American readers are familiar with the Vietnam War poetry of Bruce Weigl and Yusef Komunyakaa, etc., some may even have read former NVA Bao Ninh's novel, The Sorrows of War, but almost no one has read the war poetry of the South Vietnamese, on whose land much of the fighting took place, but that's not so unusual, is it? How many know what Iraqi and Afghan poets are writing? Among the best South Vietnamese poets of his generation is Tran Da Tu. He was born in Hai Duong, northern Vietnam in 1940. In 1954, during the partition of the country, he went to Saigon, where he became a journalist and prominent poet. During 1963, he was jailed by the Ngo Dinh Diem government for his dissident views, then imprisoned for 12 years by the Communists from 1976-1988, after the collapse of South Vietnam. His wife, the famous novelist and poet Nha Ca, the only South Vietnamese female writer among 10 black-listed as "cultural guerrillas" by the Communist regime, was also imprisoned from 1976-1977. In 1989, a year after Tran Da Tu was released from prison, the couple and their children received political asylum from the Swedish government, but later moved to the US and now live in Southern California. His war poetry reads as if it were written, well, right now. I translate four:

Love Tokens
I’ll give you a roll of barbwire
A vine for this modern epoch
Climbing all over our souls
That’s our love, take it, don’t ask
I’ll give you a car bomb
A car bomb exploding on a crowded street
On a crowded street exploding flesh and bones
That’s our festival, don’t you understand
I’ll give you a savage war
In the land of so many mothers
Where our people eat bullets and bombs instead of rice
Where there aren’t enough banana leaves to string together
To replace mourning cloths for the heads of children
I’ll give you twenty endless years
Twenty years seven thousand nights of artillery
Seven thousand nights of artillery lulling you to sleep
Are you sleeping yet or are you still awake
On a hammock swinging between two smashed poles
White hair and whiskers covering up fifteen years
A river stinking of blood drowning the full moon
Where no sun could ever hope to rise
I’m still here, sweetie, so many love tokens
Metal handcuffs to wear, sacks of sand for pillows
Punji sticks to scratch your back, fire hoses to wash your face
How do we know which gift to send each other
And for how long until we get sated
Lastly, I’ll give you a tear gas grenade
A tear gland for this modern epoch
A type of tear neither sad nor happy
Drenching my face as I wait.
Saigon, 1964

Toy for Future Children
A blind and deaf bullet buried in the field
Dozing through decades of blood and bones
Then one morning
In a bustling future
As the children return to the field
Returning to goof around and chase each other
The blind and deaf bullet will be dug up
Will be dug up and awaken
In the middle of this happiness
As the children shriek and crow
The bullet will wake up
Wake up and open its eyes
Open its eyes and explode
Explode and the children will die
Die with their bodies and faces shattered

There, that’s the toy left over by your parents
O my children
What more can I say
What can say to my children, to my children
To a pitiful future.
[Saigon, 1964]

Fragmented War
The loose change are still warring on the table
Amid paint brushes, cheap plays, vague poetry and confused papers
An endless economic war
A weird adventure inside a bowl’s rim
How do we exit from it
Beside stripping ourselves naked
To search and sketch ourselves, to confess
Is there a body not as obscure as the night
A desire not as messy as a storm
That’s when history assumes the enemy’s face
I punch his chin hurting my hand
Hear love dissolving like a breath exhaling
While the past is as exhausted as an illusion
As you look down
How do we exit from it
Beside finding each other
To weep, lament and swap stories
Is there a history not as treacherous as you
A truth not as ragged as mother
These are mornings you must stand on the balcony
Evenings you must wander the streets
Suns that must be put into frames
Nights that must appear as words
And how do we exit from it
Beside dying
So as to finish, fall and exterminate ourselves.
Saigon, 1965

Standing there. Standing on Freedom Street*
Standing beneath the brightest streetlamp
Standing to solicit and to shift back and forth
Standing to gesture and to jiggle
Standing to pant with rubber-stuffed bosom
Standing shamelessly with diseased asset
Standing there. Standing there since when
Since when and until when
O my sisters, how would I know.
Saigon, 1965
*i.e., Tu Do Street, much frequented by prostitutes servicing American GIs during wartime

My reading of Tran Da Tu's "Love Tokens" in Vietnamese and English, as filmed by C.A.Conrad:

Originally Published: March 26th, 2008

Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...

  1. March 26, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    Thanks for these, Linh. Couple questions:
    Has Tran Da Tu published in exile?
    What's the cultural situation now in Vietnam? That is, would he and Nha Ca, for example, still be "proscribed"? (Having seen some of the utterly wild and weird stuff you've translated from younger Vietnamese poets--in Soft Targets, for recent instance--I gather things are fairly open now?)
    What's the original prosody of these?

  2. March 26, 2008
     Kent Johnson

    One other thing. Linh Dinh asks how many "war poets" from the countries under U.S. occupation we know of here in U.S. Not exactly "verse," in this case, but I encourage you to check out David-Baptiste Chirot's blog far and away the best poetry-blog source for news from the Middle East, and with Philip Metres's blog, the best anti-war poetry site going.
    From Chirot's latest post:
    "The US army has banned the publication of four cartoons drawn by Sami al-Hajj, the Al Jazeera cameraman held in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, according to his lawyer....
    Al-Hajj was seized by the US military while he was covering the war in Afghanistan for Al Jazeera's Arabic channel and has been held as an "enemy combatant" without trial or charge since 2001."

  3. March 26, 2008
     Linh Dinh

    Hi Kent,
    These poems are also in free verse in the originals.
    Both Tran Da Tu ang his wife, Nha Ca, are still banned, as are most overseas Vietnamese writers. All of my Vietnamese poems are banned, for example, although I've just had my first collection released in Vietnam by an underground press. Call it a full-length samizdat, if you will. The wild and weird stuff you saw in Soft Target were written by poets in Vietnam but published in a Vietnamese webzine edited in Australia.
    And yes, I know about David-Baptiste Chirot's blog and have mentioned it on my own blog.

  4. March 27, 2008

    Dear Linh --
    Thank you so much for the poetry and news of the poets.
    There are so many ways in which exile functions in relation with writing.
    Writing becomes the home where on hangs one's hat so to speak--
    as the home country bans one and he new country literally can't read one--and even in translate is still seeing one as "far away"--
    Out of the tensions many sounds arise and find themselves in poems--
    of a surprising kind!
    One can be an internal exile also, which more and more people are the world over.
    I wonder if there will begin to be a mutual recognition among the refugees and exiles --as they find themselves in a land not a home land to any of them --(homelessness one may live in one's own country--millions of internal refugees in usa--)--and yet the home they are making--
    at any given moment--in any give poem--
    this is opening of a piece on this question written for a Japanese journal that was reprinted in a British one for 9/11 anniversary couple years ago--
    “Home is where I hang my hat”–since childhood this phrase haunts me with images and questions. The hat hanging in a forest, a field, aboard a ship, in a familiar room, a street, a faraway land . . . Trust in one’s ability & imagination to improvise a home in any situation. And–what happens if the hat is lost, stolen or damaged? Above all, in the 15th century French poet Francois Villon’s words:
    En mon pais suis en terre longtaine In my own country I’m in a distant land
    Je ris en pleur et attens sans espoir I laugh in tears and wait without hope
    Confort reprens en triste desespoir I cheer up in sad despair
    …the good black humor of the paradoxical ability to exist simultaneously at home and not at home.
    Thank you for noting my blog--
    actually besides news there is a great deal of art work there Visual Poetry and Mail Art and in April I am opening a new Visual Poetry/Mail Art Call to be displayed there as the pieces arrive--re Walls----gated communtiies, Green Zones, Apartheid Walls, etc etc--"to cement divisions"--ethnic, religious, class, privataized, i a myriad ways to cut masses of people off and out--to in a sesne "disappear them" from view--and slowly from the mind completely--
    a staggering amount of the us budget is poured everyday into these imense projects, bilions paid to the immense bloated corrupt contratcing firms--who in turn employ their own sub contratctors privatized security forces--and more and more work and destory and build very little for themost part outside any rule of law or oversight--
    immense locusts feeding off the people lands and minerals and elements outside thw alls--
    thanking you both very much--

  5. April 3, 2008
     David Buuck

    who is the poet Lorenzo Thomas is reading at the beginning of his 1978 reading on pennsound:
    can't make out the name, nor does LT mention a translator (himself, perhaps?)
    great stuff-