The Colors of Vietnam
I am standing with my friends, the poets Tran Nghi Hoang and Nguyen Thuy Kha, in the old stone cloister of the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Under the tile roof there is rank on rank of huge stone tablets, each inscribed with the names of past doctorates of Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy. The university was founded by the Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1076, twelve years before the founding of the University of Bologna and twenty before that of Oxford University, my own alma mater. The place is shaded and relatively quiet after the honking, cheerful, raucous, sun-baked chaos of Hanoi outside the walls, but as in all of Vietnam this time of year the air is humid to the point of saturation. The ornamental pool looks inviting.
As old poets usually are when we get together, we are very merry, though the day’s serious drinking has not yet begun. But in the shadow of the cloister we are suddenly solemn. This is the only temple in the world dedicated specifically to our craft, poetry; it is a place of pilgrimage for poets all over the world. Hoang, who is from Saigon originally but who now lives most of the year in the Washington area, tells me a dream he had recently about the Temple. In the dream he was searching, in a strange state of grief and anxiety, for his own name on the steles of the temple—perhaps, I thought, as he might have seen servicemen or family looking for the names of their loved ones on the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall.
Kha, with his characteristic wry smile, watches me light a bunch of incense sticks before the main temple itself, where huge red and gold sculptures of Confucius and his chief disciples sit glowing in the fragrant gloom. Kha, who was a young colonel in the army of North Vietnam and fought with great distinction on the Ho Chi Minh trail, is, like Hoang, a poet. His poetic record of his experience in that war, A Time of Green Blood, has been translated into English and published, though in my opinion not as well as it deserves. I hope to retranslate it with Hoang one day. Kha, who is also a composer of music and a journalist, now directs a music production company in Vietnam’s booming and fairly free-market economy; he led the recent restoration of the temple, and one of his poems in Green Blood is about a crippled war veteran selling snakes in the temple precinct.
I was in Vietnam as part of an informal exchange of visits. Two years earlier, a small group of writers, who had been writing about my work on Talawas, a very lively Vietnamese-language website, visited me in Texas. Talawas is run by my friend Hoang. Another friend, Tien, a distinguished literary professor, wanted to explore the possibility of some kind of cooperation between his Wisdom Institute and our new Ethics project at the University of Texas at Dallas. But the point of my trip was, I think, something that all artists will understand—the pleasure and inspiration of being among colleagues who had been through the highs and lows of our art, especially when those colleagues were from the opposite side of the planet and part of a society with which ours had been at war. Somehow the affirmation of our amazing shared humanity was itself a promise of our own artistic renewal, and indeed I and my friends were writing poetry almost every day I was there.
The world—or at least our vision of it—has changed. To “enlightened” Western eyes, most of the world once seemed entombed in ancient and oppressive social systems, religious conformity, primitive technology and backward economics—or worse still, had become demoralized colonial servants of European powers or nightmare socialist totalitarian dictatorships. Nothing serious in the way of art and literature, it was thought, could be expected of such cultures—serious in the sense of the modern, the avant-garde. The only hope for a truly enlightened artist or writer in such a society was to escape and come to the West, either literally, by physical exile, or figuratively, by an internal and private rejection of his or her background and resort to smuggled Western materials. What has become clear is that this picture is profoundly flawed. One major flaw is the grotesque absurdity of the term “the West” itself. How could a collection of such wildly different histories and cultural traditions, always in a state of struggle and compromise with each other, be thus lumped together in a chic formula? We have “occidentalized” ourselves just as unforgivably as we “orientalized” the cultures of the East.
But what especially concerned me as a visitor to Vietnam was our misprision of them, not our misprision of ourselves. It was obvious that I was not in a primitive folk culture or an oriental despotism. A whole “postcolonial” field Temple of Literature, 1076, Hanoi 2 8 of the humanities has arisen to confront the fallacy of such a view of things. But the postcolonial movement in the so-called Western academy is itself profoundly biased by its twin origins in academic Marxism and postmodern deconstruction. Both Marxists and deconstructionists, for different reasons, were committed to an attack on the great classical traditions of the West—the Marxists on the theory that those traditions were justifications for and rationalizations of oppressive class systems, the deconstructionists as part of their general mission of demolishing any claim to an originating Presence and grand narrative. Thus, for them, the third world was useful as an implied negation of Western morality, philosophy and aesthetics, and as a base for a fantasized active resistance against the Western bourgeois capitalist mainstream. The suffering and exploitation of third-world peoples, whatever their real causes, were priceless propaganda tools for an imagined violent revolution in the political world, and more realistically, for curriculum and tenure-line changes in the academic world.
What was lost in this championing of formally despised non-Western cultures was—so it seemed to me, standing in the grounds of this eleventh century university with two brilliant and passionate men who would be major poets in any country—exactly what was valuable about this vital and original civilization of Vietnam. Vietnam—and almost any one of the non-Western countries I have sojourned in over the last few decades—was not a reproach to the West but a confirmation (and modest corrective, too) of the wisdom and true humanity of the European classical tradition, with the proviso that that tradition should no longer be called “Western” but “human.”
This is not to claim that the European classical tradition is the human tradition, but rather that the European tradition is part of the human classical tradition. Vietnamese aesthetics, morality and fundamental ontology were not a critique of the West—how very self-centered of us to even think so—but another vigorous and original take on the human condition, another twist or wrinkle in the great human story. And since that tradition and story belong to us all, that take has much in common with the best of the Euro-American traditions.
Indeed, I felt, as I have about the Chinese, Hungarian, Eritrean, Mexican and Albanian cultures that I have been following (and sometimes translating) over the last few decades, that the shoe was on the other foot. Our own huge, self-indulgent experiment of cultural modernism, with its grand schemes of socio-economic engineering, its utopian theories of the arts and its voracious educational project of deprogramming the young of their traditional values, may be the eccentric and parochial outlier. Perhaps our modernism has left us in the position of needing to relearn what a real culture is from nations we formerly dismissed as backward.
My students often know less about the great epics, the scriptures and the old masters that are their heritage than they know about the flip and stylish “dissing” of tradition they have got from their baby-boomer authorities. When I teach the classics, the Bible, the epics, the Renaissance, the English poets, they devour the texts as if they were starved, like indigenous peoples whose cultural tradition has been suppressed and who now, for the first time, have access to their own cultural treasures.
To spend time in Hanoi was to live in a dream of high culture. Here there was a true face-to-face coffee-house and salon life. There were long lunchtime discussions of art, poetry and science, with good Hanoi beer and the whitelightning rice wine spirit the Vietnamese distil in the countryside (like homemade Cretan raki, with the same breathtaking jolt and strange absence of bad after-effects). There were dinners in relaxed open-air restaurants, the stars overhead, with all the magic flavors of Vietnamese cuisine, table top pottery hibachis keeping the pho hot, fresh fish, green herbs, white noodles, snatches of poetry. Someone would have brought a guitar. People would begin to sing, melodies that one could pick up quickly, choruses one would learn in a couple of minutes. The old human joy would begin to ooze up from the throat and fingertips, spread across the thorax, relax the muscles of the back, open the invisible trapdoors of the skull.
The first morning in Hanoi, up early with jetlag, I walked the tiny narrow streets of the old town as folk began setting out tiny blue plastic tables and stools and boiling up the fragrant pho over charcoal braziers. Pho, the hearty noodle soup with herbs, slivers of beef, chillies and green onions, is eaten with savory crullers made with rice flour and washed down with glasses of strong iced coffee. The great tide of motorcycle and scooter traffic has just begun, the exquisitely dressed and coiffed young ladies sitting their mounts like tiny queens, with upright posture and utter calm amid the chaos of the streets, the young men hunched over their sixty-five ccs as if they were Harley-Davidsons.
We thought that we were saving Vietnam from being crushed by the great communist powers, as Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia had been crushed. We ought to have known that the Vietnamese had been courageously defending themselves against Chinese domination for the past thousand years, and that they would soon do so again; and that they would have regarded Russian domination as even more objectionable than that of the French, their former oppressors. But the Vietnamese did not understand us either. They did not realize that we were almost as much against the old European colonial empires as their colonial subjects were, and that we wanted for the Vietnamese only what they wanted for themselves.
My poet friend Cuong, with his ravaged, noble face with its twitch of pain from the bullet still embedded in his skull, was one of the least cold and ruthless men I have known. Like Kha, he had been a senior officer in his twenties— casualties were so high that youths could soon rise to the rank of colonel. Cuong is now the editor of the Vietnam Financial Times, and a passionate, fierce, sentimental and deeply humble man. He wept when we parted, as did I. On the drive to the airport the last evening the four of us—Hoang, Cuong, Kha and I—sang along with the car’s CD player the beautiful and stirring orchestral settings that Kha had composed for Cuong’s passionate poem to his mother while he was fighting in the Truong Son, and Kha’s translation of my own poem, “Spring Evening,” which has become a minor hit in Vietnam.
When we visited the old palace of the emperors out in the country, Hoang, who was from the South, pointed out to me the rooftops of the main temple. On the lower roofbeam of the entrance hall was a sculpted dragon, as in traditional Chinese architecture (China was obviously a huge influence on Vietnam). But above it, on the main roof-beam, was a phoenix. Now the dragon is the usual symbol of imperial power, but the phoenix symbolizes the arts, poetry, the spirit that rises above the ashes of its own destruction, the life of mind and culture. The Vietnamese, said Hoang, always put art and poetry and the spirit above war and politics.
And for some unaccountable reason the Vietnamese seem to love America. They are well aware that we Americans had to throw off our own colonial oppressors, and are great admirers of George Washington. We spent a couple of hours driving to Halong Bay recalling all the finest and corniest Hollywood movies and popular song hits, with as much nostalgia as any bunch of superannuated true-blue Americans. Our pop and folk culture have been doing what a healthy low culture ought to be doing—representing and celebrating our ordinary lives to ourselves and others. Perhaps it is time that our high culture followed suit, representing and celebrating the more extraordinary elements of what it is to be American—those elements that are worthy components of a global human classicism.
Here are a few of the poems I wrote in Vietnam.
COCKCROW IN HANOI
Jetlag’s luxurious exhaustion shows
The city in its frank and open light.
The foolish fowl cries what he always knows
And the old man takes up the work of sight.
An Asian city under the monsoon,
A little French, with wrought iron and croissants,
Some new construction, hooting of a horn;
Again he must give himself up to chance.
What else has he to give his gentle hosts?
Somehow he left his poetry at home.
He must have given over all his ghosts,
To shape his life once more into a poem.
THE PALE-FACED LADY A.D.THE FULL MOON
Our hostess sees, at dinner, my distress.
It is the night when Buddhists go to pray.
She leads us to the shrine. A dark recess
Holds a gold Buddha, seeming far away.
He glows against the crimson temple wall,
His lips composed in something like a smile
Of infinite compassion for us all—
I stand quite tame and humble for a while;
And then we turn a corner, and nearby,
Under the white moon’s blaze of bluish light
The old cathedral rises to the sky
As if its pillaged stones yearned to take flight.
One is a dwelling, one a pointing spire;
But they are neighbors, red shrine and the white.
One knows the root of suffering is desire;
One knows the fruit of suffering is light.
DAWN IN HALONG BAY
A flock of dove-grey clouds drifts slowly through
A primrose sky that fades to eggshell blue.
A darker flock of islands silently
Lies on the levels of the silver sea.
for Hoang and Kha and Cuong
Through all the politics, through all the grief
Of life, their tragic clownish faces smile,
Because they bear the great gift of belief
In a sweet hard truth that defies denial.
This road-trip’s getting stranger by the minute;
Suddenly we’ve all turned into hams.
Music breaks out—who knows what will begin it?—
The boss’s gorgeous daughter feeds me clams.
We’re lighting incense at a dead man’s shrine,
We’re scribbling poems in a traffic-jam;
We’re eating Haiphong squid with white moonshine,
We’re home now in poetic Vietnam.
My poet friends come out to see me off.
Two of them fought us forty years ago.
To make us brothers, maybe it’s enough
To see a brave man’s simple tears flow.