eyes waiting for sleep. There is a man hanging from the roof.
A death with the beauty of a small waterfall pouring down a
jagged peak. A comedy is performed by an old monkey. His image
has been printed on postcards to sell to tourists.
has no gender. The entire body is bound with musical strings.
Testimonies are taped all over the hallway. A few
words clump their heads together, ancient characters hobnobbing
with complicated constructions erected by absent-minded individuals.
The grammar of those who believe that, after a night’s sleep,
they will wake up mute.
Between the green and red signals, the streets coagulate.
At the intersection of Great Vietnam, a project gives its death
notice. Next to a pile of broken bricks: garbage, animal carcasses
and strewn humanity.
horn shrieks. The crowd surges, screaming: “Kill! Kill!
Kill!” A saxophone soloist suffers a stroke in the middle of
Castaways. The stage turns 180 degrees. The MC smiles, apologizes
for the technical glitch. A jazz singer sings Spring On
The Steps, ass swaying, breasts heaving.
The reason for the calamity is determined by the sharp nose
of a rabid dog.
From “Revolving Stage” by Nguyen Quoc
Chanh translated by Linh Dinh
Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s difficult poems have
attracted readers throughout the world, establishing a reputation
among those who
most care for progress in Vietnamese literature, believing
that its relevance to the present offers hope for the future.
collection of translations and interviews we seek to bring
his poetry to an audience in English.
The poems of Nguyen Quoc Chanh are difficult in the sense
that they are not easy to paraphrase. “In the legends
of dry springs there are the pebbles’ intonations.” What
does that mean? “The reason for the calamity is determined
by the sharp nose of a rabid dog.”
What could that possibly mean? You may say, well it means
something to me. Undoubtedly, the first quotation means something
to Mong Lan, who translated it, and the second one means something
to its translator Linh Dinh.
These distinguished Vietnamese American writers would not
spend their time and attention on nonsense. The sense they
are attending to in translating Nguyen Quoc Chanh is a deliberate
attack on the common sense of Viet Nam and rest of the modern
Nguyen Quoc Chanh declares himself a surrealist, a purposeful
member of a movement across the arts and around the globe that
is getting to be one hundred years old. Surrealism remains
new because it talks nonsense to draw the reader’s attention
to the present, to right now, to the rumbling body and ramshackle
mind in which each of us negotiates an unjust world.
Hitler and Mao and Stalin all detested surrealism and oppressed
surrealists brutally with murder and the camps. An unfunny
irony of the twentieth century is that Viet Nam, of all the
socialist countries right and left, embraced surrealism as
an official style.
They did this in recognition of their allies, the celebrated
surrealists of the Communist Party of France. So Ha Noi has
oppressed dissent among its surrealists mildly. Consider the
example of one of the forebears Nguyen Quoc Chanh speaks of
in his interview with Linh Dinh.
Tran Dan of Ha Noi was a young poet who set down his surrealist
magazine to join the revolution in 1945 as a sloganeer. When
he tried to return to his art after the victory over the French
in 1954, embracing art led by artists for the sake of art,
his Party simply shut Tran Dan down and never let him publish
In the 1990s, during a period of tolerance, the painter Tran
Vu showed a series of paintings at a Ha Noi gallery of his
father Tran Dan as a large soulful man cramped in a small dull
room. About the same time, Vietnamese authorities let Nguyen
Quoc Chanh publish two books, but since then he has been quietly
shut out of the magazines and publishing houses.
In his interview with young Saigon poet Ly Doi, Nguyen Quoc
Chanh explains his situation in specific terms, about the words
that are not allowed at the government monopoly publishing
houses, and those that are required. You may speak of hair,
but not of pubic hair; you must speak of Uncle and never of
uncle, to show respect to Ho Chi Minh.
No matter. Nguyen Quoc Chanh and Ly Doi are both thriving
as artists, publishing their poems themselves by photocopy
in Saigon and posting them at the great global Vietnamese websites
for literature and critical thought, critic Nguyen Hung Quoc’s
Tienve from Australia, and author Pham Thi Hoai’s Talawas
These now are the homes of Nguyen Quoc Chanh, where he is
living the rebirth of the wide-open literary culture of the
Republic of Viet Nam which flourished in Saigon from 1954 to
1975. Nguyen Quoc Chanh picked through the remains of this
world in the flea markets on the sidewalks of Saigon as a college
student and soldier.
A picker in the rag and bone shop of literary history, a bricoleur,
a self-taught surrealist of the unofficial strain, Nguyen Quoc
Chanh recently discovered that he is as well a postmodernist,
when at the turn into the new century he met such visiting
cosmopolitans as Linh Dinh. Whatever you call him he remains
a man of our times, delivering the eternal message of surrealism:
Who do you think you are anyways? Where are you? What do these
poems mean? We present fifteen poems by Nguyen Quoc Chanh selected
and translated by Mong Lan and Linh Dinh, with interviews by
Linh Dinh and Ly Doi and a bibliography to assist your reading.