Voices from Vietnam

June 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: At the San Francisco Public Library recently, poet John Balaban read from his new book.

JOHN BALABAN: “The waterfall plunges in mist. Who can describe this desolate scene: The long white river sliding through the emerald shadows of the ancient canopy a shepherd’s horn echoing in the valley, fishnets stretched to dry on sandy flats. A bell is tolling, fading, fading, just like love. Only poetry lasts.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The book is Spring Essence, a collection of Balaban’s translations of 49 poems by one of Vietnam’s premier bards, the 18th century concubine, Ho Xuan Huong.

SPOKESPERSON: Thank you very much.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Since the book was published by Copper Canyon Press late last year, Spring Essence has sold 15,000 copies and is in its third printing– a remarkable achievement for poetry these days. Reviewers seemed smitten with the saucy Ho Xuan Huong. In the Seattle Post- Intelligencer, John Marshall called her “a woman artist shockingly ahead of her place and her times, strong-willed, undaunted by any authority, especially male, independent and sexy.” Balaban first got interested in Vietnam’s poetry when he served there during the war– not as a soldier, but as a conscientious objector. He worked for the Committee of Responsibility, which brought war-wounded children to the United States for treatment.

JOHN BALABAN: First things first is to say, good to see all of you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: While in the bay area for his book readings, he was reunited with some of the people he had saved. Sometimes the children stayed in the United States after surgery and convalescence because the Committee of Responsibility couldn’t find their families. Balaban hadn’t seen Nguyen Thi Bong since the war.

JOHN BALABAN: So I think I first met you at the children’s hospital in Saigon.

NGUYEN THI BONG: I have pictures.

JOHN BALABAN: You have pictures of that?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She was wounded by a grenade thrown by South Koreans who fought on the South Vietnamese side during the war.

JOHN BALABAN: They just started to shoot everyone.

JOHN BALABAN: The South Koreans.

NGUYEN THI BONG: The South Koreans.

JOHN BALABAN: Nguyen Thi Bong, I remember her vividly because she was the tiniest child we brought to the United States. I remember holding her in my arms, and putting her on an ambulance. Her face was so destroyed that the surgery that was done was never done before.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Poetry became Balaban’s refuge from the suffering of war. After he finished his two years as a conscientious objector, he traveled throughout Vietnam recording oral folk poetry that had never been written down.

JOHN BALABAN: As I was traveling alone in the countryside, the war was still going on. In fact, on my tapes, I often had firefights in the background because I taped in the evening, and that’s when the battles would start up. And I would simply walk up to people, ordinary people, country people, and ask them to sing their favorite poem. (Folk poetry sung in Vietnamese )

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: His first book was a translation of those folk poems, and after that he began to think about translating Ho Xuan Huong.

JOHN BALABAN: Well, you of the war and you want to bring something back that’s whole and beautiful. And the poetry is there. It’s an abiding thing. Ho Xuan Huong herself says… She talks about all the things that fade and disappear and she says only poetry lasts. And so I wanted to bring her voice back. Not that it’s ever died in Vietnam, but I wanted Americans to hear it, too. (Poetry in Vietnamese )

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in the bay area, Americans– in this reading, mostly Vietnamese Americans– did hear that voice. The poem is “On Sharing a Husband.” Ho Xuan Huong was the second wife of a provincial official.

JOHN BALABAN: “Screw the fate that makes you share a man. One cuddles under cotton blankets; the other’s cold. Every now and then, well, maybe or maybe not. Once or twice a month, oh, it’s like nothing. You try to stick to it like a fly on rice but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid, but without pay. If I had known how it would go I think I would have lived alone.”

JOHN BALABAN: She’s just a major figure. It would be as if you were Vietnamese and you wanted to know about Western and English poetry, you would have to hear about John Donne or William Shakespeare or any great figure. She’s a figure of that kind of magnitude in Vietnamese literary culture. And she is as alive today as she was 200 years ago when she lived for all sorts of reasons. One, the extreme cleverness of her poetry, which is probably the main reason, but also because of the extreme naughtiness of her poetry, which is another reason.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ho Xuan Huong lived from about 1775 to 1820 and came from an aristocratic, though impoverished, family.

JOHN BALABAN: The legend says– and this may be true– she ran a tea shop in Hanoi and earned her living on her own that way. And during that time she was famous for matching wits in poetry with the young men who had just gone up for the imperial exams and would try to come and get better— best her in poetry matches.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She wrote in Nom, a language that has almost disappeared, and Balaban’s book of translations is also helping rescue that.

JOHN BALABAN: From 1000 AD maybe into the 1920s, Nom was the way Vietnamese recorded their poetry, but also their philosophy, their medicine, their religion, their history, their governmental records, were all recorded in Nom. Nom is almost extinct. There might be 30 people left in the world that can read it. In the 1920s, the French decreed against its use, and as the whole scholarly class of Mandarins died off, the people who knew it died off as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Balaban is working with computational linguist Ngo Thanh Nhan, who has taught himself to write Nom. With others, he has developed a program so a computer can read and display the language. And as a result of that work, Spring Essence was printed in three versions: English, modern Vietnamese, and Nom.

JOHN BALABAN: “Drop by drop rain slaps the banana leaves. Praise whoever sketched this desolate scene: The lush, dark canopies of the gnarled trees, the long river, sliding smooth and white. I lift my wine flask, drunk with rivers and hills. My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems. Look and love everyone. Whoever sees this landscape is stunned.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you love about that poem?

JOHN BALABAN: Women of her time stayed at home. Here she was traveling like a man, way out in the countryside, she’s taking on the figure of the traveling poet and she has a poem bag on her back. Usually it would contain the usual samples of calligraphy, ones best poems to show to rich manor people who might let you tutor their children for a year or two so you could earn your living. Her poetry bag is breathing moonlight and it’s sagging with poems.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Balaban’s own poetry– much of it about Vietnam– has won numerous prizes– including two nominations for the National Book Award. In “For the Missing in Action,” Balaban writes of a place in Vietnam “puckered” by bombs, and of a “green patch” found there by “foolish boys.”

JOHN BALABAN: “And now they’ve led the farmers here, the kerchiefed women in baggy pants, the men with sickles and flails, children herding ducks with switches– all staring from a crater berm, silent: In that dead place the weeds had formed a man where someone died and fertilized the earth, with flesh and blood, with tears, with longing for loved ones. No scrap remained; not even a buckle survived the monsoons, just a green creature, a viney man, supine, with posies for eyes, butterflies for buttons, a lily for a tongue. Now when huddled asleep together the farmers hear a rustly footfall as the leaf-man rises and stumbles to them.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Balaban said he recognizes that a thread runs through all he has done since the war.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: From my reading of your poetry, you were shattered by this experience. Am I wrong to interpret everything you’ve done since as a way to put all of it back together in some way?

JOHN BALABAN: It’s partly true. Also, it’s simply true that the beauty of the poetry is so entrancing that one would have to be dead in your head not to want to go back to it again and again. And once you’ve latched onto a poet like Ho Xuan Huong– so clever– just your own sense of being alive as a human being on the planet, never mind what culture you happen to be born into, it just became a much larger affair.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And for John Balaban, the affair continues. He and his colleagues are raising funds to publish a Nom dictionary, and Balaban is working on a translation of another Vietnamese classic poem.