V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics






Balaban is not so much a “war” poet, though he has written
poems about the war, as he is a poet immersed in a particular
country and culture that has suffered from long periods of war,
with China, with the United States and with other world powers.

“Vietnam. Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”  That’s how Michael Herr ended Dispatches back in 1977, only a little more than a year after we saw helicopters leaving the U.S. Embassy roof in what was then called “Saigon.”  Since then, we have seen so many books about that war:  novels, memoirs, political tracts, collections of poetry.  Many of the poets have been particularly important, their works containing some of the most impressive war poetry ever written.  I’m thinking of people like Bruce Weigl, Yusef Komunyakaa, W. D. Ehrhart, Leon Steptoe, and so many others.
    John Balaban is different.  His books are not so much about the war as they are about the culture and people of Vietnam.  He is not primarily interested in young men and women working out the demons of their personal wars as he is about the people with whom we fought and against whom we fought. Most of the American writers who have focused on Vietnam have dealt almost exclusively with Americans in the war itself.  And that focus is necessary and useful, and in the hands of skilled poets can be transformative. 
    Many of us, though, have felt a need to go deeper than the immediacy of the war we participated in or, perhaps, protested against, to learn more about the people we moved among and too rarely came to know as individual human beings.  I was a Vietnamese interpreter/translator in Vietnam from 1967-1968 and took great delight in occasionally discovering a poem, a song, a record, a work of art that spoke to me of something behind and beyond the war, of a people who had developed their own culture and identity over more than a thousand-year span of time.
    His books are among the few I have discovered that share that interest, but Balaban has gone farther than simply sharing.  He has spent years exploring the culture of Vietnam and the people who inhabit that place so close to China, so far from . . . whatever.  In a number of books, he has delved into the poetry of the country from the folk songs and poetry of the farmers and workers in Ca Dao Viet Nam (Vietnamese folk poetry) to the elegant and sometimes playfully erotic poetry of Ho Xuan Huong (whose poetry he translated in Spring Essence.)  He has given us the opportunity to discover for ourselves some of the things he has already discovered.
    Balaban is not so much a “war” poet, though he has written poems about the war, as he is a poet immersed in a particular country and culture that has suffered from long periods of war, with China, with the United States and with other world powers.  And then the war that the Vietnamese fought against each other, possibly as surrogates of larger, competing powers.  It is hard not to think of that war when I read a haunting poem like “The Red Cloth” from the Ca Dao book:

        Sad, idle, I think of my dead mother,
        Her mouth chewing rice, her tongue removing fish bones.

        The red cloth drapes the mirror frame.
        Men of one country should love one another.

“Men of one country should love one another.”  A simple statement that translates the Vietnamese literally, but profoundly weary in its context of the almost continual wars since the French invasion of Indochina in the 19th century.
    When I walked through the streets of Saigon and Pleiku and Nhatrang back in 1967 and 1968, I saw the people in the cities.  Prostitutes, merchants, children, people maimed by war.  I did not meet many people who lived in rural areas, did not hear the people singing the “ca dao” songs that Balaban translates.  But even in the towns, you saw people like the singer who sang of his dead mother and longed for people of one country to love one another.
    And yet, we bring to the songs our own experiences.  A lyric like this one, for example, does not necessarily refer to a soldier leaving for war:

        A tiny bird with red feathers,
        a tiny bird with black beak
        drinks up the lotus pond day by day.
        Perhaps I must leave you.

Still, though, read from our own past experience in Vietnam, it seems a logical, if culturally-derived, reading.  I am not at all sure that Balaban would read the poem in the same way.
    I have not spoken of Balaban’s translations as apt or scholarly.  That doesn’t matter.  The few poems I have translated from the Vietnamese printed next to his translations seem beautifully realized in English, the poetry translating as well as possible between the two languages.  With translations from Vietnamese, we will always miss some of the original music:  the interplay of the tonalities of the language, the basic music of the syllables . . . the rising and falling of monosyllabic tones.  What Balaban gives us, instead of individual tones in syllables, is a fine sense of that other kind of tone, tonal sensitivity, that informs the music of these poems.
    As a veteran of that war, a person who has written his own poems about that divisive war, I am grateful to John Balaban for taking us deeper into the populated landscape of its own culture.  That’s something no one else has done so well in so many fine books.  In Vietnam:  a Traveler’s Literary Companion, Balaban introduces the stories by saying that “The Vietnamese condition is too large and complex  to see it solely through the dark lens of the recent war, although inevitably the war echoes in some of the tales told here . . ..”  He ends the preface with a translation of a Vietnamese proverb: “Go out today and return with a basket full of wisdom.”   For readers interested in Vietnam, interested enough that simply reading about American experiences in the too-long war cannot be enough, John Balaban’s own poetry and prose and his translations from the Vietnamese are essential.

© by H. Palmer Hall


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

 [Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]