By Greg Bem
It rains morning to night
I still have enough to survive a hundred more years
so I’ll just lie down and sing
man’s forever song
about the infinite horizon
vast enough for countless cemeteries
we have a million lives
(from “Rainy Day Song,” page 1)
Through the mists and the murk of our global crisis, the current COVID-19 pandemic, a book of poetry arrives and may be able to inform and console, to demonstrate and guide. Paper Bells, a collection of poems written in Vietnamese by Phan Nhiên Hạo and translated into English by Hai-Dang Phan, is now available via The Song Cave. It is a collection rotating between storytelling and moments of rejuvenation that never loses its vision and momentum. The collection is a “selected” from his previous publications in Vietnamese and the poems he has written since he arrived to the United States in the early 1990’s. Most of the works come from the Summer Radio (published in 2019 in Vietnamese), which followed the 2005 Linh Dinh-translated Nigh, Fish, and Charlie Parker. Overall a combination of older and newer works, Paper Bells as a collection contain variations on visions of survival and what it means to thrive after difficulty. They share what has long been of interest to Phan Nhiên Hạo: documenting the lived experience of a Vietnamese refugee and exiled poet who has sought and continues to seek that thriving through poetry.
Thematically in this collection, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s works move back and forth between microscopic and macroscopic worlds within Vietnam and within the United States. A prose poem near the end of the book reflects the worlds in the context of time and memory. The poet writes: “Once on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street I saw an old woman squatting against one of the high walls of the hospital, weeping, tears pouring out of her face like fresh juice squeezed from a sugar cane machine” (from “Saigon on a Good Day,” page 48). Many of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poems contain images like this: remarkable moments of interruption and awe spurred on by the anonymous world around us, or a world surreally distanced in time and space. This convergence of experience and identity find life within their center and unity. There is a sense of the allegory, of the symbolic story, of the world that opens and blossoms sending into breath, or is rung, like a bell, sending reverberations from poem to poem. These reverberations also feel like brutal logic, feel of an urgent commonsense, as in “Fragments,” which calls forward the nihilism of machines and weaponry: “A rusty gun is still capable of killing someone, / but a feeble mind can’t do shit” (page 39).
Indeed, from within their logical core, line by line, to their larger impressions as individual works, the poems feel linked, and delicate, and unpacking the book of a poet who has seen and felt many worlds, many difficulties, and many moments in between, takes time. Time ultimately informs the poetry itself, which often uses rain as a circumstantial image, an image of transformation, and, like an ellipses, an image of pause. Included in this collection is Phan Nhiên Hạo’s “Seattle Memory,” which uses a city familiar with rain to serve as pin for connecting and opening vast distances: “Day rains, stops, afternoon blazes and night comes late. Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat” (page 5). Lines like this one reveal the poet’s interest in juxtapositions. The self may exist now, but continues to exist in other forms and locations.
Examining location and presence through Paper Bells is extremely fulfilling. I write this review in social isolation, in a world that is “on lockdown,” this lens seems to only widen as I engage with Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry. When he writes of “man’s forever song” in the poem “Rainy Day Song” quoted above, I think about my own longitudinal story in space, in community, in life and being. Though different, as all stories are, I cannot help but think of the world that becomes cushioned by patience, compassion, and rest. I think also of Jennifer Cheng’s House A, and her time spent moving around the continental United States with her parents, who as immigrants explored and discovered (and rediscovered) identity, location, and stability.
While positivity and success tend to show up in many stories of survival, Phan Nhiên Hạo’s words are far from universally pleasant and straightforward. The poet here has crafted works founded in struggle that cannot be unbound from death and disruption. There is movement, flight, and escape, but a final sense of stability or rest seems impossible. Here we have a Catch-22, a schism that is profound and worth a dozen examinations: the poet’s commitment to rebirth, and the incessant loss of identity and heritage for that continued life. This poet figures this loss into his poetry in many ways. Typically, I examined loss in Paper Bells through the poet’s highlights of absurdity; they struck me as both feeling commonplace and containing multitudes of emotion:
the swampy city a breeding ground for mosquitoes
where breasts are squeezed in the beery halls until broken
and thrown into the bloody river with hyacinths
(from “Wash Your Hands,” page 31)
Phan Nhiên Hạo intercepts any sense of complacency with surprise, disorder, and decay. Nothing is perfect and rebirth will always come with a cost: again, the world is delicate and can be creased, and those creases are our memories.
Though dismal, the book is not a morass of challenge. Tension is alleviated; still, there is the rain. The rain that cleanses is also the rain that keeps us inside, keeps us at rest, keeps us centered to where our minds can transport through memory and commitment to our former selves, situations, and locations. And remain stable, fervent, integral.
As I read Phan Nhiên Hạo and think about his bus ride across the country, his time working as a delivery man and janitor, and the many other movements literal and symbolic contains in the poems and also described before and within this book’s incredible introduction, I think of the world within and beyond these poems. I refocus on COVID-19 and the crossing over from the poetry’s contained reality to the reality where the poetry is contained. While the spotlight on the virus does not equate to or replace war, oppression, and forced removal of peoples and cultures, I cannot help but think about the poet’s stories and how they seem relevant to our own shifting society. Much like Phan Nhiên Hạo demonstrates in Paper Bells, each of us can take the moments afforded to us to look at our own journey, our own stories, and the world’s rotations and rejuvenations. With that I ask, what are the greater implications of works like Paper Bells?
As long-time collaborator and translator Hai-Dang Phan puts it in the introduction: “The dissident politics of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry resound precisely at a historical moment when the United States and Vietnam are reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations, and in the cultural and literary sphere much of the talk is about peace and reconciliation” (page xi). This publication of Phan Nhiên Hạo works, as translated into a thorough, indefatigable contemporary English by Hai-Dang Phan, feels of the very present, of these very days which we can learn to breathe deep and relearn, as both necessity and opportunity, our entire selves. It also feels of the future, of what can be, and where being can take us, as individuals and as a collective.
You can find the book here: https://the-song-cave.com/products/paper-bells-by-phan-nhien-h-o-translated-by-hai-dang-phan
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at www.gregbem.com.