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Spring Offensive: In Search of Chế Lan Viên


About the Author
Chế Lan Viên (1920-1989) is the pen name of Phan Ngọc Hoan. He was born on October 20, 1920 in Đông Hà in Central Vietnam, and grew up in Quy Nhơn further south, and started writing poetry at an early age. His first collection, Điêu Tàn (In Ruins), published in 1937 when he was seventeen, gained him notice as a poet of original, if morose, sensibilities. His preface to his first collection included a statement of aesthetics for the "Disordered" (Loạn), also known as "Mad" (Điên), school of poetry. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, he was associated with the Bình Định Group of poets. By the mid-40s, his poetry and politics underwent radical transformation. He participated in the events of the August Revolution of 1945, in the Quy Nhơn area, and in 1947 officially joined the Communist Party. Afterwards, he wrote for a number of journals, including Quyết Thắng (Resolve to Win) in support of the Việt Minh’s movement against French rule. After the Geneva Agreements of 1954, Chế Lan Viên returned to Hà Nội, taking on responsibilities as a leading member of the Writers’ Association of Vietnam (Hội Nhà Văn Việt Nam). After the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Chế Lan Viên lived and worked in Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn). A prolific writer, he remained active in the literary scene, producing poetry, essays, memoirs, and commentary and criticism until his death in 1989. He was married to the novelist Vũ Thị Thường; their daughter, Phan Thi Vang-Anh, is also a writer. Among Chế Lan Viên’s many works of poetry and prose are: Điêu Tàn (Ruins), Vàng Sao (The Yellow Star), Thăm Trung Quốc (Visit to China), Gửi Các Anh (To My Brothers), Những bài thơ đánh giặc (Poems to Fight the Enemy), Đối thoại mới (New Conversations), and Giờ của đô thành (City Hours). In 1996, he was posthumously awarded with Vietnam’s National Literature Prize.

Sometime in the mid-1930s, he met a young woman named Trần Thị Thu. Thu is my paternal grandmother. She is the “you” in a few of his love poems.

Spring and Fall
He was four years older than her, a young poet and teacher, the son of a low-level clerk, and also from the same province. By the time they had met, he already made a name for himself in literary circles. She came from a prosperous, educated, and respected family. Her mother, killed by roadside bandits after she put up a fight using her martial arts, had become part of the village folklore. Her father was the head of the Agriculture Department of Bình Định Province, in the South Central Coast region, and he disapproved of their relationship. It was foolish, improper, and impractical. She was sent up to Huế, the capital city, to attend their famous all-girls high school, along with her younger brother, Khuê, who would go to the all-boys school and be their father’s eyes and ears. But teaching posts were not difficult to come by for a poet like him. He was able to follow her to Huế. And instead of being her father’s informant, her younger brother Khuê became their liaison and messenger, arranging rendezvous, delivering letters, poems, and books. Her schooling went well. She was reading a great deal. She was writing too, and even published some of her own poems, though in smaller, lesser known magazines. This period must have felt like an idyll on the banks of the Perfume River. Independence and anti-colonialism must have also been in the air. So ancient Huế, a city within a city within a city, provided them with another, perhaps better, setting. When her father finally realized his plan had backfired she was ordered back home. There was a respectable bachelor, a young Agricultural Engineer, who had just returned from Paris. The marriage was going to be in the spring. At least they would have one last fall.

On Metaphysics
Would you recognize your soul if you bumped into it?

Blackout. Ho Chi Minh City. March 2008.
The first time I heard my grandmother speak about Chế Lan Viên was during the afternoon blackout. It was my spring break, and I was in Vietnam with my father. I was still a PhD graduate student, half-heartedly researching a dissertation on literature and reconciliation after the Vietnam War, though mostly just reading poetry and feeling bad for myself about not writing it. I was told that my grandmother’s health was in rapid decline. That the family had to hire a caregiver. You should spend some time with Bà nội, my father said.

So I spent that spring break in Vietnam marooned in my Bà nội’s freezing bedroom, wrapped in a blanket watching my grandmother watch a popular Korean soap opera called “Winter Sonata.” The air-conditioner—or “cold machine” in the literal Vietnamese translation—never seemed to not be pumping artic air. Which is why the scheduled blackouts on Monday afternoons were a particular source of anxiety. Would she die of heatstroke without the cold machine? How could she take her medicine on time if the clocks weren’t working anymore?

On the afternoon of the blackout, we moved my grandmother’s blue folding chair out into the front room where it was cooler. The front room was where guests would normally be received, where my grandmother kept her books, and where the small shrines to the dead were placed. It was my father who prompted her to tell me the story of the poet. She seemed more than happy to oblige. Though her short-term memory was unreliable, she had no trouble summoning that long ago love or reciting the poems he wrote to her. And not only his poems, but also lines from Baudelaire and Rimbaud, which she recited in her school girl’s French. My father captured part of this reception scene on video. I like knowing that somewhere there exists lost footage of Trần Thị Thu telling Phan Hải Đăng about Chế Lan Viên.

Two years later, in 2010, I left the PhD program, dissertation incomplete, and drove from Madison, Wisconsin to Gainesville, Florida, where I would chase a beloved idea of the writing life. One of the least embarrassing poems I managed to write during the first year of my program era was “Blackout,” which recollects that afternoon in Vietnam with my grandmother. In the poem I edit out my father, though he was the one to get her to talk. Chế Lan Viên, who goes unnamed in the poem, is the young poet who “called on fall to block the coming spring.” My grandmother is the “you.” Poetry’s lyric address lets me speak to her in English, as if she might perfectly understand. I would cut the last stanza now and end with:

Your name means Autumn. You were married off that spring.

Bright Star
Another bright on the literary scene in the late 1930s was a young man from central Vietnam who wrote under the pen name Che Lan Vien. His reputation was based primarily on one slender volume of poems, entitled In Ruins, published in 1937 when he was only seventeen years old. Although he was Vietnamese, his poems are mostly about Champa and written from a Cham rather than Vietnamese point of view. It seems, however, that behind his preoccupation with the long-crumpled glories of Champa, deemed worthy of countless centuries of lamentation and regret, lay a view of Vietnam in the 1930s as a decadent and dying society whose true glory was “in ruins.”

These early poems of Che Lan Vien are sad, musical, pensive, and metaphysical, containing an element of controlled madness. They often border on the grotesque. Death, decay, mutation, and grief were his favorite and most successful themes. Che Lan Vien’s early poetry had a strained intensity, expressing a desperate quest for sensation, for meaning, for reassurance. Yet whatever he sought lurked beyond his grasp. His frenzied search for respite from a disconcerting sense of lonely individuality was hampered by the morbidity he projected onto everything he saw.

—from Understanding Vietnam, by Neil L. Jamieson (University of California Press, 1993)

The Messenger
I met him in the summer of 1999, during my family’s first return trip to Vietnam. We were going to visit Bà nội’s younger brother, I was told. He was a retired Colonel in the North Vietnamese Army. We often stayed with him whenever we needed to hide from authorities, back when my father was planning our family’s escape.

Wait, Bà nội’s brother was an NVA Colonel? That was news to me. In our household, VC and NVA spelled enemy. They were why we left. They imprisoned my father in one of their re-education camps for four years and, as my mother often put it, threw him into a larger prison called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. They were why we risked death at sea and sought a new life in America. This revelation would be one of the first cracks over the years in the story my family told itself about itself.

Ông Khuê’s house was in Thủ Đức, a district about ten miles from central Saigon. It was like Saigon’s Beverly Hills before ‘75, I recall my father trying to explain to me. Before the last days of Saigon in April 1975, the house belonged to a high-ranking officer, an Army doctor, of the former Republic of South Vietnam. It was a kind of safe house for us. No one would bother a decorated Colonel, a hero of the revolutionary struggle, about housing puppets of the American imperialists.

Laughing, Ông Khuê told me how I used to be afraid of my own shadow. He remembered me playing in the courtyard and in the living room, right here and out there—his finger pointed to a sunlit courtyard beyond memory. The window curtains were bathed red and almost see through.

Born Again
Huy Can, Xuan Dieu Luu Trong Lu, and Che Lan Vien were among the most alienated and disturbed poets of the 1930s. Their poetry at that time revealed extreme individualism and preoccupation with their own inner feelings. What they seem to have felt, however, was mainly loneliness and despair. They had not celebrated the joys of individualism; they had expressed its anguish. Then, as revealed by their poetry and confirmed by what we know of their lives, they had been rejuvenated by their participation in the Resistance War and their conversion to communism during the mid-1940s. Party discipline combined with membership in a tightly knit, highly organized social group had enabled them to slough off the oppressive weight of individualism and provided them with new and satisfying identities.

To them individualism was dead and not to be mourned, while the rediscovered virtues of collectivism had taken on almost religious significance. Revolutionary Marxism-Leninism not only provided them with a touchstone for attaining mastery over society and even nature, it offered a metaphysical basis for confronting the previously frightening prospects of life and death. These men were now thriving. Both their personalities and their lives were more highly structured and better integrated. They had become integral parts of an efficacious collectivity that transcended their own lives both sociologically and temporally, like the families and villages of tradition, like the wide seas and long rivers that served as apt metaphors in their poetry.

—from Understanding Vietnam, by Neil L. Jamieson (University of California Press, 1993)

On the August Revolution
In my grandmother’s version of literary history, the poet Chế Lan Viên did not go North to join the Resistance purely out of love for country, but also due to a broken heart.

The Killing Fields
My Vietnamese has slid back into obscurity, at least for now. Born in Vietnam, I grew up in Wisconsin speaking English like the Midwesterner I became. Vietnamese wasn’t so much banned at home; it was still the language my parents spoke to each other and often enough to me, as it was allowed to be choked off by English. It wasn’t until graduate school that I attempted to relearn my forgotten mother tongue. The official reason was PhD research. The unofficial reason, I suppose, had to do with my own private search for lost time. For a few years there, I spoke Vietnamese moderately well, though I fared better on the page reading and translating. Translation let me assume memories that were not my own. Translation also turned out to be my way back to writing poetry. 

Attempting to overcome writer’s block a few years ago, I seized the issue of The Vietnam Review (Spring-Summer 1997) that had somehow come into my possession. A quick glance at the table of contents reveals six poems by Chế Lan Viên, all from his first book, Điêu Tàn (In Ruins). Those pages are dog-eared. The poems appear in Vietnamese with enfacing English translations by Huỳnh Sanh Thông. None of the poems were to my grandmother, but there was one to a skull that I liked. “Cái sọ người” (“The Human Skull”) spoke to me. I enjoyed its exuberant preoccupation with the macabre and the metaphysical. I probably identified with the existential wreck of its Hamletian speaker. I envied its speed and attack, its erotic directness and over-the-top death drive. My own poems sounded nothing like this. I made a new translation of the poem, though it might be better to call it a spirited imitation, furious version, or soul graft “after” Chế Lan Viên.

On Translation
You have to desire something in a poem to translate it well. The poem should prick you, draw blood. Your blood stains stain me.

Autumn in Ruins
My grandmother’s name is hidden in plain view, smuggled into Điêu tàn (In Ruins) through that common poetic trope: autumn. When I e-mailed my father for clarifications, he tracked down mentions of “Thu” in poems from Chế Lan Viên’s first collection, searchable online in Vietnamese. These are just his “raw” translations, he noted. I have slightly “cooked” them:

Ô hay tôi lại nhớ thu rồi…
(Oh! Each season I miss Autumn again)

Mùa thu rớm máu rơi từng chút…
(Autumn bleeds drop by drop)

Một cánh chim thu lạc cuối ngàn…
(A solitary autumn bird lost at forest edge)

Đường về thu trước xa xăm lắm…
(The road back to Autumn remains far off)

A Daughter’s Memories
Now and then, I followed father and attended conferences or classes where he was to lecture about poetry and literature. There, people would reserve for him a front-row seat, and young women and men would come and greet him, talking about some of his writings or about a recent book of his. I just listened, and each time the thought recurred to me: ‘Shame on me! I know nothing at all about my own father!’ I followed him on such trips just for the fun of it, and I hardly noticed what topic he was to lecture on or what kind of speech he was to deliver. I only paid attention and made sure that he had combed his hair, that he had folded back the collar of his shirt, that he had not forgotten his eyeglasses.

from “A Daughter’s Memories,” by Phan Thi Vang Anh, translated from the Vietnamese by Huynh Sang Thong, in The Vietnam Review (Spring-Summer 1997)

At the Western Store
Her father was said to have spoiled her with a great many things. Such as a horse.

In 2001, my grandmother got to visit the U.S. for six months, long enough to attend my sister’s high school graduation party, catch our hometown’s Fourth of July parade, see the leaves turn color and carpet the ground, give out candy on Halloween, and listen to the crunch of snow underfoot. We also took her to the Mall of America.

At the Mall, I was chaperone and interpreter, wondering how to explain the cultural significance of Camp Snoopy or the bared torsos of the live models outside the Abercrombie & Fitch to Bà nội. When we walked by the RCC Western Store, with its decorative wagon wheel pinned on the wall, she was pulled inside as if by some invisible lasso. It was the cowboy boots.

Bà nội once had a horse, she said grinning, referring to herself in the third person.

Ice Storm. Des Moines, Iowa. Mid-January 2017.
The National Weather Service has issued an Ice Storm Warning for central Iowa. The view from the window by my writing desk gives me the illusion of sitting in a lookout tower. From here, the river is a frozen conveyor belt of clouds. The black birds are broken off letters scattering in the arctic wind. The empty parking lot is an unexplored ice sheet. My thoughts drift over these pages like snow erasing the road. In front of me is his poem “Spring.” I remember printing out the copy shortly after hearing my grandmother recite the poem from memory. The page is covered with my glosses and definitions. They are the traces of my abandoned attempt to make a start out of particulars: bring back to mind; to be sad, sorrowful, melancholic; pick up, gather; fresh flowers; to be dispersed, dislocated, broken up; way, direction, path; to be drunk, intoxicated; to hinder, check, impede; crumble, dying, decay, wane; bird of autumn; lost on the horizon; tired wing; disappear…. I can’t tell you much else about the life and work of Chế Lan Viên, and I’m not sure this is even about him in the end. Maybe he is just a magnet for these accidental filings, secondhand memories, and autobiographical apocrypha.

On the Uses of Poetry
Burning the books, her father said, “Can poetry feed you?” Of course he would use that metaphor. Yes, it can and does.

Originally Published: February 6th, 2017

Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam and grew up in Wisconsin. He is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College.