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Flowers of Hell

By Nguyen Chi Thien
Translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich
Here are one poem from each of the years represented in Flowers of Hell, the manuscript which brought Nguyen Chi Thien fame around the world.† They follow the poet from his early days in Hai Phong, through the few years of his first incarceration, out briefly into the prison-like ambience of Communist Viet Nam at war, and back into labor camp.

Every Day I Would Go

Every day I would go to the tea shop
At a time when it is almost deserted
I would pick a table in the innermost corner
Where I could sit by myself reading the paper and brewing
I donít give too much attention to the news
As I flip over the pages then leave the paper alone
I would sit back almost as a manner of relaxation
Not letting my mind be burdened by any thought
Out of habit I would smoke but hardly feel the taste
Only sighing quietly from time to time
Or shaking my head in an attempt to shake away
The images blurred and rather melancholic
Of a meaningless life, almost thrown away.


I Used To Go By

I used to go by a street
Where there used to be a blind man with holes for eyes
He did not even wear glasses, and his deformed mouth
Did its best to blow on a pipe, with veins showing on his neck
His dying breath produced syncopated wails
As he tried to play those nonsensical songs singing
The Party for having brought Light and Happiness!
One early morning, he seemed to have a spell of dizziness
And fell to the ground, with his pipe flying to the side
I rushed over to try to help him sit up
He could only mouth softly: O God, Iím so hungry!


If Tomorrow I Have to Die

If tomorrow I have to die
I still would not regret my springtime
Life no doubt is lovely, inestimable
But suffering has taken its toll Ė gone is the best part
In the deserted night I look at the distant stars
And let my soul drift into the past
For a minute I am oblivious to the cruel reality
And forget all about hunger, cold & bitternessÖ
History takes me back in time
To that golden age of sumptuous pavilions & palaces
To scenes of success at the imperial exams with
long chaise and parasols
To scenes of poor scholars reading through the night
Once again, I find Confucians of integrity
Who choose poverty and stay away from the cities
Then I see virginal and virtuous country lasses
Weaving silk on their looms near a pool with water jets
In dream I witness joyous festivals
And paddy threshing on golden moonlit nights
Images I tenderly nurture in my heart
Where there still lingers the echo of immense river calls
And the smooth clip of a shuttle going back & forth
I love the forests dense and dark
Full of dangers and secrets, exuding with life
I love also and miss the gongs that give the alarm
Sinister-looking thievesí dens & the path thereto
Scenes of war with horses neighing & troops clamoring
Also fascinate me, bewitch my soul!
Why I do so, I know full well
That in old days there were emperors & mandarins
That life was riddled with injustice
Why is it that I dream only of the better facets,
That only glories of the past seep through to my poetry?
That I am forgetting the seamier side?
Can it be that life today
Is filled with poison in its very innards
Whereas the old societyís defects were mere pimples?


The Sun is Up

The Sun is up, and summer is here
And a terminalia tree stands in the middle of the courtyard
The prisoners bring out their blankets and clothes
To dry them on the high wires strung all over the yard
Their clothes and beddings are of course not new
For the most part they are in tatters and faded colors
But these people, in their condition
Tenderly caress them, thinking of tomorrow
Suddenly I feel an indescribable feeling
As I think of the days and months that go by
For all these things that are drying in the sun
Only mean a sad winter is coming in my case.


I Want to Live

I want to live with Wu Sung the tiger-fighter
With Guan Yunzhang Ė red face, black beard
Become a musketeer and make friends with Athos
And his buddies, díArtagnan, Porthos and Aramis!
I want to find Palestine where Christ was buried
And go crusading together with Ivanhoe
Live one thousand and one nights in the palace
Built by the lamp genie so that Aladdin could get married
Cross over to the American wildernesses
And go treasure-hunting on a sled with Jack London
I want to go to Russia and banquet with the tsar
Converse with Andrei one evening on a river bank
And walk with Pechorin in the Caucasus
Have pistol & sword duels and dance to the last
Meet with Dostoevsky in a sleepless night
Sitting by a samovar and ignoring the snow
Offering words of sympathy to the student murderer
And urging Filipovna to marry the nice idiot
Continuing my travels, I reach Spain
Where I follow Don Quixote on his chivalric missions
After a full life abroad, Iíll come home to our ancestral
Go to Lam Son to seek an audience with the Le king
Sit and fish by Nguyen Khuyen in a country pond
Discuss with Nguyen Du the issue of talent and fate
In the painful and suffering life of Kieu
Then Iíll go to Khan Xuan District to laugh with
Xuan Huong
Visit with Truongís faithful wife in Nam Xuong District
Listen to the flute playing fellow, Truong Chi,
Sing his pain and dreams
Follow the North Pacifying King as he launches the
To go into Thang Long of the Nung Mountain and the Red
I want to live plentifully & exhaustively
Going back in time and in ancient history
So that I can satiate my love of life
Which in the present is being trampled & crushed
In this life where yam and manioc are coveted items.


My Mother

My mother on anniversaries or festival days
Is wont to put her hands together and pray for a long time
Her old saffron dress has somewhat faded
But I would see her take it out for the occasion
My life being full of suffering and injustice
Mother always has to pray for me
A son who has seen a number of jail terms
Causing tears to flow in streams on Motherís cheeks.
Sitting next to her, I find myself so small
Next to the great vast love of my mother.
Mother, I only have one real wish
And that is, never to be far away from you!
Now each time that you sit in prayer
For your sick prisoner son in the deep jungle
The old, fading saffron dress you wear
Must be soaked with tears unending!


Today May 19th
Today the 19th of May
In bed
I was about to write a poem to cuss Him out
The poetry started to smell like him
When I stopped.
For I thought
A shitty politician like him
Does not deserve
My sweating
To write poetry about
Even though it may be to cuss Him.
Even Marx
His fucking ancestor
Never did get a few lines from me!
So why bother?
Let the hacks with their prostituted pens
Comb his beard, pat his head, caress his arse!
So I went on to other business
The hell with Him!


My Heart

My heart, that endless story, is something
That only a child will understand, love and like
He will not fully grasp its profundity or richness
But will instinctively share its marvelous quality.
My heart? Itís the pen, inkstand and paper tube
Of a gentleman-scholar unlucky at the exams
Left in a corner to gather dust and dream
Of a homecoming procession with chaise and pennants
streaming like a river!
My heart? Itís a red hot pepper
That not many of those used to sweet stuff
Dare out of curiosity come close to get a taste
For as soon as they lick it they have to pull right back.
My heart? Itís a poor roadside inn with winds coming
through the cracks
Where only lost travelers stop for the night
In the thick darkness, in the cold settling dew
Missing their way, they will go there to find shelter
And a little warmth coming from a tiny oil lamp.
My heart is at the bottom of a vale but grass-matted
Always ready to help those fallen on bad days
Who from their heights used to belittle others
To find themselves toppled one day.
My heart? Itís an ancient palace
Quietly mirroring in the shimmering water
A few passers by will understand and bow their heads
But no one will actually want to buy it!
My heart originally was a mulberry field
Which changed itself into a roaring sea
Now it is no more than a dune
Where the sandcrab has long ceased its work
My heart can now be likened to a deep wet field
That awaits the floodwaters & rains of July-August
So that it can overflow into a thousand waves
White-crested ones that will sweep everything away!


I Am Back Again

I am back again
In the midst of this memory-laden room
The atmosphere surrounding me seems quite excited
After ten years away, filled with Hope and Time. . .
Here I am, back again but a broken man
Life is still miserable, exactly as it was before
The difference?† My life is going into its sunset
Hungry, poor, diseased. . .
After ten years, I still find my water pipe
But having no tobacco to plug in
I sit idle, swallowing empty, melancholic smoke
The bamboo bed sways because one of its supports
is broken
O how many nights of barren thoughts
Thinking about food and clothes, washed with tears
and tragedies
My wooden table has gone rotten, eaten by termites
Its drawers are full, though, with poetry!
Verses of frustration vented at the world
Written on yellowed paper, cockroach-eaten, with
faded ink
I had wished to visit moth-eaten lives and stories
But my own soul, dark, humid, and smoke-black
Has no ferment left to leaven them up!
Late afternoon, tired out, I fall into a slumber
In the room where there is gathering darkness
In my disillusion I flop down on a chair:
ďTen years and itís the same thing, or worse!Ē
Hungry mosquitoes wildly search for game
And on the cracked lacquer commode
A dazzled looking house lizard creeps out
I open the commode and find hidden under a layer
of dust
Piles and piles of old newspapers and magazines
I close it right away, so distraught was I:
ďSeven dimes a kilo, thatís the price of old newsprint.Ē
Ten years of regrets for all the things I have lost
Have all but crushed these cheating illusions. . .
And the land of fertility I knew when young
Is now parched, cracked, abandoned
I have wasted so much sweat irrigating this land
An immensity now reduced to a mere square yard!
A light drizzle falls on the range of trees
That are shorn of leaves now that itís winter
But the public speaker is still
Blaring away some of those nonsense tunes. . .


I Am Friends

I am friends to a prostitute
Who for lack of patrons is catching up on her sleep
in the park
I have nothing to say to her, to console her
Except this overflowing sympathy, not in the least
mingled with contempt
I am a big brother to tiny little kids
Who have to pick pockets here and there to go on
Ending up as jail birds despite their young age
They can swear like ruffians but their mind is a pure
blank page
I am son to an embittered beggar
Homeless, handicapped, living hand to mouth
I invite him to a drinking bout
And he cries buckets over his long lost past
Me, in sum, I am a despondent heart
Always in communion with fates mired in mud
For I myself have on more than one occasion
Undergone hunger and imprisonment and humiliation.


I Will Visit Your Home

I will visit your home and say
To your wife and children that you are hungry all year
That you have grown old, with most of your teeth gone,
but that you are very industrious
Working day and night to get your puny share of corn!
That you eat rice that is almost as hard as rock, out of
a stone bowl!
You try to swallow it but then, excrete the whole thing
almost as is
Your wife & children, nephews, nieces & grandchildren
Would be ecstatic learning
That you have progressed way beyond your past
Living under this regime, our Democratic Republic!


Alone I Walk

In the heavy night alone I walk
All doors are shut tight on the now immense street
Bordered on the two sides with straight up trees
Hanging their heads, lost
Alone I walk on, aimlessly
The dust of a drizzle falls
Tears solitary since the stars weep in the sky!
The wind stands still
Breathless are the trees
I wonder if this time next year
I would still be walking in the shade of these same
Some animal whisks across the street noiselessly
A cat maybe or a gutter rat
My eyes are no longer what they used to be. . .
Years ago whenever I felt depressed
I would wander about, dream and think
Now I no longer dream
But I still think
For thinking is more fun than sleeping.
A couple of lovers walking close and whispering
Do they know Ė I shudder Ė that they are walking
On a road that has been ploughed up by tanks!
A stretch of road that wise men, ancient and modern
Have endeavored to erase with all their faith, in vain!
My spindly frame casts a shadow
A bit hunchbacked with loss of hair and an uncertain
And bitter thoughts that all start with If
As if about to throw a net
Which makes me laugh
(A smile that looks more like a twisted face!)
A security car suddenly flashes two beam lights
Goes past, and disappears in the distance
O beam lights
Where are you searching, directing your barbaric beams?
Do you know how many homes have suffered because
you have blasted open their peace?
A night-car clackety clangs by
Causing a streetwalker slumped on a stone bench
To drop a foul expression in the middle of flowers
(The flower garden originally was a temple in the French occupation period)
Oh, thinking about the French occupation period
One feels even sorrier for the streetwalkers
All their lives going barefoot!
The customerless pho vendor, too
All these years has been dreaming chin on knees
Dreaming of big, fat-dripping drumstick!
(Tomorrow we shall have rice to eat)
These streets smell good like some flowers
That release perfume only during the night
But life only goes after the fruit
And the perfume seems out of place in the night. . .
A huddle of skeletal figures on a raised platform
The shining black entrance to some building
Is a perfect copy of our present life!
I look up to the sky
The sky is hazy in the drizzle
I look down at the earth
And the earth is tear-drenched
A clear intimation that the winter will go on
Plunging its devilish, frosty teeth
Into the flesh of mankind
Who are allowed to smile only, not to cry!
Piles of bricks and mortar are thrown here & there,
Old homes that are being torn down
Homes that contained all that was needed
Homes that our descendants will go back to
Somehow the pho vendor comes back
With his big, fat-dripping drumsticks!
(Sure, my grandchildren will also have limbs!)
Look, whose picture is that with the bloated faces
O thatís the picture of some contractors
Lousy draughtsmen, too,
Who specialize in the drawing of horrible paradises
in construction!
(A hangmanís noose is missing around their necks!)
O but I have forgotten an important truth
And that is, at night
Everything must rest
Every eye must get its sleep
Dead sleep!
Letís go home to sleep, and we can get up when the
sun is up!


My Verses

My verses are in fact no verses
They are simply Lifeís sobbings
Dark prison cells opening and shutting
The dry cough of two caving in lungs
The sound of earth coming down to bury dreams
The exhumation sound of hoes bringing up memories
The chattering of teeth in cold and misery
The aimless contractions of an empty stomach
The hopeless beat of a dying heart
Impotenceís voice in the midst of collapsing earth
All the sounds of a life not deserving half its name
Or even the name of death:
No verses are they!


The Truly Great

The truly great among the boxers
To train themselves do not mind the pain
They turn themselves into unconscious sandbags
So that one day they can become champs
The profession of writer is not unlike the boxer's
He must be able to endure pain if he is to succeed
Punches in the heart, punches miraculous
That would produce ideas, thoughts, emotions.


They Exiled Me

They exiled me to the heart of the jungle
Wishing to fertilize the manioc with my remains
I turned into an expert hunter
And came out full of snake wisdom and rhino fierceness.
They sank me in the ocean
Wishing that I would remain in the depths
I became a deep sea diver
And came up covered with scintillating pearls.
They squeezed me into the dirt
Hoping that I would become mire
I turned instead into a miner
And brought up stores of the most precious metal
No diamond or gold, though
The kind to adorn womenís baubles
But uranium with which to manufacture the atom bomb.


Red Power

Red Power: we must be of one mind to crush it
For if we let it roam, catastrophes will follow
But since we cannot use the A or the H bomb
To destroy the planet just because of these crooks
One must write, thousands of us must write up
About its colossal crimes however subtly camouflaged
Should everybody in the world come to realize
Its crimes, Communism will disintegrate of its own
Since it was a product of stupidity and infantilism:
Knowledge then will be its destroyer, its grave.


How Ironic

How ironic all these dead end alleys
That purport to be the roads to the Ultimate Truth?
This way to the Soviet Union, to China, to the U.S.!
So they all trample on peopleís heads to get there
And the twentieth century becomes the goodbye century
Hungry of rice but full of mass-killing bombs and
prison lots
The fat ones are only a few shameless ones
Who lord it over everyone, be they pro-Russian, pro-
Chinese or pro-the U.S.!


My Poetry

There is nothing beautiful about my poetry
Itís like highway robbery, oppression, TB blood cough
There is nothing noble about my poetry
Itís like death, perspiration, and rifle butts
My poetry is made up of horrible images
Like the Party, the Youth Union, our leaders, the Central Committee
My poetry is somewhat weak in imagination
Being true like jail, hunger, suffering
My poetry is simply for common folks
To read and see through the red demonsí black hearts


In The Night

In this stifling night
There lies in wait a sun!
Unspoken suffering
Hides nothing but thunder and lightning!
In the starved and shivering millions
Are a thousand armies!
When a new era comes
All will go off like an atom bomb.

A larger selection of the Flowers of Hell in English are in print in two collections.† The bilingual Flowers from Hell, translated by Huynh Sanh Thong, is available from the Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies at http://www.yale.edu/seas/Vietpubs.htm.† Here we are using the translations of Nguyen Ngoc Bich from Hoa Dia Nguc: The Flowers of Hell, also a bilingual edition, which is available from Canh Nam bookseller, 2607 Military Road, Arlington, Virginia, 22207 USA, tel. (703) 525-4538.