Paper Bells, Phan Nhién Hạo, trans. Hai-Dang Phan, The Song Cave 2020
Paper Bells is a new collection from Vietnamese poet Phan Nhién Hạo, translated into English by American poet Hai-Dang Phan. Some of these first appeared in their translator’s 2019 debut, Reenactments, a book of smart, lyrically dense, and carefully humane poems. Here’s a favorite run, from Phan’s “Saigon Notebook”: “the dead prefer . . . / fake plastic fruit and flowers. / In this, they resemble the living.”
Hạo’s Paper Bells reads like Phan’s ghost-double, a fuzzy transmission from another republic, a stand-up routine with subtitles. Hạo has more bite than his translator, and is, above all things, funny. A bit from “March in Atlanta”:
In the Coca-Cola museum
I pissed more than I drank
. . .
I heard America burp.
Sick, sticky humor abounds here, as in “The Definition of Summer”:
my English and Vietnamese, my assimilation and return
you won’t find a better immigrant than this one.
The translator allows “return” to (slant) rhyme in “one”—a real architectural feat—so the words seem to inhabit one another, though never fully—the way homecomings never quite resolve, are never quite complete. Such failures of memory and experience also happen in “No Rain Today”:
occasionally things can be washed clean in the rain
sometimes your methods betray you
thunder frightens the child
and he starts to hate the rain.
The quiet, painful pitch achieved by “he starts to hate the rain” is met by these lines that close “Wearing a Red Shirt in the Afternoon”:
In the glass living room
in my red shirt I look outside aimless
dreaming of becoming an immortal bullfighter
only to realize that I’m a puppy
struck down by a car.
The speaker is aware of his own orbit—of living room, window, and t-shirt—such that the possibilities of imagination, which the view from a window’s room might represent, become pathetic as a dead puppy.
Lines like these help outline this poet’s affinities; however, it’s worth saying that affinities don’t suffice for a subject or, more merely, themes. I feel uneasy when any critic announces a poet’s themes and thesis because, at a certain point, poems aren’t interested in anything other than the voices and words they inhabit. If I were so moved, I’d argue that Hạo’s collection doesn’t have a subject; and that his poems resist paraphrase. They rely instead on the acidity of their voice and weaponize their speakers’ experience, notions, images, and moments to make that voice interesting. Here’s how that goes in “Saturday, May 10, 1998”:
Saturday morning, May 10, 1998
nothing special really
the birthday of a thousand of people not me
nothing special really
some whales wash ashore dead
“Not me” is deployed almost as punctuation, or antecedent to the next line’s “nothing special really,” and signifies the speaker’s position as observer rather than actor, complicit in this world of birthdays and dead whales: “nothing special really.” Hạo’s poems don’t force any kind of congruity, or hope to laugh things back toward order. They allow their world its many fractures, and are all the more fertile for it:
Dawn ferments in the alley café
submissive like spoiled fish.
Behind glass pizza melts
foreigners in the age of integration and boxers
haggle in the backpacker district.
(“The City of Ant Nests”)
These lines allow rich paradoxes. A sunrise ferments like spoiled fish, submissive as splayed seafood at market. How might a sunrise submit, and what to? I like puzzling out this kind of question. That the “pizza melts / foreigners” is one of those rare feats of translation that walks the line between accident and craft; ditto the noise that “haggle” makes in argument with “backpacker.” Hạo’s images flash before the reader like a sprung card trick, which makes their differences seem more discrete, even at speed.
This book’s argument, if it has one, exists in those paradoxes, the fact of their slight abstractions. Fracture and faction are not native to Hạo’s Vietnam; however, what unity means to a poet from a historically riven country is a question most worth troubling. The reality of past colonization and current, insidious forms of economic and psychological imperialism, are not lost on Hạo. He mines these cross-cultural traumas:
The camera pans for a way to film the face
of a mountain. Artificial light launched
from the cannons of warships
anchored in the gulf of Tourane
causes bats to drop from the ceiling of the Palace
and blood to redden the river Huong.
Here, Hạo’s language does violence to chronology. The willful anachronism of a movie set liberates objects from their given time and place, and compresses both: that “artificial” movie-camera light from the firing cannons is both accurate and newly minted, just like the past it pictures. And since this poem’s action is seen through a camera, through the glow of the “artificial light” in a viewfinder, it exists at some clinical remove from itself, like movies and memories. Just as a camera merely replicates the light it’s recorded in playback, this poem acts as an ill-lit memory, a trick that shadows play on the mind. “A Travel Guide for Hue” ends thus:
Later King Tu Duc also ordered
to fire the cannons directly upon French war ships.
One wave was fatally wounded, turning water into blood.
One wave fled to the high seas, desperate . . .
Those bleeding waves are pathetic and surprising, and capital-p Poetic. The next line, the poem’s last, is a reluctant kind of thesis: “Dear tourists, please note that King Tu Duc was a poet.”
History, to Hạo, is a kind of poetics, and poets are therefore historians themselves. By the transitive property, history-makers also make poetry. Rather than simply pick at scabs, a careful poet shows what new wounds are made in the wake of trauma, what new worlds exist therein:
Maybe such a story seems unbelievable
for your analytical mind.
Yet for us, the people who hatched from eggs,
all things are just legends,
including fresh blood.
(“9/11 – Hue Massacre”)
There’s always a story, Hạo seems to assert, some past to speak to, through, and with. The poet exists less to analyze our narratives than to reenact them, to live the on median of drama and event, of memory, experience and action. In Hạo’s poems, Saigons past join Atlantas present, and speak themselves anew. I’m glad to watch them rise and fall with him.