Bridge, one of the main routes of soldiers heading south into combat. The bridge was bombed regularly, and whenever the bridge was down, there would be dented barges to ferry troops and supplies across the river at night.

Khoa escorted me through the Hai Hung province on my first visit to Viet Nam in 1994. With him was a fellow writer who told me as we looked at the still-unrepaired bridge that the soldiers would hope there for a daylight B-52 raid on the bridge. This would mean that the soldiers would have to be sheltered in Khoa's village, and this would allow them to ask the child poet to recite some of his verses for them. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say recite his verses "over" them, for my host implied that for the soldiers to hear Khoa say his poems was very much like having him bless them as they went off to fight. This poetry was simple, clear, exceptionally musical, and very unwarlike. Its primary intent seemed to be to celebrate and savor the enduring delights of agricultural life. In "The Alabaster Stork" the stork's appearance announces the return of the rains in early spring, and the resumption of rice-planting.

When rain blackens the sky
                                   in the east,
when rain blackens the sky
                                  in the west,
when rain blackens the sky
                                  in the south, the north,
I see a stork white as alabaster
take wing and usher in the rain. . .
Rice in the paddy ripples
                                  like a broad flag,
potato plants send up
                                  their dark green leaves,
the palm tree opens
                                  its fronds to catch the drops.
The toads and frogs
                                  sing all day and all night,
and fish flicker away
                                  dancing to that tune.
But no one sees in the branches
the stork shivering in the cold. . .
When rain blackens again
                                   in the east,
when rain blackens again
                                   in the west,
when rain blackens again
                                   in the south, the north,
I see that stork white as alabaster
take wing to proclaim the rain again.

(Translated by Nguyen Ba Chung and Fred Marchant)

Even though the war is unmentioned in the poem, it is palpably present. The stork is the broad-winged antithesis of the silvery bombers flying overhead. It proclaims that life on the earth will go on, and that it proceeds according to certain unvarying laws that are not halted by war.

To the left and right of me as I looked at the bombed-out bridge I could see the dikes we tried to bomb. The strategic idea was to flood the ricefields and disrupt the food supply. Trimming the dikes were stands of trees, and white storks within them. Beyond were some recently plowed fields. Khoa pointed out to me that they still had bomb-craters, and they were being used as lotus ponds.

In the distance was a cluster of small mountains, one the retreat of the great fifteenth- century poet Nguyen Trai, who had been a master strategist and military leader in Viet Nam's struggle against the Chinese colonial authority centuries ago. When Khoa brought me and the American poet Martha Collins to Nguyen Trai's mountain hermitage, I think he was showing us more than the provincial sights. He was tacitly claiming his poetic lineage, and teaching us how poetry had always been inherently important to the Vietnamese people. Any schoolchild might know a score of poems by heart, and ordinary adults who had nothing to do with writing or publishing poems, would at least remember a few and could recite them.

Literacy had been an essential virtue of the centuries' long anticolonial struggle. The Roman script of the language had been an act of defiance against Chinese cultural imperialism, which in the eighteenth century had seemed far more threatening than that of the French. As with Nguyen Trai, it was not at all uncommon for leaders of the anticolonial struggle to be themselves accomplished literary people. Reading, writing, recitation, and performance had for centuries been one of the ways to forge a national identity. During my first week in Hanoi I remember being distressed by some unnamed matter which only occurred to me when I was leaving to go south to Hue city in the south. As I said good-bye to Khoa and other writers I realized that I had just spent a week in a society where poetry and poets were considered national treasures.

In the twentieth century, certainly the poet who drew directly on the model provided by Nguyen Trai was Nguyen Ai Quoc, more commonly known as Ho Chi Minh. Aside from his prison diary collection of poems, Ho was in the habit, from 1947 to his death in 1969, of composing a poem for Tet, the lunar New Year. In 1948 he wrote:

Full Moon in January

Now comes the first full moon of the year.
Rivers rise in mists to join spring skies.
We talk of strategy by slow burning fires.
Yes, sell the compass, come on the boat of the full moon.

(Translated by Kevin Bowen)

The poem tells us that the enterprise which Ho and his comrades have embarked upon depends on something greater than strategic planning, tactical equipment, and measuring devices. Their cause is more like a force of nature than a military operation. Joining Ho is like following the river course, or turning with the tides, or planting according to the cycles of the moon. Their revolution, Ho is saying, reflects an order beyond human desires or weaknesses, aspirations or fears. It is a destiny, and no one who trusts it will lose his or her way.

Much of the North Vietnamese poetry of the war years would have to be classified as inspirational verse. But as with Khoa's and Ho's poems, such a classification would miss the surprising suppleness and subtlety of the work. Probably the most renowned poems of the war years is "Drivers of Lorries Without Windows," by Pham Tien Duat. Born in 1942, Duat was a literature student at the University of Hanoi when he entered the army. His military occupational specialty was poetry. His job was to travel up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and recite his poems and organize poetry readings for the troops in transit. "Drivers" strives to capture the feel of life during the bombing. Duat tells us how his truck has no windows, no roof, no lights. The night air covers his face with dew, rain, dust. The vehicle is falling apart, Duat says, but as long as "there's a heart inside, it's enough." At one point Duat says, "when we pass friends along the trail/ we shake hands through broken windscreens." At another point, when the soldiers see how the dust has powdered their hair and faces white, they "burst out laughing at one another." Uplifting as they are intended to be, these images also convey a youthful sense of pleasure in the adventure. If not exactly on a lark, the misery of all this nonetheless makes the poet feel like singing.

The high spirits of youth, however, do in reality only go so far. On this trail and elsewhere there is death to meet and loss to endure. In "A Piece of Sky Without Bombs" Lam Thi My Da writes about life and death on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is an elegy for a fellow female soldier who was blown apart by a bomb.

Your friends said that you, a roadbuilder,
had such love for our country, you rushed
down the trail that night, waving your torch
to save the convoy, calling the bombs down on yourself.

We passed by the spot where you died,
tried to picture the young girl you once had been.
We pitched stones up on the barren grave,
adding our love to a rising pile of stone.

I gaze into the center of the crater
where you died and saw the sky in the pool
of rain water. Our country is so kind:
water from the sky washes the pain away.

Now you rest deep in the ground,
quiet as the sky that rests in the crater.
At night your soul pours down,
bright as the stars.

I wonder, could it be your soft skin
changed into columns of white clouds?
Could it be that when we passed that day,
it was not the sun but your heart breaking through?

This jungle trail now bears your name;
the skies reach down to your death and touch it;
and we, who never saw your face,
each wear a trace of you, bright on our cheek.

(Translated by Ngo Vinh Hai and Kevin Bowen)

In an essay titled "Some Other Poets of the War" (1994), Kevin Bowen remarks that what is central to this poem is the enduring connection between land and people. "The belief in the power of the land," writes Bowen, "to sustain and transform the terms of struggle is pivotal to both poem and culture."

Undergraduates in a course on the history and literature of the war I co-teach with historian Ken Greenberg have consistently responded deeply to Da's poem. So, too, with thirty-five secondary school teachers in a 1996 NEH summer seminar I co- taught with the poet Kevin Bowen, and historians David Hunt and Marilyn Young. I am not sure why this poem should appeal so much to American readers. Lam Thi My Da today lives and writes in Hue, and each time I have told her how much her poem resonates with American readers she is genuinely surprised and genuinely intrigued. Perhaps it is the quiet tone, the way in which she gently transforms agony into meaning. There is also no blame in My Da's poem, and as a result perhaps we feel freer to participate in the elegy's feelings. My Da also spent ten years of her life on the trail, and this poem seems to be an effort at making sure those years didn't deaden the heart.

One of the most common themes in Vietnamese poetry from the war years is the guarding against such hardening of feeling. Of course the war poetry is meant to be inspirational and morale- lifting, and there isn't much in the way of criticism of North Vietnamese government policies. But there is another and perhaps deeper critical function at work in this poetry. It's purpose is to argue and work against psychic numbing. One can see this function in some poems written shortly after the war. Vo Que's "Where the River Flowed," written in 1983, concerns a visit by the poet to his native city, Quang Tri City, the capital of what had been the northernmost province of South Viet Nam.

I returned to the old city,
to where the silver flood waters once overflowed
to memories of an afternoon far past,
to our native town, yours and mine.

That beautiful day still alive in my mind:
you and your white hat, the afternoon light in the small street,
your purple dress, your long hair fluttering in the wind,
and the church bells sounding a thousand times.

Old city destroyed in the war.
I ache for your every small street,
ache as if my blood ran through those flamboyant flowers,
part of me falling away with each lost petal.

But in my dreams the city was untouched,
the streets were alive, rippling like waves.
Your smile was a rose just blossoming;
your eyes burned like stars through my heart.

How I miss those flowing waters,
a past that can never return,
your look in the weak winter light,
the long reeds leaning on the far side of the river.

How memory and longing fill my heart;
how the old city fills my mind;
how my love for you has remained with the years,
and my hair grown grey like the tall reed flowers.

(Translated by Ngo Vinh Hai and Kevin Bowen)

An elegy for the destroyed city, the poem is also an elegy for a lost youth and a lost love as well. The emotional calculus of the poem measures the costs of the war, not only in material, but in terms of feeling. The most remarkable image here is that "ache" in the third stanza. It is a pain which feels some connection to every small street, to every petal falling. It is as if the lifeblood of the tree and the lifeblood of the city and the lifeblood of the poet are for that moment bound in one larger, palpable sense of loss.

Quang Tri City was as much a casualty of the Communists' victory as it was a victim of the southern regimes and the American presence. Vo Que himself, when he was a student in Hue, had been active against the war and was involved with the National Liberation Front in Quang Tri province. He was arrested and imprisoned in the infamous Tiger Cages near Saigon, where he was tortured. He wrote poems on scraps of paper and had them smuggled out inside of old toothpaste tubes, after which they would be clandestinely published and circulated among the guerrillas. Now, having won the civil war, Vo Que looks at the city and assesses the cost. There is great sorrow and great loss. But there is also a tacit sense of life, of heart, and of a capacity to feel the loss. The memory of the streets alive and the roses blossoming is just as real as the ache.

There is even a small, quiet note of reconciliation in this poem. The poet takes a non-partisan stance, and like Lam Thi My Da does not dispense blame, rancor, or rage. It is worth recalling -- as the poem at least in its title does -- Ho Chi Minh's 1948 Tet poem. This is where the river has flowed, and this is perhaps what had to be. I also suspect the absence of rancor may reflect the intuitive certainty that for all those involved in a civil war, the enemy of the past would someday have to return and try to live again as brother or sister.

Nguyen Ba Chung has written a superb essay on the history of Vietnamese poetry, an essay to which I am greatly indebted. In "Imagining the Nation," Chung writes that in a war for independence which lasted more than a hundred years, "millions of Vietnamese were perished or were displaced." He goes on to note that the land "is covered with unclaimed bones and unmarked graves." Quite literally the land has been nourished by the dead. This overwhelming fact infuses the minds of the poets. From Tran Dang Khoa through Ho Chi Minh, from Pham Tien Duat to Lam Thi My Da, each of them are what we in this country would call "poets of place." That is to say, the war poetry of Viet Nam is a poetry of the river and field, the forest and moon, the mountain and the plain, the agonized surface of the earth and, in Nguyen Duy's words from his poem "Red Earth, Blue Water," the honey within. It is rarely a crude wartime propaganda, although I am sure such poems may exist. But at its heights, this war poetry bears witness to and foregrounds love, endurance, sorrow, and ultimately the desire for peace. If in a literal sense the sweetness of blue water must come from springs underneath the war-torn earth, it also must come from deep within the war-torn self.

Fred Marchant is professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Suffolk University in Boston. He is the author of Tipping Point, winner of the 1993 Washington Prize in Poetry. An affiliate of the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, Marchant served in the Marine Corps from 1968 to 1970, when he was one of the first Marine officers to be discharged honorably as a conscientious objector.

The NEH funded a 1995 institute for high school teachers at the Joiner Center on teaching the Vietnam War through literature, film, and history.