Hồ Xuân Hương
In 2000, John Balaban published Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. On the cover is a bare-breasted woman, presumably Oriental, hiding her face behind a gong or a wok. Introducing her, poet, not the hot chick, Balaban writes that "for her erotic attitudes, Hồ Xuân Hương turned to the common wisdom alive in peasant folk poetry and proverbs," and that "common people [...] could hear in her verse echoes of their folk poetry, proverbs, and village common sense," but Balaban never admits that these Hồ Xuân Hương poems are really a part of the folk tradition. I should point out that the average Vietnamese is also unwilling to let go of the legend, the juicy tale of a concubine penning racy and even proto-feminist poetry, but the facts don't support it. Who was Hồ Xuân Hương?
Born between 1775 and 1780, and dead by the mid-1820's, Hồ Xuân Hương enjoys a unique position in Vietnamese literature thanks to the coy, often bawdy lyrics attributed to her. Since these poems were not collected until roughly 70 years after her death, her entire oeuvre, 139 works by one count, was circulated orally. The earliest surviving hand-copied volume was commissioned in 1893 by a Frenchman, Antony Landes, the earliest printed collection dates only from 1909. Her father was either Hồ Sĩ Diễn or Hồ Sĩ Danh. She may or may not have been a concubine. Based on the poetry, most commentators agree that she had many lovers, but then again, we all know that many wet and steaming lines are hallucinated by the sex-starved or chaste. "Wild nights! Wild nights! Were I with thee." In 1932, Nguyễn Văn Hanh hazarded that Hồ Xuân Hương was a "plain, large-boned woman" shunned by frail, officious males. Others guessed that she was dark-skinned, petite yet voluptuous. Whatever. In 1962, Nguyễn Đức Bính admitted, "I don't know anything about the poetess Hồ Xuân Hương and other people don't know any more than I do." Legends are even attached to individual poems. Take "Cảnh Thu" ["Autumn Scene"], which is accompanied by this explanation in the Landes collection [all quotations are translated from the Vietnamese. In this instance, the bad prose of the original is also assiduously duplicated]:
A long time ago Xuân Hương was caught in the rain while out strolling, stopped by Văn Giáp village, saw an old temple, Xuân Hương entered to pray to Buddha, then took a look around outside the temple. Saw a banyan tree by the side of the temple. Tilted her head up but could not see its soaring crown, so she composed this poem (this banyan tree is still there today)
A 1917 collection has a different preface:
One day during Autumn, drizzling, fairly cold, the mandarin had nothing to do, so he ordered that wine be brough out, asked his second wife to join him drinking so as to compose poetry. Xuân Hương consented, came out and sat by him to serve wine. As the cup emptied, the Autumn evening breezy, the mandarin told Xuân Hương to compose a poem about the landscape.
Legends, myths, lies and general bullshit abound in Vietnam. Many believe that Elvis Phương, a pop singer living in Orange County, California, has been adopted by Queen Elizabeth, for example. Back to our topic: the discovery of a batch of poems in 1964, traceable to the historical Hồ Xuân Hương, strongly suggests that all of these other “Hồ Xuân Hương" poems are apocryphal, concocted by the masses or bastardized through circulation. In short, they were not written by a single author but belong to a Hồ Xuân Hương tradition. It shouldn't matter: the faux Hồ Xuân Hươngs still constitute a remarkable body of works, a tribute to both the oral tradition and a poet whose vision changed her society, as scholar Đào Thái Tôn explains:
Among the glories of a poet is to be at the vanguard: a vanguard in viewpoint, a vanguard in deportment, leaving a deep influence on posterity, so that she is imitated and borrowed from by those who come later.
Although continuously beloved by the populace, all Hồ Xuân Hương poems were deemed too lewd to be taught in highschools by the 1960's, only to be restored to the curriculum in the 90's. Today, many Vietnamese still know at least a few Hồ Xuân Hương lines by heart. This enduring popularity testifies to the Vietnamese's need and desire for a masterfully blunt, loose-talking woman. I translate eight poems:
My parents have brought forth a snail,
Night and day among the smelly grass.
If you love me, peel off my shell,
Don't wiggle my little hole, please.
Bác mẹ sinh ra phận ốc nhồi.
Đêm ngày lăn lóc đám cỏ hôi.
Quân tử có thương thì bóc yếm.
Xin đừng ngó ngoáy lỗ trôn tôi.
My body is like a jackfruit on a branch,
With a rugged skin and thick flesh,
But if it pleases you, drive the stake.
Don't just fondle, or the sap
Will stain your fingers.
Thân em như quả mít trên cây,
Da nó sù sì, múi nó dày.
Quân tử có thương thì đóng cọc,
Xin đừng mân mó nhựa ra tay.
*The jackfruit is related to the breadfruit and has an exterior similar to the pineapple. One drives a stake into it, leaves it in the sun, so its sap can flow out. This, one of the most famous Hồ Xuân Hương poems, has also been attributed to Đặng Thị Huệ.
Ba Doi Gorge
A gorge, a gorge, and yet, the same old gorge.
Praise to whoever has gouged out this scene:
A lurid cave with a stubby arch,
And rich green boulders covered with algae.
Now the stiff wind blows, shaking pine branches.
Dew-drops dripping from willow leaves.
You who are virtuous, or saintly, who hasn't tried,
Even with weak knees, exhausted feet, to mount it?
Đèo Ba Dội
Một đèo, một đèo, lại một đèo,
Khen ai khéo tạc cảnh cheo leo.
Cửa son đỏ loét tùm hum nóc,
Hòn đá xanh rì lún phún rêu.
Lắt lẻo cành thông cơn gió thốc,
Đầm đìa lá liễu giọt sương gieo.
Hiền nhân, quân tử, ai mà chẳng
Mỏi gối, chồn chân vẫn muốn trèo?
Ode to the Paper Fan
One ring deep enough for any rod,
You’ve been alluring from way back when.
Stretch you to three points, there's not enough skin,
But close you from both sides, there's too much flesh.
Your job is to cool down sweating heroes,
And cover the gentleman's head in case it rains.
Behind the bed-curtain, tenderly, let’s ask him,
Panting, panting in this heat, are you satisfied?
Vịnh Cái Quạt
Một lỗ sâu sâu mấy cũng vừa,
Duyên em dính dáng tự bao giờ.
Chành ra ba góc da còn thiếu,
Khép lại hai bên thịt vẫn thừa.
Mát mặt anh hùng khi tắt gió,
Che đầu quân tử lúc sa mưa.
Nâng niu ướm hỏi người trong trướng,
Phì phạch trong lòng đã sướng chưa?
An Unplanned Pregnancy
My giving in yielded this mess.
Don't you realize my anguish?
Although destiny never raised its head,
There's a stroke across the willow tree.*
It's a century-long bond, remember?
This loveload I'll be lugging.
Whatever the world's opinions,
To have child, without husband,
Is a very nice feat.
Cả nể cho nên hóa dở dang.
Nỗi niềm chàng có biết chăng chàng?
Duyên thiên chưa thấy nhô đầu dọc,
Phận liễu sao đành nẩy nét ngang.
Cái nghĩa trăm năm chàng nhớ chửa?
Mảnh tình một khối thiếp xin mang.
Quản bao miệng thế lời chênh lệch.
Không có nhưng mà có mới ngoan.
* “Destiny" is a translation of “duyên thiên," literally, “a match made in heaven." “Thiên" is a Chinese-derived word meaning “heaven." With one stroke upward, the Chinese character for “heaven" (天) becomes “husband" (夫). In line 4, the speaker is referring to the Chinese character for “finished," homophonous with “willow," a classical symbol for “woman." A bar across “finished" turns it into “offspring," which in turn is homophonous with the character for "death." Lines 3 and 4 describe the speaker's condition of being pregnant without a husband.
Sharing a Husband
One under the quilt, one freezes.
To hell, father, with this husband-sharing.*
Once in a while, twice a month, maybe,
I might as well not have it.
Trade punches for rice, but rice is moldy.**
And work's work, but I'm working for free.
Had I known things would turn out this way,
I would have settled for being alone.
Lấy Chồng Chung
Kẻ đắp chăn bông kẻ lạnh lùng,
Chém cha cái kiếp lấy chồng chung.
Năm thì mười họa chăng hay chớ,
Môt tháng đôi lần có cũng không.
Cố đấm ăn xôi, xôi lại hẩm,
Cầm bằng làm mướn, mướn không công.
Thân này ví biết dường này nhỉ,
Thà trước thôi đành ở vậy xong.
*The first phrase of line 2, “chém cha," is a curse word meaning, literally, “stab the father."
** “Take punches for rice" is a proverb.
Which squabble among twelve midwives
Caused them to throw your love-thing away?
To hell with that squeaking mouse.
To hell with that droning wasp.
Who knows if it's smooth or bumpy?
Who can tell if it's stem or bud?
Whatever it is, it must do.
You’ll never be called a slut.
Vô Âm Nữ
Mười hai bà mụ ghét chi nhau,
Đem cái xuân tình vứt bỏ đâu?
Rúc rích thây cha con chuột nhắt,
Vo ve mặc mẹ cái ong bầu.
Đố ai biết đó vông hay trốc?
Còn kẻ nào hay cuống với đầu?
Thôi thế thì thôi, thôi cũng được,
Nghìn năm càng khỏi tiếng nương dâu.
A Roadside Teahouse
Aslant, staring at a trembling landscape:
A twining road, a tottering teahouse,
A hut with a thatch roof, ragged, pathetic,
A slitted, scrawny bamboo beam,
Three tree clumps, bending, coquettish,
An emerald green stream, scanty grass.
Pleasured, I forget my old worries.
Look: someone's kite's spiralling.
Đứng tréo trông theo cảnh hắt heo,
Đường đi thiên thẹo, quán cheo leo.
Lợp lều, mái cỏ tranh xơ xác,
Xỏ kẽ, kèo tre đốt khẳng kheo.
Ba chạc cây xanh hình uốn éo.
Một dòng nước biếc, cỏ leo teo.
Thú vui quên cả niềm lo cũ,
Kìa cái diều ai gió lộn lèo.
To provide context, here is a selection of Vietnamese folk poems written from a female perspective:
Wobbly, like a hat without a strap,
Like a boat without a rudder,
Like a woman without a husband.
A married woman, like a shackle around the neck.
An unmarried woman, like a board with a loose nail.
A board with a loose nail a man can fix.
The unmarried woman runs this way, runs that way.
It is miserable to be without a husband, Sisters!
Tròng trành như nón không quai,
Như thuyền không lái, như ai không chồng.
Gái có chồng như gông đeo cổ,
Gái không chồng như phản gỗ long đanh.
Phản long đanh anh còn chữa được,
Gái không chồng chạy ngược chạy xuôi.
Không chồng khốn lắm chị em ơi!
I come from a rich family.
To marry me, my parents will demand
That you bring a hundred bolts of embroidered silk,
One hundred rubies, twenty eight stars,
Two hundred bamboo trunks,
A gold pillbox, a silver pipe,
A carriage with four horses
For the bride's magistrate to ride in,
Three hundred Nghe hats,
A pair of fine Chinese fans for the two of us,
Crepe from Nghi Dinh,
A wide blanket to cover our bodies,
Nine vats of honey,
Ten baskets of rolled rice, ten hampers of sticky rice,
Water buffaloes and cows, eighty thousand of them,
Seventy thousand goats, nine jugs of bubbly wine,
Banyan leaves plucked under a full-moon,
Cuoi's canine tooth, Thien Loi's whiskers,*
Fresh fly livers, mosquito fat and ninety widowed bats.
These are the conditions that will satisfy my heart,
And you must meet them before I can follow you home.
Em là con gái nhà giàu,
Mẹ cha thách cưới ra mầu xinh sao.
Cưới em trăm tấm gấm đào,
Một trăm hòn ngọc, hai mươi tám ông sao trên trời,
Tráp tròn dẫn đủ trăm đôi,
Ống thuốc bằng bạc, ống vôi bằng vàng,
Sắm xe tứ mã đem sang,
Để quan viên họ nhà nàng đưa dâu.
Ba trăm nón Nghệ đội đầu,
Mỗi người một cái quạt Tàu thật xinh.
Anh về xắm nhiễu Nghi Đình,
May chăn cho rộng ta mình đắp chung.
Cưới em chín chĩnh mật ong,
Mười cót xôi trắng, mười nong xôi vò.
Cưới em tám vạn trâu bò,
Bảy vạn dê lợn, chín vò rượu tăm,
Lá đa mặt nguyệt hôm rằm,
Răng nanh thằng Cuội, râu cằm Thiên Lôi,
Gan ruồi mỡ muỗi cho tươi,
Xin chàng chín chục con dơi góa chồng.
Thách thế mới thỏa trong lòng,
Chàng mà theo được, thiếp cùng theo chân.
*Cuội: a mythical figure who lives on the moon.
Thiên Lôi: the God of thunder.
I married at fifteen. My husband complained
That I was too small, and wouldn't lie with me.
Then I was eighteen, then I was twenty.
I was lying on the floor, he yanked me onto bed.
Love me once, then love me twice,
There's only three legs left to the bed.
Whoever is going to my parents' village,
Let them know that he and I are reconciled.
Lấy chồng từ thuở mười lăm,
Chồng chê tôi bé chẳng nằm với tôi.
Đến năm mười tám, đôi mươi,
Tôi nằm dưới đất, chông lôi lên giường.
Một rằng thương, hai rằng thương,
Có bốn chân giường gẫy một còn ba.
Ai về nhắn nhủ mẹ cha,
Chồng tôi nay đã giao hòa với tôi.
The little palm nuts are streaked by veins.
You are studying close to home now, but soon,
You'll be studying far away.
I married you when I was thirteen.
By eighteen, I already had five children.
On the street, people think I'm a single woman,
But at home, I already have five children with you.
Quả cau nho nhỏ?,
Cái vỏ vân vân,
Nay anh học gần,
Mai anh học xa.
Anh lấy em từ thuở mười ba,
Đến năm mười tám thiếp đã năm con.
Ra đường người tưởng còn son,
Về nhà thiếp đã năm con cùng chàng.
Young hen stir-fried with old loofah.
Wife twenty one, husband sixty.
On the streets, women joke, girls giggle.
Granddad, granddaughter a married pair.
At night, a cotton-stuffed pillow I'm hugging
Turns out to be my bearded husband.
Sniffling, I feel sorry for myself, curse my fate,
Curse my greedy parents who sold their daughter.
Gà tơ xào với mướp già.
Vợ hai mươi mốt, chồng đã sáu mươi.
Ra đường, chị giễu em cười.
Rằng hai ông cháu kết đôi vợ chồng.
Đêm nằm, tưởng cái gối bông,
Giật mình gối phải râu chồng nằm bên.
Sụt sùi tủi phận hôn duyên,
Oán cha, trách mẹ tham tiền bán con.
If you must go into the army, go.
I can take care of business at home.
The twelfth month is for planting sweet potatoes.
The first month is for planting mung beans.
The second month is for planting eggplants.
The third month is for plowing the field.
The fourth month is for sowing rice seeds.
Everything is fine.
The fifth month is for harvesting.
Rain pours down, flooding the rice paddies.
Go perform your public duties,
Leave me alone to work the field.
Anh ơi! phải lính thì đi,
Cửa nhà đơn chếch đã thì có tôi.
Tháng chạp là tiết trồng khoai,
Tháng giêng trồng đậu, tháng hai trồng cà.
Tháng ba cày bở ruộng ra,
Tháng tư gieo mạ thuận hòa mọi nơi.
Tháng năm gặt hái vừa rồi,
Trời đổ mưa xuống, nước trôi đầy đồng.
Anh ơi! giữ lấy việc công,
Để đây em cấy mặc lòng em đây.
Eighteen baskets of hair in my nose.
My husband said: "Whiskers from a dragon, a godsend."
At night I snore, "Aww! Aww!"
My husband said: "Snoring cheers up the house."
I often snack while shopping.
My husband said: "You'll eat less at home."
Trash and straw on my head.
My husband said: "Fragrant flowers in your hair."
Lỗ mũi em mười tám gánh lông,
Chồng yêu chồng bảo: “Râu rồng trời cho"
Đêm nằm thì ngáy o o...
Chồng yêu chồng bảo: “Ngáy cho vui nhà."
Đi chợ thì hay ăn quà,
Chồng yêu chồng bảo: “Về nhà đỡ cơm."
Trên đầu những rác với rơm,
Chồng yêu chồng bảo: “Hoa thơm trên đầu."
As a concubine, I get nothing. Although
As endowed as the mistress, I'm laid aside.
Each night she claims the bedroom, giving me
A straw mat, to lie alone in the outer room.
At dawn she yells, "Hey, servant, get up!"
I wake to slice sweet potatoes, chop water fern.
It's all because my parents are poor.
That's why I must slice potatoes, chop water fern.
Thân em lấy lẽ chả hề,
Có như chính thất mà lê giữa giường.
Tối tối chị giữ mất buồng,
Cho em mảnh chiếu nằm suông nhà ngoài.
Sáng sáng chị gọi: “Ở Hai!"
Bây giờ mới dậy, thái khoai, đâm bèo.
Vì chưng bác mẹ tôi nghèo,
Cho nên tôi phải đâm bèo, thái khoai.
Chastity is worth more than gold.
From my ex-husband to you, that's five men.
As for my history of furtive love,
A hundred have lain upon my belly.
Chữ trinh đáng giá nghìn vàng,
Từ anh chồng cũ đến chàng là năm.
Còn như yêu vụng dấu thầm,
Họp chợ trên bụng hàng trăm con người.
I was not the only loose girl. There were two or three
In Thanh Lam, Dong Som. It's hard to admit, Sisters,
Lest you laugh. I was married in September,
Had my baby in October.
Lẳng lơ chả một mình tôi.
Thanh Lâm, Đồng Sớm, cũng đôi ba người.
Nói ra sợ chị em cười,
Lấy chồng tháng chín, tháng mười có con.
My husband is useless, Sisters. He gambles
All day long, goes berserk
When I complain. It is embarrassing
Even to talk about it. To settle his debts,
I'll have to sell four or five baskets
Of threshed rice, kilos of cotton.
We'll eat less. This bitter berry
I'll suck without complaints, lest everyone laughs.
Confucian-trained, yet I live with a fool.
A dragon in a pool of mud.
A smart wife with a stupid husband.
Chồng em nó chẳng ra gì,
Tổ tôm sóc đĩa nó thì chơi hoang.
Nói ra xấu thiếp, hổ chàng,
Nó giận nó phá tan hoang cửa nhà.
Nói đây thôi có chị em nhà.
Còn năm ba thúng thóc với một vài cân bông.
Em bán đi trả nợ cho chồng.
Còn ăn hết nhịn cho hả lòng chồng con.
Đắng cay ngậm quả bồ hòn.
Cửa nhà ra thế, chồng con kém người.
Nói ra sợ chị em cười.
Con nhà nho giáo lấy phải người đần ngu.
Rồng vàng tắm nước ao tù,
Người khôn ở với người ngu nặng mình.
Gambling does not agree with you.
Having sold your shirt and your pants,
You don't even have a piece of rag left.
A gust of cold wind, and you duck into a pile of stubbles,
With your ass sticking out, for the crows to pick.
Cờ bạc nó đã khinh anh,
Áo quần bán hết một manh chẳng còn.
Gió đông chui vào đống rạ,
Hở mông ra cho quạ nó lôi.
Anh còn cờ bạc nữa thôi?
Not to flog Balaban overly much--sorry, John--but the Hồ Xuân Hương book was not the first time he mixed fiction with poetry. In 1980, he published Ca Dao Viet Nam: A Bilingual Anthology of Vietnamese Folk Poetry. Reissued recently, it carries this description: "During the Vietnam war, John Balaban traveled the Vietnamese countryside alone, taping, transcribing, and translating oral folk poems known as 'ca dao.' No one had ever done this before, and it was Balaban's belief that his project would help end the war." Nearly all the folk poems in Balaban's book could be found in Nguyễn Văn Ngọc's Tục Ngữ Phong Dao, however, published in Saigon in 1925, and reissued many, many times. A standard reference book, it is known to all scholars and many students and casual readers. Balaban didn't have to get off the beaten paths, risking stepping on shit-smeared punji sticks or bouncing betties, to gather poems already available in every Saigon bookstore. Further, Balaban's Vietnamese was simply not good enough to do field works, alone. When my wife and I heard him perform some Vietnamese poems in North Carolina in 2004, we couldn't understand, literally, a single word. At the back of the Ca Dao book, there are a dozen photos of weird looking Vietnamese, the supposed sources and quarries of Balaban's ethnographic prowess. These were followers of the coconut monk, a weirdo who claimed to survive solely on coconut milk, who built a tacky "peace" platform on an island in the Mekong River. Balaban couldn't very well snap photos of Bee Gees-listening Vietnamese in plastic shades, flower shirts and bell bottoms, could he? That would fall outside the script.
Image 1: An oil painting of Hồ Xuân Hương by Đặng Quý Khoa. Image 2: Đạo Năm Cả Gà, a John Balaban photo published in his Ca Dao Vietnam (Greensboro: Unicorn Press, 1980). Image 3: George Harrison and the Coconut Monk, photo by Richard Avedon, 1999. Image 4: Saigon in 1968, a photo by Alfred Krabbenhoeft. Image 5: The actress Vân Quyền portraying Hồ Xuân Hương on Vietnamese television, 2004. Image 6: The Death of Ho Xuan Huong, a 2005 movie. Image 7: A recent edition of Nguyễn Văn Ngọc's benchmark anthology, Tục Ngữ Phong Giao.
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...