Papa Osmubal

Papa Osmubal writes from Macau, South China. His works, visual and literary, have appeared in various publications, hardcopy and online. He is contributing writer to Chick Flicks, OOV (Our Own Voice), eK! (Electronic Kabalen), and others. He has work archived in University of Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry.


An Exchange With An American Animal Rights Advocate

In the Philippines, I told my friend,
we feed dogs with swill of fish bones
and rice swimming in plain water.
It is notoriously tasteless,
salt just does the job.
When they are big enough
we stew them with soy sauce and ginger.

Her face mysteriously turned red
and she suddenly rushed into the john
clutching her stomach.

(Her dogs are pampered
with delectable goodies manufactured
by underpaid, overworked Filipino workers
thriving on mere tiny fish and plain rice with salt.)

When she came back out
we were no longer friends:
she flushed our friendship down the gutters
along with her vomits.


In Giza

There is nothing here, absolutely nothing
only a handful of camels and pyramids and sea of dust.

Whoever created these was a real genius, he says.
I nod my head in measured manner.

I am looking at the pyramids.
He is looking at the camel humps.


Rainy Days

The floor is creaking.
It is mom again
emptying those buckets.

I cannot sleep.
Others count the perennial sheep,
I count raindrops dripping in buckets.


The Florist at Hong Kai Si (Red Market) Macau

The inviting smell of food from nearby restaurants
is not enough to suppress the smell of her flowers.

The clothes vendor looks at the flowers
then turns to look at the clothes he sells: what is in his mind?

The florist side-glimpses at a passersby,
crooning a song.

She momentarily interrupts her croon
to pick up the newspaper.

She folds the newspaper to the size of a book
and bashes the flies hovering around.

After putting the newspaper back down, she stares at a bee
that busily does what bees do to flowers.

Listening to the bee’s buzz, she covers her mouth with her palm,
then yawns.



And everyone is wearing their haloes.



Arlene Ang

Arlene Ang lives in Spinea, Italy. She is the recipient of The 2006 Frogmore Poetry Prize (UK) and the author of The Desecration of Doves (iUniverse Inc. 2005) She serves as a poetry editor for The Pedestal Magazine and Press 1. Her chapbook, “Secret Love Poems” is available from Rubicon Press. More of her writing may be viewed at


Self-Portrait with Umbrella

I am one-third umbrella.
The fakir in my left eye (detail) is a glass
of Bordeaux. Pins and needles
chatter the backwoods.
Maisie’s hands cut my hair.
I wear it like a fishnet. She changes
the appearance of everyone
she meets. Before we make love
I throw up in the bathroom. My necktie
glistens a lunch break.
Under the scissors, my smile
swells a tsunami. I am unemployed
again. I am with the woman
I love. When I grow up,
I tell her, I will be a firefighter.


A Warning about Attachments

You’d think, at first, it’s Ebola.
Or something white that comes through the mail.
A bridal shoe. A bridal cake. The bride—
blindfolded and schmucky (whole package),
or laced with small ransom letters (in parts).
By the time you’d have realized
something’s not quite right, it’s in.
A postal box can swell like your stubbed toe.
And then, you’d admit needing assistance.
The yellow pages are fully infected: Looking for
cheap thread? Come to Marley’s
for a good time. Your pipes are our business.
Turn tables at low, low prices.

You’d think, afterwards, it’s a glitch:
the anti-virus fouled up the way you fouled up
your first date with ketchup. And no, you’d think, no
way. It hasn’t got anything
to do with sex. Length issues, perhaps.
Mostly, spam. Slick girls and gonorrhea in a row.


Wu Jin Contemplates the Tattoo on a Soft Cheek

The medicine pedlar knows
her eyes are veined with red. It is almost
noon. The price on the ointment
for deep burns hangs crooked,
like bamboo in her stepfather’s hands.

She was exiled to Zhangchou
after stealing ten ounces of gold.
When her face was branded,
she didn’t cry. Eventually, she escaped.

The mark on her cheek allows her
favors from passersby. For weeks the wife
of a rich merchant dressed her in silks,
fed her spittle and fish lips from a bowl.

She learned to slip a dagger
from of her sleeve, aim at throats
without regret, share the intimacy
of death from other people’s eye.

Today he offers a salve for pains
that rot through the bone. He asks her
keep one for herself; she walks away.
Tomorrow she will be back, perhaps her fist
opening to take something for herself.


Diane Fahey

Diane Fahey lives in the Victorian coastal town of Barwon Heads, the setting of her recent poetry collection, Sea Wall and River Light. Her seven other collections variously engage with Greek myths, fairytales, visual art, nature writing, and autobiographical themes. Diane has published and read her poems internationally, and her poetry has appeared in over 60 anthologies. She has received a number of poetry awards such as the Mattara Poetry Prize, the Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize, the John Shaw Neilson Poetry Prize, and was co-winner of the 2007 Judith Wright Poetry Prize, for Sea Wall and River Light. She has been awarded writer’s fellowships and grants from Arts SA and Arts Victoria (most recently, a grant for 2008 to write on birds), and from the Australia Council, from which she also received support for writer’s residencies in Venice, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland, and at the University of Adelaide. Other residencies have been at Hawthornden International Writers’ Centre, Scotland, and at Varuna, The Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains. Diane holds the degrees of B.A. and M.A. in Literature, and a PhD in Creative Writing for her study ‘Places and Spaces of the Writing Life’.
An interview with Diane Fahey can be found in Thylazine No. 9:

The following dramatic monologues are selections from Fahey’s verse novel
The Mystery of Rosa Moreland, published by Clouds of Magellan, 2008. (ISBN 978-0-9802983-3-8).



The place where I began was a green dusk
with slanted spears igniting vines, toucans
with black-and-gold beaks, glasswing butterflies;
it was a borderless map over which
my flight scrolled an eccentric signature.
Mulch carpet, and chandeliers of leaves
hanging from hot blue – I played the distances
between them, my scarlet and yellow cries
filled the rainforest’s dripping voice-box.
I was kidnapped, taken to live inside
a closed collective mind – among porcelain
sylphs and swains, stuffed owls, aspidistras.
The eyes of peacock feathers gleamed by altars
of heaped rubies, and died with them: transposed,
like myself, to paraphernalia.
An exiled Amazon queen, I gazed through
gilt bars, the gift of speech my only joy.
I revolved sounds like seeds in my beak, gnawed at
phrases as if they were cuttlefish bones
to be scraped into chalky hollows.
Intoning words fraught with sardonic mirth,
an eerie dread, I breached the unspoken.
Thus I became a pirate of forbidden thoughts –
to be released in Rabelaisian spurts,
raucous chunks or mind-teasing fragments.
And there were days when no words would come,
when I repined – a third-rate music-hall star,
waiting in my wings. But not tonight!
Crowds part as I’m borne across this vast stage –
in a state of thrilled prescience, my cage-cloak
of royal blue drawn back as if a curtain.
Like a retired diva craving the smell
and hush and violence of the theatre,
I dream of new, astonishing flights
above limelit sawdust…
                                       How fitting then
that I’ve been chosen to launch this tale:
instructive, diverting, or wicked? –
you, dear reader, must judge.


Florence Ellesmere

Applause: the fluttering of a million wings!
At my feet, coral and ivory blooms unfurled
from gold hearts as waterfalls of velvet
spilt crimsonly down, surged upwards.
Yet there were from the first, days, whole weeks
of fatigue when the pleasure of it left me.
I practised patience, gave all from nothing –
showering those rapt faces with gifts
from beggarhood. My Ariel-spirit
served while dreaming its freedom…
                                                               In full flight,
my voice of gold, ebony and lava
filled that darkened space like a great ear;
unseen eyes met each smouldering glance.
Even as a betrayed wife, letter
in hand, pacing the confines of a drawing room,
or a captive Queen, paraded in
the marketplace, I moved like a swan.
Then – arrived at the middle years,
the height of my powers – I must play
strumpet, murderess, bitter scold:
all the sordid trivia of men’s fears, desires.
So that I became a cliff buffeted
by hostile waves, eaten by the sea…
Enough! I have silenced that sea, left that
precipice curving towards emptiness.
Soon I’ll sit between burgundy drapes
in a house on Edinburgh’s quietest,
most hidden street. Calmly, I’ll set the stage
for glimpsing limelit shards of the future.
The cards will confirm what eyes, stance,
rhythm of breath and upturned hands tell me.
But I will take no dictation from the dead,
nor ever invoke them. Let them sleep,
or speak through dreams. My gift is to grasp
what’s just beyond reach – as if gazing from
half-closed eyes at a receding vision…
In the theatre I was adept at
waiting wordless while others declaimed,
ranted – with no hint of stage business
I kept all eyes upon me. So here,
I’ll be in charge of each performance:
Life’s bounty and Fate’s mercy must do the rest…
I’ll know what can be said and not said;
what will stall harm, turn from obsession,
dispel vain hopes. I’ll know. It’s like tasting
a line’s flavour before you say it.
I’ve spent my lifetime working on that.



Seamus L’Estrange
Spirit Photographer

Not for me the charades of revenants:
women with hypnotic eyes, robed in
lurid drapery –  like nothing so much
as animated stone effigies;
nor a dead child, dressed in Sunday best,
grafted back onto parents fixed by grief’s
dissolving stare – an uncanny foetus
anchored near head or womb.
                                                     Once, though,
in a derelict house, as I photographed
a stairway leading nowhere, midwinter
noon bloomed from an unseen source, and –
the cloud of dust I’d stirred up, was it? –
a glimmering shroud hung in icy air;
I yearned to walk through those ghostly steps.
Thereafter I sought light-effects
that fused the unearthly with the human –
accidental poltergeists of brilliance:
a cypress avenue, corridored by summer,
to which a blown mist brought metamorphoses;
candlelit rooms of cigarette-fuelled talk;
a forgotten kettle boiling into
sunlight – all yielded chimerical
glimpses, my lens positioned itself;
the shutter guillotined illusion.
I saw, where rock sliced a waterfall,
figures dancing above white tumult;
an avalanche rolled ice into sea-foam
alive with the unborn, the unretrieved.
Stranded by storm, I watched moon-hazed drops
slide down windowed darkness – as if they would
make of absence, a continuous presence;
my gaze plumbed fathomless transparency.
At this moment, I sit staring at light
filtered by my sealed eyelids: jet and gold
mingling, glass shadows wreathed inside
a mandorla, a mural on a great dome
pulsing with my invisible blood.


Helen Westwood

Where do you go when you cannot return
to the place where you’ve belonged? The marks
he scored across my body – once only,
in that cold onslaught – made the marks
across my soul palpable, gave them
a form; the unsealed skin I bathed and bound
in linen, healed to a scarred memory.
With profligate malice he dealt me
a dead hand, as if all the cards were his.
Now I have gone. He’ll sit at a bare table.
Only the mirror will so intimately
read the burst veins and bulging eyes of his wrath:
his need to disestablish, over and over,
life’s simple truth.
                                 I have plucked my daughter
from his intemperate love. Forever.
Her six-year-old eyelids cover pearl
and lapis lazuli fit to match
the sky-gleam of any river or sea on earth.
In this small room propelled by fire and steam
we’ll reach Edinburgh before dawn.
Journeying west, we will choose new names,
like talismans, for ourselves as fresh light strikes
crag and loch. At Stranraer, a steamship.
Blanched, shaking with fatigue, we’ll step out
onto Ireland. There, more untraceable
journeys between two lives, two centuries –
till we arrive at a place of refuge
and beginning: time’s virtue sifting
through all our days.
                                     My keepsakes I’ve sold
to effect this stylish, disguised leaving.
Together we’ll fashion new memories,
find new keepsakes.
                                     Claire and I lie still:
effigies about to wake.



The Memory of the Tongue: Sujata Bhatt’s Diasporic Verse, by Paul Sharrad

by Associate Professor Paul Sharrad
University Of Wollongong

Paul Sharrad is Associate Professor in English Literatures at the University of Wollongong where he teaches postcolonial writing and theory. He has published on people such as Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, Christopher Koch, Anita Desai, Wilson Harris,Raja Rao and Albert Wendt. His book on Indian fiction in English and literary history will be appearing in 2008.



Sujata Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad, raised in Poona and New Orleans, university educated in Baltimore and Iowa, spent time writing in British Columbia, married and settled in Bremen, Germany and publishes her poetry in England. She has travelled as well to Poland, Israel, Latvia, Ireland and won prizes in Holland and Italy. All this moving across cultures makes her a more than fit subject for analysis within the contemporary discussions of globalisation and diasporic identity. Bhatt’s first collection, Brunizem, came out in 1988. Monkey Shadows appeared in 1991, The Stinking Rose (a study in the many meanings of garlic across history and geography) in 1995 and a selected poems, Point No Point in 1997. Augatora (2000) continues the interest in languages, and the latest collection, A Colour for Solitude (2002) is a sequence of “readings” of paintings and imagined conversations between the German painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker and her sculptor friend, Clara Westhoff, both of them linked to the poet Rilke. Her attempt to give voice to two women silenced in history by the more famous male artist, reflects a quiet but consistent interest in what might loosely be called “feminist” issues. Primarily, Bhatt is a lyricist with leanings towards the surreal (dreams appear repeatedly in her work), but she also has a strong sense at times of history and the postcolonial politics of culture. Addressing in turn the reader and the Hindu goddess of Siva’s Himalayas, she writes:
Do you know what it feels like
to pick green tea-leaves that grow 
on the other side of the path from the guava trees – Parvati 
why did you let Twinings take everything?
I must confess 
I like Twinings the best.

What does it mean, what is a pagan? 
Someone who worships fire? 
Someone who asks Parvati to account for 
the Industrial Revolution. (“Parvati” Brunizem 43)

Similar themes are explored in the sequence “History is a Broken Narrative” (Augatora 40). As part of this general historical interest, but also as a result of her own diasporic movements, Bhatt has a continuing interest in etymology and problems of shifting across languages and scripts. The title of her first collection, Brunizem, takes the word for a soil type that runs across the northern hemisphere, linking many of her countries of residence. Her title, Augatora is an old High German word for ‘window’ and the history and different associations of terms for the same object are traced:
Today, unravelling the word
Augatora – and thinking of the loss
of that word – imagining the days
of a thousand years ago when these languages collided
bitterly, bloodily –  
Old English, Old Norse, Latin,
            Old German – I turn
to your Danish grammar book – (“Augatora” 17-18)
Here languages are figured as a house, with the window being simultaneously a hole opening to the world and a barrier protecting one from the outside. At the end, children playing indoors urge each other to “Look outside” (Augatora 16-17). “Language” (Augatora 55) is a meditation on translation and the pleasure of closer contact with the text and writer through access to the original, while “A Detail from the Chandogya Upanishad” (Augatora 97) speaks of the ability of Sanskrit to encapsulate several differing meanings – the redness of sun, lotus and monkey’s bottom –  within one line or sentence, suggesting that true wisdom and worship will hold all three disparities in unison in the mind. This is not to suggest that Bhatt favours a simple ideal of harmony or uniformity based in fixed rules or phenomena. At times, she does seem to suggest some essential fit between language and experience that anchors identity: a memory of a child selling water by the railway line can only occur in Gujarati (“Search for my Tongue” Brunizem 65); a moment from childhood in Poona is recalled in Marathi (Augatora 19).
But equally, many poems point to meaning consisting in cadence (Augatora 106) or silence or the gap between words, “the time between the shadows,/in the sounds between/ the crows fighting in the guava trees” (Augatora 103). In her most famous piece, there is a physical contest enacted in the poet’s body as well as a textual competition between print types that admits of no easy resolution:
I can’t hold onto my tongue.
It’s slippery like the lizard’s tail
I try to grasp
But the lizard darts away.
You ask me what I mean
by saying I have lost my tongue.
I ask you, what would you do
if you had two tongues in your mouth.
and lost the first one, the mother tongue,
and could not really know the other,
the foreign tongue.
You could not use them both together
even if you thought that way.
And if you lived in a place you had to
speak a foreign tongue,
your mother tongue would rot,
rot and die in your mouth
until you had to spit it out (“Search for my Tongue” Brunizem 63-66)
But the poet still dreams in Gujarati and knows that “sun” does not signify the same things as aakash because of personal memories and different climatic zones where the words are most used.
Bhatt has been accused of milking clichés of political correctness or programmatic discussions of multiculturalism by at least one Indian critic seemingly more interested in national identity (Mehrotra), but from the perspective of global movements of peoples her work constitutes an interesting take on how to find one’s place in the world. It is clear that Bhatt is interested in difference, but most often this finds expression not in public polemic, but rather in personal, solitary experience, registered at a fundamentally physical level. Bhatt’s verse is full of reference to body parts and the feelings that go with them. A lot of eating goes on: “a man like Orpheus/ scrapes artichoke leaves/ very slowly/ between his teeth,” dancing is felt as pain in stretched thighs (“The Multicultural Poem” Augatora 102-3) and a polio victim is always struggling with her withered leg (“A Swimmer in New England Speaks” Augatora 26); “the wired energy” of squirrels distracts the poet and is recorded as a frenzy of lust and rage that scrapes everything down to bones (“Squirrels” Augatora 12-13); the scripts of different languages are felt “clotting together in my mind,/raw, itchy – the way skin begins to heal” (“History is a Broken narrative” Augatora 41). Jane speaks of her language and body being changed by her relationship with Tarzan:
At first
I thought I should teach you
English – return to you
what you have lost.
But you have changed the sounds
I listen for,
Already you have changed my eyelids,
my ears, the nape of my neck –  
The way I lift my head to listen. (Augatora 57)

Such a deep-level registering of cultural and linguistic shifts as corporeal transformation indicates not just a personalised, atomistic sense of travelling experience. There is also an appeal here to fundamental levels of apprehending the world that can allow communication across differences. Bhatt seems to be interested in the mystery of how some things affect us subconsciously and looks to a place at the edge of or beyond language that is common to us all (as in “The Undertow” Brunizem 89.) There is a kind of residual Romanticism in this, perhaps, but Bhatt’s word is determinedly a-romantic, refusing the sublime in a set of surface images and flat documentary. The personal lyric remains, however, open to the possibility of community, and the basic vehicle for this is expression of corporeal, affective experience.

We can understand affect in this context as a pre-cognitive, pre-cultural registering of sensory impressions that is simultaneously an interface with cultural and linguistic systems codifying feeling into emotions and shaping behaviour (Tomkins, Massumi). Affective experience is both radically subjective and a way of connecting to others despite difference. Memory is shaped by time, place and culture, so that we will not all respond to Bhatt’s recall via thoughts in Marathi of Poona’s sounds and heat and encountering snakes in the house, but the affective response to thirst and a child’s seeking a drink at night can be a point of contact with any reader (“A Memory from Marathi” Augatora 19). If the diasporic person becomes separated from her mother tongue, she may also be disconnected from memory and from continuity of identity.

Sneja Gunew sees “Food and Language as Corporeal Home for the Unhoused Diasporic Body”, citing Bhatt’s fusion of language and tongue. Gunew asserts that, “language shapes us and that language is fundamentally grounded in the body itself” (94). Writing in the voice of German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, about to break free of her marriage to paint in Paris, Bhatt echoes this:

The mouth is preparing itself
To speak French again
See how my lips have changed
Their shape: fuller, softer –  
                Even my words
Are more resilient.  (“Self-Portrait with a Necklace of White Beads” A Colour for Solitude 51)
We have seen how in the earlier “Search for my Tongue” she records the corporeal struggle of acquiring a second or third language, rendering psychic torment as physical pain.
If identity rests in affect and the body, Bhatt does not, however, essentialise the migrant body as a solid site of identity grounded in authentic personal experience, particular memory and specific cultural practice. Diaspora opens up a doubling of meanings. To some extent, the food/language/identity relationship is characterised by traditional ethnically marked cuisine – Gazpacho for Spain (Augatora 23); Wurst for Germany (SR 83); turmeric for India (Augatora/ Point No Point 133). Bhatt notes how Indian women in the US try to retain identity in continuing to produce an authentic chutney (“Chutney” The Stinking Rose 29). However, the travelling poet does not concern herself with such fixity. Something as simple as garlic undergoes linguistic and cultural transformation in The Stinking Rose, a global ethnography of different words and meanings and practices that make of a universal singularity a global plurality. Bhatt also sees writing as a continuous process of exploration (validated by Swami Anand’s advice to the young poet in India: “Swami Anand” Brunizem 18) and memory and the body as a series of rooms that undergo regular refits:
But I am the one
who always goes away.
Maybe the joy lies
in always being able to leave –
But I never left home.
I carried it away
with me – here in my darkness
In myself….

We weren’t allowed
            to take much
but I managed to hide
my home behind my heart.

with my home intact
            but always changing
so the windows don’t match
the doors anymore – the colours
clash in the garden –
And the ocean lives in the bedroom.
I am the one,
who always goes
away with my home
which can only stay inside
in my blood –  my home which does not fit
with any geography
….. (“The one who goes away” The Stinking Rose 3-4, Point No Point 105-6)
To quote Gunew again, “The touch of language may certainly be described as a kind of skin” (100), and language and body both operate as “skins” between the poet and her world/s. Like the windows of “Augatora,” skins are both protective and permeable membranes (Augatora 16). Physical sensations of love-making can send the lover into a memory of smell and colour to suggest a mood that in turn influences behaviour in the present of the poem’s situation (“Sherdi” Brunizem 17; “Lizards” Brunizem 29. The colours and textures in the “skin” of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s paintings supply the contact that allows intuitions of sounds and emotions in the figures and the artist’s life (A Colour for Solitude 12). The multi-lingual Indian and diasporic Western poet is hyper-conscious of the vagaries of language and difficulties of translation. One word, like shantih can alter its meaning according to the context of its utterance: a command to children to “be quiet” or a religiose invocation of peace, and the prayer for peace will have different resonance in a war-torn town where a child has lost a limb (“Shantih” The Stinking Rose 78). One language can have different words (jal, pani) with different associations for the same phenomenon in its several aspects (“Water” The Stinking Rose 111). Subtle shifts of meaning or mood are consistently represented via sensory images.
Narayana Chandra praises Bhatt’s “sharply visual and tactile imagery” (1994). It is this that gives her work its immediacy for the reader, but while affective, body-located discourse has its essentialising, universalising aspect, it is also an unstable mode of experience and expression. Affective experience may be carried over from one mental compartment to another via the memory of the body. Sounds carry with them memories of smells (“A Gujarati Patient Speaks” [Monkey Shadows] Point No Point 143); smells convey the tastes of food and situations surrounding its preparation and consumption (“Wanting Agni” Brunizem 79-81). Synaesthesia is claimed as a characteristic of affect (Massumi) and is very much a part of Bhatt’s style and thematics.
Her objectivity of narrating voice and material manifestation of feeling relates to her imagist forebears and can lend an air of fixity and banality to a poem when it fails to rise beyond private significance or find some appropriate formal closure. (Chandra and Mehrotra both fault her for this, respectively charging her with selecting “batches of the irrelevant” or formulaic repetitions of postcolonial topics.) So much of Bhatt’s work is stripped of technical and structural decoration that its content seems to determine a poem’s impact. However, this prosaic lack of artifice must be set against the shifting qualities of synaesthetic reference and is itself something of a textual strategy related to the persona of a constant traveller, dis-placed from her own past and from the present she inhabits with others.
In “Skinnydipping in History” (The Stinking Rose 25) Bhatt rings the changes on a poem by John Ashbery to suggest that the surface (skin) is in fact the crucial site of meaning, the “visible core.” As such, it is a space of emergence and constant alteration, not the basis of some kind of identity politics, although in her memories of New Orleans and other poems such as her meditation on the swastika – as in “Deviben Pathak” (Monkey Shadows 46-7) – Bhatt shows she is perfectly aware of the politics of race. The skin is a place of constant alteration, of things surfacing and things being absorbed. Many poems enact a voyage into memory, dream, another person’s world, followed by some return to the surface of the recording persona or the writing of the poem itself, usually with some hint of transformation of that surface. Cecile Sandten notes how in Bhatt there is an awareness of “interhistorical process” that disrupts stable identities and that “the mythic is generated from within the poet and the poem” (1998, 57-8). In “Self-Portrait as Aubade”, for example, the first poem of A Colour for Solitude, the poet confronts the painter’s portrait of herself “open to the bone” before a mirror. The painter’s “quest” for self-knowledge is also the quest for understanding between poet and subject, mediated by surfaces that begin to bleed into each other, leading to identification of painted image with artist with examining poet and a sense of the potential in this forerunner of German modernism:
Your green broken with black branches
enters the mirror –  your green
invites the aubade –  gives fragrance to your waiting –
… however dark this green,
still, there is the fragrance
of a cold spring morning.

The gaze in the mirror is steady
and the part in your hair is so straight –

the green surrounds your moonstone skin –
            your memories of blanched almonds –

untouched and aching
                    to be touched

But you are the aubade
                 and do not know it – (A Colour for Solitude 17-18)

The body is in movement, sense impressions come and go, movement itself becomes a defining feature. Language is realised in change and that change is associated with picking up languages wherever you are (“History is a Broken Narrative” Augatora 40). A recurrent motif in all her books is metamorphosis (a ceiling fan “dreams/ of becoming a spider lily” in response to someone’s intrusion into a room, a woman turns into a mermaid in “At the Marketplace”, “Metamorphoses II: A Dream”, Brunizem 87, 91, 92-3), though it is set against the tendency to seek a dry witticism or ironic question that will sum up things. (Emily Dickinson has been identified by Mehrotra as the source of her dashes, and the poet does get one mention from Bhatt in “A Poem Consisting Entirely of Introductions” [Augatora 93], so perhaps there is a touch of écriture feminine in the fluidity of her lines and the sardonic notes here and there.) Art and the self appear not as a stable core or a fixed end product but as an affective “intensity” with which data are grasped (epigraph to A Colour for Solitude). One means of conveying such an intensity of perception is through synaesthetic imagery. This is part of the technique of the symbolist aspect of early modernism and consistent with the transformations effected in surrealism, both expressive modes informing Bhatt’s work. (She alludes to Yeats, Lorca, Gertrude Stein, and Rilke, for example). Poems speak of painting the sound of bells (“A Red Rose in November” A Colour for Solitude 48), the smell of light (“For Paula Modersohn-Becker” Brunizem 76), sound, colour and smell combine to be felt in the soles of the feet (“Living with Trains” Brunizem 55), sound suggests colour (“Poem for a Reader who was Born Blind” Augatora 98). But it is also more than mere symbolism.
Symbolism attempted to capture the elusive quality of intangible mood via synaesthesia, and there is something of this in Bhatt’s poetry. She offers a poem to Plato at one point (Brunizem 32) and there is often a Platonic sense of what Sandten describes as “a form beyond forms of which all phenomena are allegories” (Sandten 1998, 51). However, Bhatt’s verse extends beyond an aesthetic program into consideration of differences in modes of communication and the difficulties of capturing truth in words (Augatora 50). In “Poem for a reader who was born blind” Bhatt learns that there are other ways of apprehending colour, and intuits ” a vast blueness”, horses, a fox’s movements, straining throat muscles and snow from listening to a Mongolian shepherd’s song (Augatora 98).
Synaesthesia, then, becomes a device to suggest not organic harmonies but differences and shifting multiplicity. As Gunew points out, synaesthesia “is a way of undoing the naturalized meanings and functions associated with both food and language.” (99), and by extension, of the ethnically marked body too. So it is possible that this open-ended sense of things celebrated in “The multicultural poem” and enacted in synaesthetic images, the dashes at the end of lines, and the unanswered questions of many poems is the direct result of an awareness in the diasporic subject of the unfixity of even something like the body, despite and because of the many fixings that nations and cultures try to impose on it. Home becomes a site of continual change and self is defined by restless travels in dream and across time and space (“The Circle” Augatora 99). As “The Multicultural Poem” says: “It has to do/ with movement” (Augatora 100).
Sara Ahmed talks about how different groups of people are labelled as ’emotional’: within narratives of the nation as strong and rational and patriarchal, women and migrants are seen as weak, emotional, feminine, less developed, undermining of the social fabric (3). What stands out in any reading of Bhatt’s work, as noted already, is its consistently dispassionate voice. Despite her recourse to affective language, the overall impression from Bhatt’s work is of a distanced affect-less observer adopting what Sundeep Sen calls “a quietude of stance”.
Critics working with notions of originary national identity might find evidence that despite the losses of diasporic exile, Bhatt has preserved her South Asian cultural origins and writes meditative verse that works towards the thought-free mind: “Montauk Garden with Stones and Water”, “Equilibrium” (Augatora 95, 96). She does make reference, it is true, to the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddha and the Upanishads, but she also shows how tradition of the religious mythic kind is not adequate to sustain one against the ravages of colonial economics or anti-female violence, or globalising warfare. The poet also has recourse to Western existentialism, citing Kierkegaard (“Baltimore” Brunizem 57) and Samuel Beckett (epigraph to The Stinking Rose). Moreover, she locates her persona in the role of perpetual traveller, the one who goes away, who stands ironically commenting on the good luck rituals of her mother culture as she leaves India’s shores. As “the one who goes away” she is displaced, detached (not pushed away, not actively rejecting home, just one involved in a defining but neutral process of continual change). She becomes the automatic “tape-recorder” dictated to by the chant of “the pure voice” (“Water” The Stinking Rose 111). Is this a result of geographical and linguistic uprooting and nomadism? Or is it (or is it also) a resistance, following Ahmed’s theory, to being positioned as a ‘shrill’ postcolonial diasporic racial minority female?
And yet, Bhatt’s poetry is essentially a lyric oeuvre. Her encounters with other objects and bodies locate her but seem to confirm her persona as a private being, an empty presence whose feelings emerge from the intensification of a mood in interaction with an object or situation and in the act of giving voice to that encounter from a private, reflective position. An art of deflection and indirectness: encounter leads to movement away into dream or memory or dispassionate commentary, followed by reflection on this, attachment to an echoing image that suggests a mood, a stance in relation to something – a hesitant engagement that is in the moment of the poem/of the encounter and will not admit to more significance than that. How emotions operate is of relevance to considering diasporic writing, since the idea of movement is inherent in the meaning of the word ’emotion’:
What moves us, what makes us feel is also that which holds us in place, or gives us a dwelling place. Hence movement does not cut the body off from the ‘where’ of its inhabitance, but connects bodies to other bodies: attachment takes place through movement, through being moved by the proximity of others. (Ahmed 11)
Ahmed inspects how, once affect becomes externalised, emotions circulate and ‘stick’ to objects; how objects are produced through the contact between somatic sensation, experience, bodily response, social codes. In the case of Bhatt’s poetry, if we accept that there is a refusal of the affect-laden object self of diasporic/migrant, then two things seem to follow: one, that the subject self is an observing presence (“I am the one who watches” (Augatora 18), distanced and dispassionate, that holds affect very much to heart – locates feelings “behind the heart” as a strictly personal thing; two, that affective encounters with others are mediated by objects onto which emotions are ‘stuck’.
Bhatt registers affect through mediated screens, sticking emotions to objects: food (garlic), art (paintings by Emily Carr, Edvard Munch, Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo and Modesohn-Becker); photographs (Brunizem 45); love-making (bodily surfaces); news reports (Afghanistan, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984). One might simply say that this is the detached uprooted uncommitted nature of the cosmopolitan globetrotter. But again, Ahmed’s discussion of the ethics of responding / the ethical demand to respond to what we cannot experience ourselves (31) raises the possibility of a more complex reading of Bhatt’s position. In this light, we can see in her writing a quiet engagement that refuses to possess the other’s suffering as sentimentality or egocentric assimilation/universalism.
“Go to Ahmedabad” at once describes the heat, tropical disease and hunger of a ‘Third World’ setting and refuses to tell the reader about it. The poem shows the humanity and community of local life surviving despite adversity, and uses the personal memory and experience of the now unhoused poet to challenge the Anglophone reader (privileged either by class or foreignness) to go there and experience the suffering directly (Brunizem 100-2). A similarly ironic play of reticence and representation is found in “Frauenjournal” (The Stinking Rose 113-14). Here the poet records watching a graphic documentary on female circumcision and notes the twin dangers of averting one’s gaze and voyeurism. In a working example of postcolonial theory crossing with feminism, she wonders how she can speak for a woman who is proud of having killed her daughter in the process of enacting a different cultural tradition, and what one can do by recording the fact in words:
Is this being judgmental?
Or is this how one bears witness
                      With words? (The Stinking Rose 113)
Such a resistance to easy reprocessing of the pain of others comes from an awareness of her own distance from those around her and the impossibility of an harmonious ‘third space’ of translation/organic synthesis. In “The Stare”, for example ([Monkey Shadows] Point No Point62), a young monkey and a small child make eye-contact with each other, but their mutual curiosity does not permit any shared understanding. In “Search for my Tongue”, the three-level rendering of language estranges things for both English and Gujarati speakers, and for bilingual speakers – who do not need the Romanised transliteration, which is no help to the Anglophone reader either. The text remains a zone of unresolved struggle/ dissonance that nonetheless points to the necessary ongoing process of translation. Cecile Sandten has noted Bhatt’s “intense awareness of antagonistic forces: (2000, 115); and in this rejection of organic unity the muse itself becomes problematic:

I used to think there was
only one voice.
I used to wait patiently for that one voice to return
to begin its dictation.

I was wrong

I can never finish counting them now. (“The Voices” The Stinking Rose 103)

But this pluralising of voices does not absolve the writer of responsibility to “bear witness” and she does, quietly, non-committally but tellingly in relation to girl abortions in India (“Voice of the Unwanted Girl” Augatora 38), to the long history of deaths at sea in the Baltic (‘The Hole in the Wind” Augatora 63-74), to the almost casual domestic and public violence of North America (“Walking Across Brooklyn Bridge, July 1990” [Monkey Shadows] Point No Point 91).
M.S. Pandey reads Bhatt’s work in the old mode of diaspora’s exile and loss, but I do not find the kind of nostalgia for lost origins in the memories of India that this approach suggests. Indeed, Cecile Sandten quotes the poet as herself rejecting definitions in terms of postcolonial resistance or diasporic suffering. She sees herself as “Indian in the world” (2000, 102). However, Pandey makes the useful observation that “While the loss is real, in terms of spatial and temporal distance from the motherland, the recovery can only be imaginary – or at best aesthetic.” (233). This picks up on the modernist impulse behind much of Bhatt’s work, but it also calls attention to her particular position in global diasporas. Bhatt is the child of a university professional, herself raised through the global network of university fellowships and writers’ conferences. In her early collections especially, we can sense the pressure and contrivance of the creative writing class. It is this world that she inhabits; it is words that provide her with a home or at least a role that can be transported from one place to another. In Sandten’s words, “Home is … the inner self of the lyrical persona.” (2000, 105); home is in the poem, in the writing, and the writing, as Swami Anand pointed out early in her development, is an endless process (Brunizem 18-19).
It is hard to make definitive pronouncements on a poet’s development from looking through her published books, since most poets keep aside material for further work and later publication, hence simple chronological sequences are blurred. Some of the work in the 2002 collection A Colour for Solitude, for example, dates back to 1979 and appeared in both Brunizem (1993) and The Stinking Rose (1995). Nonetheless, in terms of self-presentation through published collections, we can generalise to note a progressive shift from memories of India, family and childhood through dream-like displacements of erotic moments with a lover and later personal mentions of miscarriages and childbirth. Such autobiographical material begins to be taken over by poetic responses to art and verse by others, with occasions of historical reflection and social critique of either a feminist or postcolonial nature. Cecile Sandten has categorised Bhatt’s work as “organic poetry” along the lines of Denise Levertov and densely intertextual verse (Sandten 1998). In the end, engagement with other artwork and artists forms the whole of the latest book and spans Bhatt’s entire writing career. Bhatt comments in her introduction to The Colour of Solitude that her imagined relationship to Becker, Westhoff and Rilke via readings of their work may have been a way “for [her] mind to enter and try to understand a totally alien culture and country” (13). Where she is now at home in Bremen, she still presents herself as “the ultimate foreigner,” but as with much of her other work, she claims belonging in her role as artist, and performs her diasporic identity as a negotiator of gaps and dissonant edges across several languages. There is a hint always of some place beyond language where some ideal home or community may be found, and this is registered in her work via bodily-based affect and surrealist technique, but in this world Bhatt clearly finds her being as part of a literary and artistic community (and perhaps part of an artistic sisterhood as well) that seems to carry her across limitations of language and nation and time, and which provides a subtly changing “home behind the heart” and adequate identity for the unsettled traveller.
Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
Sujata Bhatt, Brunizem, [Manchester: Carcanet: 1988]; New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1993.
— Monkey Shadows, Manchester: Carcanet: 1991.
— The Stinking Rose, Manchester: Carcanet: 1995.
     Point No Point, Manchester: Carcanet: 1997.
     Augatora, Manchester: Carcanet: 2000.
— A Colour for Solitude, Manchester: Carcanet: 2002.
Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect, Ithaca &London: Cornell, 2004.
Roger Bromley, “A Concluding Essay: Narratives for a New Belonging – Writing in the Borderlands” in John C. Hawley (ed) Cross-Addressing: Resistance Literature at Cultural Borders New York: SUNY Press, 1996: 275-299.
K. Narayana Chandra, review of Brunizem, World Literature Today, 68.4 (1994).
—— review of Monkey Shadows, World Literature Today, 69.1 (1995): 223.
Sneja Gunew, “’Mouthwork’: Food and Language as Corporeal Home for the Unhoused Diasporic Body in South Asian Women’s Writing”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 40.2 (2005): 93-103.
Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, SC: Duke , 2002.
Arvind K. Mehrotra, “The Anxiety of Being Sujata”, The Hindu, March 18, 2001 (
M.S. Pandey, “The Trishanku Morif in the Poetry of Sujata Bhatt and Uma Parameswaran”, in The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, Ed. A.L. McLeod, New Delhi: Sterling, 2000: 225-38.
Cecile Sandten, “India, America, and Germany: Interhistorical and intertextual process in the poetry of Sujata Bhatt” in W. Kloos (ed) Across the Lines (ASNEL Papers 3) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998: 51-63.
—— “In Her Own Voice: Sujata Bhatt and the Aesthetic Articulation of the Diasporic Condition”, Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 35.1 (2000): 99-120.
Sundeep Sen, “Recent Indian English Poetry”, World Literature Today, 74.4 (2000): 783.
Nigel Thrift, “ Intensities of Feeling: Towards a Spatial Politics of Affect,” Geografiska Annaler, 86 (B). 1 (2004): 57-78.
Sylvan S. Tomkins, Affect Imagery Consciousness 4 volumes, New York: Springer, 1963.

Two Responses to the Poetry of Thanh Thao, by Michelle Cahill & Boey Kim Cheng

Two Responses on the Poetry of Thanh Thao

by Michelle Cahill and Boey Kim Cheng



Humility in the Work of Thanh Thao

by Michelle Cahill


When Boey Kim Cheng and I first read the poems of Thanh Thao we were immediately struck by their quiet tone, their gentle transformations of personal and public suffering, which stem from the kind of humility we are in need of as writers to feed our souls. What is the soul anyway, we might ask ourselves, and why has it become so unfashionable to speak of compared to the other resources available to a poet’s creativity; such as language, or the body, or food? That would be the subject of another essay, though perhaps the reason is part of a broader, secular, and largely culturally-programmed sensibility. This aside, we felt that Thanh Thao’s poems, translated by Paul Hoover and Nguyen Do as part of an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, have much to offer our readers. Most of us can recall an emotional or ethical response to the Vietnam war: because it was the cause of such social and political dissent; because it was the war that epitomised the 1960’s Beat generation; because there are palpable scars, wounds and trauma in the history of Australia’s eleven year involvement in that protracted conflict and its aftermath; because it was a kind of prototype for the way in which the Australian public can undermine official versions of any war. We are mostly familiar with the protest or witness themes of Judith Wright, Jennifer Maiden, Denise Levertov, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Allan Ginsberg, but the Vietnamese perspective is relatively unknown, and it’s within this context that we can locate Thanh Thao’s work.

The dominant and interconnected themes of Thanh Thao’s poetry are the war and memory. Memory and forgetting mark out an imaginative landscape of resounding echoes, in which the poet is able to recover and reconcile the past, with its conflicting and long-suffering legacies. The poet depicts fragmented moments of unmasked vulnerability:

 echoes from fifty-six years ago
a day as pale as today
that no one cared about, no one remembered
a little puppy is dumbstruck looking at a lonely street

(“March 12”)

The images encountered are personal and domestic; of childhood, family, village, field, and against which the war becomes a prearranged backdrop.

 like someone beating a drum, the rain dropped on my waterproof army poncho
which was torn and badly needed mending
my friends were like forest trees, diminishing day by day
the war cut them down
like an electric trimmer
but now they’re all at peace
I remember also that evening, as a child,
the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,
even sweeter when she carried me on her back!
the road over the dike echoed the soul of the river
dark brown sails and bamboo shadows floating slowly
a bridge where an older man got tired
and lay down to rest but not sleep  
(“To Suddenly Remember”)

 The poet is able to segue events here into a temporal fluidity where childhood returns to old age, where war becomes peace. Often the lines are unpunctuated, and uncapitalised, allowing their clauses to drift. The voice weaves through these suggestions with remarkable clarity; the rain beating like a drum, the bridge and the bamboo shadows providing the associative narrative links. There is no blame or anger evoked in any reference to the war, the poet adopting an entirely non-partisan attitude. The authenticity and immediacy of the speaker’s voice, resembles the surreal empiricism of Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam poems. Komunyakaa’s poems however move at a much faster pace and are more brutal in their tone. In Thanh Thao’s verse, the brutality of the war is described indirectly and seems to be subsumed by the natural landscape. There’s a subtle irony, for instance, that his army poncho is badly in need of mending, or indeed in the figure of the old man, exhausted but not quite sleeping. In another poem, “To Suddenly Remember,” the poet juxtaposes an image of the war with the sound of thunder and with gentle descriptions of nature:

the aged sunlight
an evening of summer rain
and the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder  

(“To Suddenly Remember”)

Without knowledge of the Vietnamese language, one cannot fully appreciate that the rhythmic simplicity of these translations attempts to be faithful to the floating lines and to the monosyllabic tonal variations. This also renders the poet’s subdued impressions of war. War is referenced in Thanh Thao’s poetry in a manner that suggests that the function of memory is not to make recriminations, but to preserve the suffering, and to speak for those who have suffered. It’s interesting to read the poems within the context of the time-honoured ca dao tradition of folk poetry with its repertoire of landscape imagery: paddies, harvest, village. In his essay on Vietnamese war poets, Kevin Bowen refers to this lasting connection between the land and its people;

The belief in the power of the land to sustain and transform the terms of struggle is pivotal to both poem and culture.

A culturally-derived reading will also identify in these poems a residual trace of Tang tradition which fused Buddhist, Confuscian and Taoist values, preferring to reflect not on reality but “the idea beyond the word”. That kind of meditative moment and simplicity can be found in Thanh Thao’s work where we sense the poet’s self-effacement, his cautious recognition of the enemy within.

With two pens,
two chopsticks,
I’m going to look for the source of water
slowly and quietly.
Look, the pen is a little nervous,
breathing with every stroke.
I know I’m in a drought;
go slowly and silently. 

(“Andante for the Millenium”)

At the same time the quest for darkness in his poems differs from much of the nationalist Vietnamese poetry of the post-war period, with its elegiac tone and its ideological correctness. Visual phenomena arise accidentally and without warning, as in the poem “Suddenly”:

without apology
a man flew through the treetops
leaving behind a woman, a thin trail of smoke
the ships searched for a place to rest
the stars searched for a place to be seen
crowding into a puddle of water
where it gives birth to the sky
as the poems searched for their flames

The images are fragmented and arbitrary, hinting at horror with ironic lyricism. It’s as though the text becomes an existential and unofficial platform, offering its own version of reality. Similarly, in the poem “Untitled,” the metaphor of fishing conveys to us the movement, and the synaesthetic moment of the surprise catch.

of snatching shadows from under the green sadness
of water hyacinths.


With their sibilant sounds, there is nothing fierce or deliberate in these lines. The language seems effortless, not attempting to qualify or categorize; being born out of the sense of a deeply subjective darkness, one which is searching for its “flames,” as if the poems themselves were the source of light. That play of light and darkness is a recurring motif, a wave oscillation that shifts from abstractions to concrete images, as in the poem “A Journey,” where a cow is described as chewing the sunset:

A daydream takes me; I go into the private darkness of light.
The darkness differs significantly from reality, but it is still the reality
of a cow chewing the sunset; on one side is the yellow sunrise, on the other the   darkness of sunset –
the faint border between
reunion, separation, reunion.

 The poem invites us to take this journey; to experience the points of entry and departure. Yet there is no indulgence in the materiality of language. Rather than delineating the boundaries of presence and absence, the past and present are integrated into a new whole. This perspective in the poet’s work admits to the possibility of recovery and healing. The Vietnamese people have much to heal; their country having been occupied at different times by China, France, Japan and the USA; their war of independence lasting over 120 years, during which time hundreds of thousands of civilians perished or were displaced. The configuration of darkness in Thanh Thao’s work can be interpreted as a personal and deeply registered acknowledgement of that suffering. In his most controversial poem, “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”, which was prohibited until political reforms took place in 1988, the poet’s tone becomes more overtly critical:

In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.
The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as the past generation has gone,
by ways various and new.

The seemingly inconsequential details of the soldiers’ lives are evoked with compassion in the “small lumps of steamed rice” they share, or the “cans of sour soup.” And while the camaraderie between the troops is described, their sense of a shared destiny is conveyed more palpably than that of a shared purpose. This humanity leads away from any myopic nationalistic sentiment, to something of a more universal condition.

What do you want to tell me in the hazy night, Quoc,
as you sing passionately the whole flood season?
The Dien Dien flower raises its hot yellow petals
like the face of a hand that sunlight lands and stays on.
Our country comes from our hearts, simply,
like this Thap Muoi that need no further decoration
and is completely silent.
Stronger than any romance, this love goes directly
to any person
who doesn’t care about the limits of language

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

 The poem does not try to be a testimony, nor does it attempt to protest the immorality of war, a criticism that can be made of much of the stateside poetry of Levertov and Ginsberg. The suffering while not arbitrary, belongs to a more general condition, a landscape where a star rises “from a water-filled crater”, where the faces of many are seen to be floating.

They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a distant meadow
on an endless evening. 

They’re the people who fought here first, 
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.

That evening
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
the faces of
       our generation!

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

The clarity of Thanh Thao’s poetry, his “strange and attractive voice”(Nguyen Do) can be attributed to the many faces of the war he describes. While private and personal, the poems always hint at the historical and social context of the world they remember. It’s poetry that makes the text-world relationship vulnerable, without an undue reliance on complexity or anything ostensible. Yet there is a gentle irony in this resignation, which points to the possibility of dissent, of perceiving new and different realities. And in this humility, in this acceptance of suffering as a condition of human existence, there is immense compassion; something which feeds our soul, leading us beyond the poem.

I already know
that other worlds
are no different –
a bird that tries to love its cage
has no need to begin singing.

(“Andante for the Millenium” (2000))


“Some Other Poets of the War” (1994) by Kevin Bowen is referenced in “War Poets From Vietnam” by Fred Marchant
Humanities, March/April 1998, Volume 19/Number 2

“The “Other War” In Thanh Thao’s Poetry”, Nguyen Do, Sacramento, December 21 2004




War Against Forgetting: The Poetry of Thanh Thao

by Boey Kim Cheng


In Ho Chi Minh City you see everywhere signs of a new Vietnam emerging: the widening of roads, the ubiquitous construction cranes, the gleaming new shopping complexes, the convoys of new foreign cars. The country is eager to catch up with its northern enemy, turning itself in a matter of a decade from a failing impoverished Communist state closed to the rest of the world, into an Asian tiger that is communist in name only. The Indochina conflict and the Vietnam War seem distant memories. In a country so long trapped in its traumatic past, the prosperous future promises deliverance from its troubled history. But it is a deliverance that carries with it the danger of forgetting not just its proud and bloody past but its traditions, the values for which it fought those wars. That is why Thanh Thao’s work is vital. It is a deep and searching work of memory, of a self engaged in the project of salvaging its own and the country’s memories.

Thanh Thao has the ability to make you feel like you are listening to him remember and what is remembered are not the big events, but little markers of time, seemingly insignificant images that can conjure up an entire scene, and make the memory so vivid:

comes a faint sound of women selling rice cakes  
on my birthday
it makes me remember
a packet of rice
a bowl of dried sweet potato mixed with molasses
a mother who was thin as the morning light
and laughter beside a heap of trash

(“March 12”)

The past comes to life through a metonymic process, the sensory details evoking the poet’s childhood, a series of vignettes flashing before him, all giving a sense of coherence, wholeness, uninterrupted by war. There is a wrenching nostalgia that is born out of the time’s depredations and the effects of war, a longing for pre-war harmony and innocence that is pastoral in nature. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell identities the pastoral impulse in the war poets as arising from a need to counter the traumas of the trenches with idyllic images of rural England. In the same way, the longing for the ancestral home, the rural vision in Thanh Thao’s work bespeaks a need to heal the wounds of war with images of peaceful rural Vietnam, a Vietnam that may not have existed in history but which lives in the poet’s imagination.
There theme of return underpins Thanh Thao’s work, the return to that place in time where the adult poet can rediscover the child he was:

I come again to my father and mother’s home
were a yellow plum that was just planted suddenly blooms
like a spotlight on a flood plain,
like my mother’s eyes
staring from the garden’s corner
where custard apple has a pure greenness.


The memory yields a moment of connection with his roots, bestowing a sense of coherence and belonging, the fruits conjuring a sense of Edenic innocence and pleasure. Home is a recurrent word in Thanh Thao’s work. The poems attempt to salvage the memories of home, to heal the ravages of war and time. In retracing the steps back to his childhood memories, the poet rediscovers a pastoral scene far from the war, the abundant fruit imagery here suggesting innocence and also, a deep part of him that is unscarred by the war. The brutality of war is there, but there is a saving tenderness that connects the speaker with his past, with his humanity. Memory provides the way to healing, to a past where a sense of wholeness and coherence can be found:

my parents lived there a home
a ten-square-meter country
but because of our greater home
my parents didn’t prevent me
from going into battle
not for a brave death or a rainbow
I’m the hand on a compass
that only turns toward home.

(“To Suddenly Remember”)

Thanh Thao’s poems of memory are attempts at homecoming, bringing the displaced wounded spirit of the veteran back home. The land is a nourishing and healing presence, though it is also fraught with travails and ambiguities. In this regard his work can be located within the ca dao tradition, the oral poetry that sings of the intimate connections of the Vietnamese with the land. In “This Is Usual,” we find a kind of ars poetica in which the poet affirms the ties between the land and poetry: “I lean on time to catch the time that doesn’t run out. / To ignore the land is to be old, dry, lean, and thirsty.”

At the heart of this intimate relationship between the land and the self is the presence of the mother. Like the word “home,” the mother is a recurrent image, a deep source of sustenance to the poet’s life and work. “Wave Oscillation” is an elegy to the poet’s mother:

For all of my life, two shades have consoled me.
Whose steps remain
On the village trail?
What lights are in your eyes now that the rain has cleared?
Now the small line that separates two sufferings,
But still leaves the spicy fragrant smoke of our stove
In the garden with its dark green banana leaves –
From morning to night you still walk back and forth there! 

The mother is still very much alive, at least in the poet’s memory – the present tense and the atavistic vision in the last two lines suggest the immanent presence of the mother. In “To Suddenly Remember” the memory of the mother is also atavistically invoked: “I remember also that evening, as a child,/ the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,/ even sweeter when she carried me on her back!” Smell, the most primal of the senses, metonymically connects the mother with the child and remembering war-veteran, and brings the past into alignment with the present. The maternal image allows an escape from abjection, to use the Kristevan word, a return to pre-war intimacy and harmony with both family and the land

Thanh Thao’s pastoral yearning, his nostalgic impulse and longing for the maternal embrace stem from a sense of displacement, a traumatised sense of history that is as much his as the nation’s. His work seeks healing but does so without denying the past. The poet does not eschew the horrors but includes them in his attempt to understand himself and his country. It is a poetry that excludes nothing, that takes in the past in all its beauty and terror. In “To Suddenly Remember,” the memories of family home, the mother, “the ripe smell of bananas,” “some old chairs/ a small ancient teapot/ the aged sunlight/ an evening of summer rain” are inextricably mixed with the friends cut down by war and “the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder.”

Rather than keeping the binaries of absence and presence, the past and present distinct and separate, Thanh Thao’s vision integrates them into new wholes. Another binary in his work is the personal and the historical. By locating the personal in the historical and the historical in the personal, and bringing the past, however difficult and horrifying it is, into some comprehensive relationship with the present, the poet achieves a perspective that allows the possibility of recovery and healing. Through weaving together the private and the communal, the poet forges a conscience that reminds and warns, to use Wilfred Owen’s sombre word, and commemorates those who suffered and those who perished.

Perhaps the intersection between the personal and political is nowhere more powerfully articulated than in his most controversial poem, “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”:

The day we’re leaving,
the doors of the passenger train openly wide.
There’s no longer a reason for secrets.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots
playfully stick their heads from the windows.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots,
with army uniforms too large for them,
crowd together like tree leaves on the stairs of the cars.
The train whistles too loudly
And too long, as if broken,
like the voice of a teen who nearly has his man’s voice now.

In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.

The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as our past has gone,
by ways various and new.

As the title announces, the speaker is taking on the role of a spokesman for a generation that is being forgetting in a rapidly modernizing Vietnam. Through his own autobiography, he evokes the travails of a whole generation, bringing to life the faces of the individuals lost in the numbing statistics of casualties. The details, like those in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam story “The Things They Carried,” accumulate to give us the reality of the war; as in O’Brien’s story the relentless rhythm builds up to suggest the march, the inexorable trudge that is so much a part of the soldier’s existence. The details also bring the Vietnamese soldier close to us, his humane face free from demonization as the insidious VC or inhumanly fearless NVA:

Each backpack contains a uniform,
some dried fish sauce, and a small lump of steamed rice.
The camp’s wood stoves flame on the stone bank of a creek,
above which hang tall cans of sour soup
made from Giang leaves and shrimp sauce.
What we have,
we share,
share on the ground
To enemies, we spend all we have in battle.
To friends, we give until all we have is gone.

If you see that our skins are black from the sun,
our misshapen bodies seem older than they are,
and you can count the calluses on our hands
along with the war medals-still, nothing quite describes us.

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

The poem commemorates the camaraderie, the sense of communal effort but it steers clear of patriotic drumbeating. It pays tribute to the individual soldier, confronts individual fears and privations. There is a moment reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”:

Unexpectedly, I meet my close friend again.
We both lie down on a My Long trail,
on an army coat under the dark sky,
where just this evening a B-52 harrowed the earth three times,
where for several years the bomb craters are uncountable,
where I suddenly speak a simple dream:
“When peace truly comes,
I will go to trail number four, spread out a coat and lie down
                completely satisfied.”
My friend gazes
at a star rising from a water-filled crater.
His eyes look so strange; I see
they contain both the star and the crater . . .

This a touching moment, a tender reprieve in the horrors of war, when the self moves beyond it own sufferings to share the pain and hope of the Other. In extremis, the self does not withdraw into its own privations but reaches out to the Other and this is a fragile but affirmative note in Thanh Thao’s war poem. There is also a further movement in time that locates the individual suffering in a broader context:

That evening rockets attacked,
Bending down the Binh Bat trees.
Sunset covers both banks like blood.
The canal is white from the flow of toxic gases.
Suddenly I see my face on the water’s surface,
among those poisonous mists,
on which floats the Binh Bat fruit,
on which floats our breaking country,
and I see
also floating the faces of many people,
some of them friends and some I have never seen.
They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a faraway meadow
                    on an endless evening.

They’re the people who fought here first, 
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.

That evening
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
                the faces of
our generation

The speaker recognizes himself in those who had fought in the earlier war, as well as those who will inherit the legacy of this war. “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation” is not an anti-war poem, but a powerful war poem that effectively conveys what Wilfred Owen calls the “pity of war.” It is rooted in private experience but opens out to touch and embrace the others.

Thanh Thao’s work is driven by a dark imperative, an urgent need to remind, lest we forget. These are poems of intense, sometimes excruciating, disquieting beauty. The project of memory, of redeeming the past becomes especially urgent in new Vietnam, where capitalist developments are rapidly demolishing the world and beliefs that veterans like Thanh Thao fought for. His is a poetry of witness, of bearing witness to the sufferings of those who have no voice to express their sufferings. It is also a poetry of survival, a poetry that can recover a sense of beauty in the most barbaric and nightmarish experiences. Thanh Thao is a necessary poet for Vietnam and for our time.