united states

Paper Bells by Phan Nhiên Hạo (Translated by Hai-Dang Phan

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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
don’t stress
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.

 

 

An Interview with Bradley D. Snow – Living With Lead- An Environmental History of Idaho’s Coeur D’Alenes, 1885-2011

 

Living with Lead

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  •  g emil reutter

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Living with Lead by Bradley D. Snow is a compelling, fact filled book concerning the environmental history of the Coeur d’Alenes Valley in the state of Idaho. Bradley brings us to the initial finding of precious metals, quite by accident by a wayward donkey to corporate America’s mining of lead and silver, production of zinc and of construction of smelters and blast furnaces that dominated and destroyed the landscape of the Couer d’Alenes, to the rebirth of the environment when the famous Bunker Hill facility was finally torn down. The release of Living With Lead is timely as present day demands of deregulation of EPA rules and regulations are in open debate. The question of relaxed rules bringing back blue collar jobs is also in question as corporations only have allegiance to themselves. Living With Lead is a necessary read for those who value the environment and for those who desire to relax regulations for it is good to know why these regulations came into place and what their impact on the lives of people have been.  You can find the book here: BookDetails

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Bradley D. Snow

The Interview

GER: How long did it take from the accidental discovery of lead and silver in the Couer d’Alenes to the decline of the environment?

BDS: The galena (lead-silver) deposits were discovered in September of 1885 and area residents were reporting significant damage to their crops and livestock from mine tailings that washed down the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River and the main stem of the Coeur d’Alene River by the late 1890s. Downstream farmers also reported that by 1898 the South Fork, which formerly had supported healthy stocks of trout, had seen its fish populations “destroyed.”

Bunker Hill blast furnace and refining buildings

GER: In its prime how many people were employed at Bunker Hill and the mines located in the Couer d’Alenes?

BDS: At its peak Bunker Hill employed 3,151 people. I’m not sure how exactly how many were employed in Shoshone County’s many other mines, but in 1981, just before the closure of Bunker Hill, 4,200 people were employed by the mining industry in the county. As 1981 was far from the industry’s zenith in Shoshone County, my guess is that at its peak (ca. 1957) close to 5,000 people were employed by the mining industry in the Coeur d’Alenes

GER: What was the output of the Bunker Hill facility?

BDS: Not sure I quite understand the question. Do you mean output over its history, peak annual output, or something else? In 1981, Bunker Hill’s production represented twenty percent of the national total for silver and seventeen percent for lead. Bunker’s lead mine and its zinc mine were the largest in the Coeur d’Alenes, an area that between 1885 and 1997 yielded eighteen percent of the nation’s silver, seventeen percent of its zinc and six percent of its lead. For that period, the Coeur d’Alene Mining District ranked first in the nation in silver production, third in lead and third in zinc.

Bunker Hill Smelter

Bunker Hill

GER: Could you describe the Bunker Hill facility and the land mass it occupied?

BDS: Bunker Hill owned and operated much of the land in and around the towns of Kellogg and Smelterville, Idaho, where the bulk of its plant and equipment were housed. This included the Bunker Hill Mine, a major producer of lead and silver, a large lead smelter and a large zinc refinery (each with a ‘tall stack’ after 1977), tailings ponds, and a corporate office in Kellogg. As aspects of its effort to purchase pollution easements or simply the right to pollute lands it owned, Bunker Hill also owned (or leased) tens of thousands of acres of former farmland adjacent to the South Fork and the Coeur d’Alene River. It also purchased “smoke easements” for thousands of acres of Shoshone County land likely to be damaged by its lead and zinc plants’ effluent. In addition, at various times in its history the company owned or leased thousands of acres of area forest lands for its logging operations. The Star Mine, which Bunker co-owned with the Hecla Mining Company, lay within the District but several miles from Kellogg and Smelterville.

GER: Briefly describe the damage inflicted on the waterways and landscapes of Couer d’Alenes by the Bunker Hill facility?

BDS: By the early 1930s, if not earlier, the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River had become essentially a “lifeless river,” devoid of organic life. Below it, the Coeur d’Alene River was not in much better shape. Significant fish populations could not be found in the stream until it had emptied into a large body of water, Lake Coeur d’Alene, and mine tailings were diluted by a large quantity of water. Lead sulphate (dissolved lead) appears to have been a principal culprit in the diminution of the streams’ capacities to support life. Since the installation of modern tailings impoundment facilities by Bunker Hill and the other major mining companies in the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to federal clean water mandates, water quality in the watershed has seen marked improvement. Healthy fish populations now can be found on the Coeur d’Alene River and on parts of the South Fork. Heavy metals in and around the lateral lakes along the lower Coeur d’Alene River also have been significantly cleaned up by the EPA and no longer kill as many geese and ducks as they formerly did. The Bunker Hill smelter and zinc plant rained down many, many tons of lead, sulphur dioxide and other toxins on the landscape of the Coeur d’Alenes over the decades. In August of 1974, following Bunker’s decision to run its smelter at full bore for months without a working pollution control system, the children of Kellogg and Smelterville registered some of the highest blood lead levels ever recorded. After the shutdown of both plants in early 1982, the declaration of the area as a federal Superfund site, and years of household yard cleanups (in which yard dirt down to four feet in depth was removed by the EPA), children’s blood lead levels in the area dropped to below the national average by the early 2000s.

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Bunker Hill Lead Blast-Furnace

GER: Could you describe Ulrich Beck’s theorization of two discrete stages of modernity and how it related to Bunker Hill and the Couer d’Alenes?

BDS: Beck holds that under the stage he calls ‘classical industrial society,’ the risks produced by industry (to health, quality of life, etc.), are essentially discounted by people as ‘the price of progress.’ In a later stage, which he dubs ‘advanced modernity,’ people begin to reject the risks as too great to be discounted and to demand that industry do a better job of minimizing them, for example by demanding safer workplaces, less industrial pollution, etc. In the Coeur d’Alenes, the watershed decade when both the larger society (i.e., the U.S., as represented by new federal environmental laws and agencies such as the EPA) and some locals began to push the area’s industrial chieftains into ‘advanced modernity.’

GER: How did the production of lead and zinc effect the workers at Bunker Hill and the residents of Kellogg?

BDS: Workers at the zinc, and to an even greater extent the lead, plant, suffered from a variety of maladies, primarily due to excessive amounts of airborne lead in the workplace. NIOSH studies have shown that Bunker Hill’s lead smelter workers have suffered from heightened death rates from chronic renal disease and renal cancer, both of which are associated with lead exposure, and stroke. A large cohort of children who were exposed to the area’s stratospheric rates of lead in 1973-’74, studied twenty years later as adults, were found to be significantly more likely than the median U.S.  population to suffer from a variety of health problem. These included high blood pressure, infertility, sleep disorders, memory loss, trouble concentrating, learning disabilities, anemia, and depression.

Bunker Hill Stacks Demolished

Demolition of Bunker Hill – Courtesy of Newsweek

GER: What was the environmental/economic impact of the destruction of Bunker Hill on the town of Kellogg and related communities?

BDS: Economically it was devastating. The town suffered the loss of its economic base and consequently lost a major portion of its population and tax base. Kellogg really has never recovered, although it has tried to reinvent itself as a ‘Bavarian Ski Village.’ Environmentally, the area has improved significantly since 1982, and, thanks to the EPA’s cleanup efforts, is probably the cleanest and most healthful it’s been since the early part of the 20th Century.  

GER: Do you believe the current political environment calling for reductions in EPA rules and regulations will bring back smelters, blast furnaces and steel mills to the United States or will they remain in poorer countries without regulation?

BDS: The latter. It’s still a lot more expensive to do that kind of industry in the U.S. than it is in less-developed countries, and even if current efforts to repeal federal environmental regulations are successful, there still will be far more such regulation here than in, let’s say, China.

GER: Has the United States reached the point that residents will put a higher value on their living environment as opposed to sacrificing it for good paying blue collar jobs?

BDS:  I think there are places where folks might be willing to sacrifice the environment to ‘bring back good paying jobs,’ or to retain them – a good number of people in West Virginia appear to support mountaintop-removal coal mining for example – but I think it’s extremely difficult to bring those jobs back once they’ve been lost to other countries. In addition, there are some things U.S. communities just don’t seem to be willing to put up with anymore, for example the level of pollution associated with lead smelting.

GER: Do you believe corporations place a higher value on profits rather than allegiance to communities and nations they once operated in?

BDS:  As a rule, yes. For-profit corporations generally operate in an environment of global competition and are legally bound to maximize profits for their shareholders. Loyalty to community, while perhaps a value to corporate executives, cannot compete with the mandate to maintain competitiveness and maximize profits.

GER: Many residents born in the United States after 1995 have no idea of the high rate of pollution that plants such as Bunker Hill inflicted on the living and working environment of the areas they  once operated in. Living With Lead is a timely release with the calls for deregulation. What impact do you hope for with this book?

BDS: I hope it will encourage readers to think about the level of worker health and environmental tradeoffs that not so long ago were commonplace in the U.S., how and why that has changed, and what kind of world we want to live in going forward.

You can find the book here: BookDetails

 

Bradley D. Snow is assistant teaching professor of history at Montana State University.

g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. You can find him here:About g emil reutter