Thursday, June 15, 2006

Nguyen Trai

Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) is one of the great poets of Vietnamese history. He is a national hero not only for his poetry but also for contributing to the ouster of the Chinese Ming Dynasty, which had ruled over the country for centuries. He was chief advisor and strategist for Le Loi, who was to become Vietnam's first emperor, but his political fortunes were uneven. Fearful of Nguyen Trai's influence because his maternal grandfather had been an important minister at court, Le Loi would name him to positions lower than he deserved and sometimes drive him from court altogether. At such times, Nguyen Trai would seek solace in a mountain retreat. After the death of Le Loi, Nguyen Trai retired from public life, but he still had enemies at the court. When Le Loi's son, the new emperor, suddenly died while visiting the estate of Nguyen Trai, the great poet was wrongly accused of poisoning him. As a result, he and three entire generations of his family were beheaded. The only person in his bloodline to survive was a son with whom one of his concubines was pregnant.

The Vietnamese poet Nguyen Do and I have translated over 50 of Nguyen Trai's poems from Han (ancient Chinese). Our plan is to translate 200 of his poems altogether, roughly 75 of which were written in Vietnamese Chinese, or Nom. Nom is now largely unused due to French colonial interference. See today's New York Times, page A4, for a description of John Balaban's translations from Nom of the two other classic poets of Vietnam, Nguyen Du and Ho Xuan Huong.

Here are two Nguyen Trai poems, written in traditional form. They are among nine of his poems to appear in the forthcoming New American Writing 24.

Closing the Seaport

All at the same level, wooden poles are driven into the waves;
Ironically, the river is safest in its net of chains.
Like a king deposed by his people, a boat spins as it sinks beneath the water’s power.
It’s not right to depend on a particular place; our fates are up to the creator.
Less than a day’s work results in both the fortunate and the hapless.
Even a hero’s faults and sorrows will live for thousands of years.
From the past to the present, the creator’s philosophy varies as much
As the color in eternity of water and smoke.

To a Friend

My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue—believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.


At 10:59 AM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

How's your Chinese coming?

I had some Chinese students from Vietnam in some classes at the University of Washington, and at Portland Community college in Oregon.

Their parents were murdered by the communists after Saigon fell. One mother was forced to eat Agent Orange in front of her children.

I suppose this winner take all system and the losers are poisoned or beheaded that you describe in the politics of the Han era continues to this day.

Things are so much easier here. Karl Rove recently exonerated. The Clintons still have their heads. Even Ralph Nader continues to walk around with a head ons his shoulders.

Was there ever a time in America when political losers were beheaded? Sure, some leftists and some rightists would like to lop heads, and some assassins have actually operated, but no one has ever sanctioned it at a governmental level insofar as I know.

Such good aesthetics in the poems. Lovely. Lucky for him they could have concubines, I guess. Something survived.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

I wish I did have some understanding of Chinese besides "man," "big" and "window." My Vietnamese is the work of my co-translator. Nguyen Trai is the real deal, and I'm glad to have this introduction to his work. He worked almost exclusively in traditional form of 5 or 7 figures to the line, 8 lines to the poem. Thus there are no long poems like Tu Fu's.

Speaking of the Communist Party, the Vietnamese are so excited about our Nguyen Trai project that they syndicated an interview with me about it. It appeared in their major newspapers and was mounted on the Communist Party main page. Never thought a kid raised as a Lincoln Republican would have the opportunity.

Excuse me if this gets quarrelsome.

I'm trying to get this straight: it's horrible to behead people but OK to drop 500 pound bunker busters onto their houses and mosques. Did we check IDs before people entered those buildings? Did anyone's head fly off in the process? We wouldn't behead someone like Allende. A few bullets are enough to quell his excesses. I'm sure we did have something to do with that action at the government level.

It was pretty civilized of us to put make-up on Zarqawi, a well-known beheader, after propping him up for his final photo-op. It makes it easier on the kids at home.

My boss at a university press knew of a rancher in Oklahoma in the 19th century, I believe from his family, who put the head of an Indian warrior onto a pike as a keep-out sign to others. Shades of Heart of Darkness. The boss didn't necessarily disapprove. He told it as a tale of wonder, history in living perspective.

Savagery isn't muted because it's enacted at a distance.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger michaelf said...

the head of yagan, an aboriginal warrior was cut off after he died & sent to england. (sometime in the 19th cent.) in the 1990s it was returned to his descendants in western australia. one of whom is a painter: she depicted the heads travel in a painting as if the two trips were simultaneous: ie it showed a map with a ship heading to england & a plane heading to australia. but this is by the by - thanks for the vietnamese poems. its interesting how poems from another language can be translated into contemporary english but - well, i havent read heaneys beowulf - so i guess i shd before i say anything. did his dramatic biography have something to do with his poetry's survival?

At 1:39 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

Paul, I don't mind the quarrel. I would distinguish between Zarqawi and the Clintons or the Roves because Zarqawi isn't American, and isn't within the American electorate. Does that make sense? We have never sanctioned the killing of political opponents within the American electorate. Of course we've killed enemies. We bombed the Nazis for instance without checking IDs, too.

I assume that Al-Qaeda didn't check IDs when they slammed into the WTC either -- neither the passengers nor the office inhabitants. In a war there isn't always time for niceties.

This is a very interesting project you have going. I hope there is a good biographical essay that grounds and contextualizes the poet when the book appears. It would be especially interesting to know what if any is his contemporary reception within communist Vietnam. The poems are coming off very beautifully!

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

I'm not sure of the status of the Native American warrior you name. Was he a voting citizen? My guess is probably not. It's a bit second or third-hand but I assume that such things did happen when we were at war with certain tribes, just as scalping, rape, murder happened to Europeans from the other direction.

But within the American electorate, and within those regarded as legitimate citizens of the USA, our government has never officially condoned their destruction, esp. not to the second or third generation, as you mention in your blog.

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

What does he mean exactly by God?

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Paul Hoover said...

Dear Kirby: I have no information with regard to our government's actions against its own citizens except with regard to an area an hour west of Salt Lake City where the government did some atomic and nerve gas testing that has had a terrible affect on the people who live downwind. I don't understand what you mean about the "warrior," that it's not OK to kill him if he votes but OK if he's an enemy combatant for this particular rancher. I was trying to establish that savagery occurs on all sides.

Nguyen Trai is a major hero of Vietnam; that reputation has nothing to do with politics of our own time. He's something like George Washington and Shakespeare combined.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

Paul, I was trying to establish that American political officials have been pretty decent to one another. Even after the Civil War Grant tipped his hat to Lee at Appamattox Court House (spelling?), and life went on.

I think we're lucky in this regard.

We could have hanged the Confederate leaders, and dealt with an underground Civil War for another fifty years.

There are horrors, and then there are endless horrors. Even after we found John Wilkes Booth we didn't destroy his entire family.

Our culture is better than most.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Kirby Olson said...

A woman named Anne Sa'adah (the name is Islamic or something but I don't think she is a practicing Muslim) who teaches (or taught) at Dartmouth wrote a book entitled The Shaping of Liberal Politics in Revolutionary France (Princeton UP 1990) in which she argues that the difference between the French Jacobins and the American Puritans was that the French were exclusive (either you're with us or you're against us) while the Americans were inclusive.

Politics were a one-shot deal in Revolutionary France -- they would kill their enemies and celebrate the unity that had been gained. They did not like competition of ideas.

James Madison on the other hand argued in Federalist Letter #10 that the more factions in the government the more stable would be our unity. E Pluribus Unum.

I think this is how we've been able to survive. Liberalism assumes that all can meet as friends, while radicalism of left or right adopts an us vs. them rhetoric -- diplomacy is exchanged for a winner takes all battleground.

I've tried without success to get people to reread Locke's Second Treatise on Government instead of packing their heads with so much Marx. But Locke, and Sa'adah, as well, argues that, "Protestantism is a necessary condition of western liberty -- ONLY in those Protestant countries has human freedom flourished"

I think this is the difference between France and America too in the Sa'adah tome -- the French had ousted their Protestants so what was left during their Revolution was anti-clericals like Voltaire vs. the remnants of the Catholic order.

French surrealism and even French feminism owe a lot to Jacobin rhetoric: Breton's exclusionary tactics (which American surrealists find so distasteful) can now be found in many elements of the American left that have turned to French sources for their philosophy.

Even to an extent Charles Olson picked up this exclusionary strain to some degree in that he seemed to want to oust newcomers from Gloucester, and he used a quite deadly rhetoric even on friends such as Ferrini.

I trace this whole movement toward exclusion in my book on Andrei Codrescu & The Myth of America (McFarland 2005).

I think that the example of inclusion still holds in American thought even though the red and the blue are increasingly violent and separatist in their rhetoric. Such sniping invites reprisal, but the Protestant notion of mutual cooperation, and freedom of speech, are so deeply enshrined in our constitution that I think they will survive the nastiness of the contemporary radicals & the influx of people from other systems who lack the sense that American greatness is precisely based on inclusion of the most unlikely factions together in a dynamic polity where competition of ideas is more or less guaranteed in the bill of rights. Feminists and others have tried to kill the first amendment but it's more and more clear that they're not going to be able to get away with it.


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