Wednesday, 4 August 2010


“I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” - George Bernard Shaw

It is 11:11 p.m. local time here in Hanoi ( and 2:11 a.m. Melbourne time!) and we just arrived at our hotel after many adventures, delayed flights and last minute visa woes, we managed to get here, after spending about 19 hours in taxis, planes, buses, etc. The last straw was the taxi trip from the Hanoi airport to the city centre and to our hotel. The roads were crowded with traffic – cars, trucks, motor scooters, pedestrians and the city was amazingly dark. Even the houses standing like gaunt sentinels (they are so narrow, even though three or four stories high!) did not show many lighted windows. We finally worked out that everyone had their window blinds and shutters firmly closed. The few open shutters disclosed bare bulbs of low wattage that created a rather dismal mood.

The insistent beeps of the car horns and crowded roads, however, underlined the fact that this was not a sleeping city. The closer we got to the centre (and the airport is about 30 km form the centre) the more lights appeared on the side of the roads and a few neon signs advertised nocturnal haunts – “Karaoke”, “Restaurant”, “Sauna and Massage”…

For Poetry Wednesday today, something I found on the web at the airport lounge and which is fittingly Vietnamese. A 19th century woman poet, Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng (1772–1822). She was a strong-minded woman living in perilous times and while her poetry is deceptively tranquil and placid, describing ostensibly nature scenes, there are hidden meanings and a wild eroticism. She lived most of her life in Hanoi and therefore is an apt guest for Poetry Wednesday! And I quote from an excellent article by John Balaban:

“In the poetry of Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng, who wrote around 1800, near the end of the high tradition of nôm, we find poems behind poems behind poems. Almost all of her lü-shih or chüeh-chu poems, while apparently about natural landscapes or everyday activities, have hidden within them a complete, parallel second poem: a double entendre whose topic is sex. Sometimes, as in the poem below, the translator can succeed by finding words that are both true to the physical landscape she describes and suggestive of other things to the English ear: for example, "cleft," "bearded," "plunges," and "mount." Here, the translator's task is to also set up a double meaning with a single set of images.


Môt -dèo, môt dèo, lai môt dèo.
Khen ai khéo tac canh cheo leo.
Cua son do loét tùm hum nóc,
Hòn dá xanh rì lún phún rêu.
Lát leo cành thông con gió thôc
Dâm dìa lá liêu giot suong gieo.
Hiên nhân, quân tu ai mà chang...
Moi gôi, chôn chân vân muôn trèo.

Hô Xuân Hu'o'ng


A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene

The cavern's red door, the ridge's narrow cleft,
The black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
Showering a willow's leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
And shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

As scholars have noted, the title "Dèo Ba Dôi" (Three Mountain Pass) would probably suggest to a Vietnamese reader the range in central North Viêt Nam called Dèo Tam-Diêp. But the poem's peculiar grotto would invite suspicion, and of course a literate Vietnamese reader would recognize immediately the pine and willow as male and female symbols, respectively. "Gentlemen" and "lords" ("Hiên nhân, quân tu") are traditional terms for the elite, mandarin class. Yet Hô Xuân Huong is anything but traditional. A woman writing in a male, Confucian tradition at the end of the decadent Lê dynasty, she only makes honorific references to men when she is being derisive.

The main aspect of the poem behind the poem (behind the poem) for Hô Xuân Huong is that she is almost always working against tradition. Behind her traditional landscapes lies sexual dalliance. Behind her pagoda walls, irreverent fools. In the widow's funeral lament, she hears infidelity. Yet all her poetic subversions are launched in exquisitely made, regulated lü-shih and chüeh-chu: verse with traditional requirements for line length, rhyme and tone placement, and syntactic parallelism. But here too she is unique and surprising, often using the word-stock of ca dao and the aphorisms of the common people where her male contemporaries are content with flowery rhetoric and stock ideas.”

John Balaban

Now time for bed!

1 comment:

  1. I had never heard of this poet before, Nicholas. Thanks for the introduction. Very topical considering where you are.