Thursday, March 04, 2010

Beyond the Court Gate: Selected Poems of Nguyen Trai

Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) was one of two great poets of Vietnamese history. The Vietnamese poet Nguyen Do and I have translated roughly 150 of his poems from Han (ancient Chinese) and Nom (ancient Vietnamese Chinese), to be published in the above title by Counterpath Press of Denver in late May. The book can be pre-ordered through bookstore websites like Barnes & Noble, also of course at

A second volume of our Nguyen Trai translation, Returning to Con Son, was recently published by Saigon Cultural Publishers. A beautiful coffee table book, it consists of 30 poems in Han, along with beautiful photographs by the book's editor, the poet Nguyen Duy. This book is unusual in that it provides generations of text, beginning with the 40-figure Han, including Romanized versions in ancient and modern Vietnamese, and ending with our English text. The print run was limited to 700, so I'm not sure how available the book is outside Vietnam, and many have already been sold through a subscription arrangement.

Here are three works from Beyond the Court Gate, the first two in Nom, the last in Han:

I build a little house in the way of nature.
It’s not much, for perfunctory living only.
No windowsill: wind cleans the floor like a sweeping broom.
The moon is close to the door: no need to light a lamp.
Don’t care if dinner is rice with salty pickled vegetables.
Don’t want clothes of embroidered brocade.
To catch its cool shade, I lean against a tree.
The little house whistles a little joy to me.

Standing to Watch the Afternoon I

Faint smoke and light rain make the afternoon look vague.
The water’s color and sky’s light make them seem both real and unreal.
The universe already has a pure, living view of things.
Because the ocean cares for me, it creates a new painting!

Written in Autumn Moonlight

Waking up in a silent room, I lie alone thinking.
On the altar, incense burns down completely, lifting away my stress.
The quietness shocks me: how much has happened to the earth and sky!
This time of leisure is worth a thousand ounces of gold.
The Confucian’s habit is simple and real life disloyal;
So I happily wander this heaven, breathing belief’s perfume.
I’ve been reading all the books, see nothing left to do.
I see instead the old plum, where I sit to play my jade flute.