My Father’s “Norton Introduction to Literature,” Third Edition (1981)

Certain words give him trouble: cannibals, puzzles, sob,
bosom, martyr, deteriorate, shake, astonishes, vexed, ode    ...    
These he looks up and studiously annotates in Vietnamese.
Ravish means cướp đoạt; shits is like when you have to đi ỉa;
mourners are those whom we say are full of buồn rầu.
For “even the like precurse of feared events” think báo trước.

Its thin translucent pages are webbed with his marginalia,
graphite ghosts of a living hand, and the notes often sound
just like him: “All depend on how look at thing,” he pencils
after “I first surmised the Horses’ Heads / Were toward Eternity —”
His slanted handwriting is generally small, but firm and clear.
His pencil is a No. 2, his preferred Hi-Liter, arctic blue.

I can see my father trying out the tools of literary analysis.
He identifies the “turning point” of “The Short and Happy Life
of Francis Macomber”; underlines the simile in “Both the old man
and the child stared ahead as if they were awaiting an apparition.”
My father, as he reads, continues to notice relevant passages
and to register significant reactions, but increasingly sorts out

his ideas in English, shaking off those Vietnamese glosses.
1981 was the same year we vượt biển and came to America,
where my father took Intro Lit (“for fun”), Comp Sci (“for job”).
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” he murmurs
something about the “dark side of life how awful it can be”
as I begin to track silence and signal to a cold source.

Reading Ransom’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,”
a poem about a “young girl’s death,” as my father notes,
how could he not have been “vexed at her brown study / 
Lying so primly propped,” since he never properly observed
(I realize this just now) his own daughter’s wake.
Lấy làm ngạc nhiên về is what it means to be astonished.

Her name was Đông Xưa, Ancient Winter, but at home she’s Bebe.
“There was such speed in her little body, / And such lightness
in her footfall, / It is no wonder her brown study / Astonishes
us all.” In the photo of her that hangs in my parents’ house
she is always fourteen months old and staring into the future.
In “reeducation camp” he had to believe she was alive

because my mother on visits “took arms against her shadow.”
Did the memory of those days sweep over him like a leaf storm
from the pages of a forgotten autumn? Lost in the margins,
I’m reading the way I discourage my students from reading.
But this is “how we deal with death,” his black pen replies.
Assume there is a reason for everything, instructs a green asterisk.

Then between pp. 896-97, opened to Stevens’ “Sunday Morning,”
I pick out a newspaper clipping, small as a stamp, an old listing
from the 404-Employment Opps State of Minnesota, and read:
For current job opportunities dial (612297-3180. Answered 24 hrs.
When I dial, the automated female voice on the other end
tells me I have reached a non-working number.

More Poems by Hai-Dang Phan