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INTRODUCTION TO VIETNAMESE

NEW FORMALISM POETRY

A REVIEW AFTER 10 YEARS

__________________________

Khế Iêm

For poets Đỗ Quyên, Inrasara and Lê Vũ

New Formalism is an American poetry movement begun in the early 1980s and developed through the 1990s, lead by a number of young poets composing in the traditional style. But why New Formalism and not some other movement? Traditional Western poetry, began with Homer (his two works The Iliad and The Odyssey, each written in 16-syllable verses), and then followed with free-verse with the American poet Walt Whitman (towards the end of the 19th century). Free-verses, throughout the 20th century, developed strongly in United States after the Second World War with many advant garde movements, withered at the end of the century, and created reactions and revivals of the meter in poetry.

English is a strong-stress and poly-syllabic language with emphasis on consonant sounds. Poetic form depends upon the number of syllabic sounds in a verse, for example, a common form has 10 sounds, iambic pentameter (unstress, stress repeated 5 times), from verse to verse with end-rhymes. If there are no end-rhymes, then it is called blank verses. Vietnamese poetry in the 5-word, 7-word, 8-word or alternating 6-word and 8-word form breaks up the verses according to the word count. Vietnamese is a mono-syllabic language; therefore, its poetic form, besides having rhymes at the end of a verse, may be organized according to the inflections of level / oblique tones.

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Poetry comes before poetic rules. From antiquity, poetry has been developed alongside musical instruments such as lutes and flutes, and people sang it as a song. Later on, even when music and words were differentiated, the relationship between words and music remained as rhythm and sounds, between the practical and the aesthetics, long-standing traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, becoming poetic rules. That is why poetic rules, simplified as rhyme schemes, as end-rhymes, are innate in the heart of the reader and the poet. Once these principles are codified, in much the same way as musical notations, the skill of the poet is to marry words and ideas such that, when the poem is read, there is a spiritual dimension reverberating through, rising to the level of goodness. Free-verse came into being with the desire to escape from the traditional rhythm and rhymes; the goal of making poetry new replaced the standard of making it good. So, to make rhymed verses new or to reform them is to corrupt poetry, and we can only replace the standard of goodness with a different standard. Like modern art, the traditional notion of beauty is replaced by the drive to create, to make anew.

Poetry in any age goes through the cycle of flowering and de-cline. Rhymed poetry after a long period of time goes into retreat because social conditions change; poetry can no longer express human emotions, and free-verse poetry is given a chance to be born. Modern Western-style free- verse poetry and painting is compatible with the spirit of conquest (towards the end of the 19th century) and confrontation (during the cold war period) and the development of science and technology, resulting in two world wars. The period of confrontation created extremism and anoma-lies in American post-war poetic activities, which are biased toward free-verse, pushing aside meter and rhyme poetry, viewing them as an obsolete form of poetry. Meanwhile, in other countries such as England, free verse and meter / rhyme verse developed side by side.

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The rise of New Formalism movement helped American poetic activities regain their balance. But, after a period of revival in rhymed verses, some American poets thought that it was not necessary to adhere to any terms but that it was sufficient for poetry to be good. So, after all, is “New Formalism” just a revival of past traditions? “New” here means “retro”. The key principles of rules, like enjambments, rhyme-schemes, even prose and common speech already exist from the Romantic period early in the 19th century, with William Wordsworth’s blank verses. Free-verse poetry, the Imagists at the start of the 20th century, with poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, also promotes the use of common language and precise words in poetry. Language usages vary over periods of time. When everyday language is infused into poetry, poetry is given new life, captivating the reader and resurrecting rhymed verses. These successes cannot be overlooked; they are a major contribution. Another reason is that readers in the information age are no longer impressed with the new aspects of poetry, so the poet must return to the standard of good poetry, with real talents, in order to preserve poetry.

What about Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry? In Spring 2000, in the special edition of the Vietnamese Journal of Poetry entitled

“Encounter with a New Millennium”, Vietnamese poets utilized the term “New Formalism” to introduce to Vietnamese poetry the Blank Verse form of English poetry. To accept a new form of poetry is to accept the methods of composition, applying new principles: enjambments, repetition, prose narration, and the use of common language.

1/ In English poetic forms, the enjambment technique is very common as compared to line-break in free-verse poetry. When adapted to Vietnamese poetry, this technique is defined as follows: Thơ Khác • 86

“When the enjambment technique is used, it changes the practice of stopping at the end of a verse, the reader is prompted to search for the missing part (of the sentence), the speed of reading is increased and one must read visually. This brings up the concept of time and space in poetry. What is lost, perhaps, is a part of life, of the past or future, and, as such, the present is nothing but emptiness. Such emptiness is not empty because of the ever-changing, ever moving character of what is known and what is unknown, intertwining with each other. Poetry thus arises out of the am-biguities and complexities of syntax, creating musical rhythm.

What is clear, a poem and the perception of rhythm does not lie in language (words), but in the content of the language. The content of the language is the movement of emotions through grammar and syntax.” 1

2/ Common (everyday) language: An example often cited:

“The poet Timothy Steele, while having lunch at a popular eatery, coincidentally overheard a lover’s quarrel, after which the woman stood up and, before leaving, said loudly: x / x / x / x / x /

You haven’t kissed me since we got engaged.

The saying complies with iambic meter (unstress, stress) and repeated 5 times (penta --), thus forming iambic pentameter. Steele recognized that form is drawn from common language, and New Formalism converts common language into poetic forms.” 2

English formalism poetry has two categories, rhymed and un-rhymed poetry (blank verses). This is true in part because English is a polysyllabic language, rich with rhymes, which makes it easy to create enjambments and transform common language into poetry, whether there are rhymes at the end of the verses or not. In 87 • Other Poetry

contrast, Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, wherein it is difficult to convert common language into poetry because it would not conform to metered (rhyme) schemes. Once the metered (rhyme) schemes are eliminated and replaced with enjambment techniques to create free associations, then Vietnamese poetry becomes no different from English blank verses. Common language flows into poetry, erasing the musical qualities of metered poetry, and helps the poet to discover new rhythms and musical qualities. Folk poetry in the six-eight form utilizes simple language but retains the characteristics of lullabies and songs; plain language or common language is not spoken like lullabies or songs. New Formalism is a type of poetry that is read.

3/ In poetic rules, regardless of the form, alliteration techniques are employed to create musical qualities and rhythm for the poem.

The repetitions of the level / oblique sounds is found in Tang poetry forms, and the equivalent unstress, stress sounds, repeated five times in one poetic verse, is found in English. In these ways, traditional poetry creates repeating syllables. When English free verse wished to escape from these rules and traditional sounds, they replaced the repetitive syllables by repeating words and repeating phrases. Similarly, in order to escape from the sounds of rhymed verses, Vietnamese Blank Verse adopted the same technique used in English free verse, that is, repeating words and phrases in a poem.

4/ Narrative / Story-telling quality is a common characteristic throughout all poetic traditions that tell a story. In Vietnamese Blank Verse poetry, this story-telling quality also means that thoughts and concepts are continuous and not disconnected, as in free-verse poetry.

At this point, Vietnamese Blank Verse poetry has achieved all four critical qualities of English Blank Verse to become a separate poetry form. With respects to American poetry, the label of “New Thơ Khác • 88

Formalism” was advanced by its enemies, intended as a jab. Later on, the two founding poets of this movement, Frederick Feirstein and Frederick Turner, combined it with Narrative Poetry to create a new movement, Expansive Poetry. Regardless, American New Formalism had accomplished its goals of reviving rhymed (metered) poetry, and erased the barriers between poets. Because of the dominance of free-verse poetry throughout the 20th century, there were serious rifts, once thought to be irreconcilable, between the schools represented, on the one side, by Robert Frost, who described free verse as “playing tennis without nets”, and on the other side by Ezra Pound, who championed free-verse, trailblaz-ing “make it new”. Only after the arrival of New Formalism did American poetry finally overcome the fever of the Avant Gard poetic movements which blossomed after the 1950s. Poetry harmonized between free-verse and metered forms.

The technical term (label) of “New Formalism” was very accurate with regard to Vietnamese poetry. Vietnamese poetry also revert-ed, but only took old poetic forms and adapted to new qualities in order to be transformed into a new poetic form. In addition, Vietnamese New Formalism was also an assimilation of the traditional and modern, erasing all distinguishing borders between the English and Vietnamese language, thereby creating an exchange of cultures. (It is worth noting here that there are many similarities between the Vietnamese and English language, such as the unstress, stress and level / oblique tones. The only difference is the strength of the sounds. Old English was mostly monosyllabic up until the adaptation of polysyllabic words from French and Latin.

This adaptation permits us to readily accept English Blank Verse, which utilizes alliteration (repetition) in ways that other polysyllabic languages such as French, cannot accept, because they are not strongly stress.)

Poets used descriptive styles and alliteration techniques to create rhythm in free verse poetry, combined with the critical quali-89 • Other Poetry

ties of enjambment and narration from English poetic rules, and then channeling into traditional Vietnamese to be the forms 5, 7, 8 words and six-eight blank verse poetry. Quite exceptional, Vietnamese New Formalism poetry sets new standards while as-piring to even greater heights, able to harmonize all the various poetic forms with free-verse poetry. But then again, why not just keep on composing free verse poetry, why force conformity with forms? We already know that there are many ways to differentiate between poetry and prose, but, as for form, poetic rules are the defining characteristic. When prose is composed, we write to the end of the line before we start a new line; and so, if the poem has no form at all, then it becomes a prosaic composition. Although it harmonizes with free verse poetry, Vietnamese Blank Verse is more akin to prose poetry than it is to other types of modern free-verse poetry.

Besides accepting Blank Verse poetic forms, via an American Avant Gard movement, there is another reason. Perhaps ingrained in the psyche of the refugee/immigrant, there is the motive to understand who we are and who the different peoples around us are, thus giving rise to the need for the discovery of new poetic forms.

Thereby, a need to employ new means in which to gain mutual understanding between Vietnamese and other cultures is realized.

And thus, the issue of translation becomes central.

“The purpose of New Formalism poetry is to propel Vietnamese poetry onto the international stage. That is why translation is emphasized to seek readers from different languages and cultures. If the old markings are too submerged in cultural or linguistic systems, then the foreign reader would not understand, including the young Vietnamese readers presently in Vietnam. But everyone knows that poetry cannot be truly or fully translated because the sounds of a language cannot be translated. This is especially true with traditional poetry, in which the sounds of the language give rise to the musical quality of poetry.” 3

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That is why New Formalism poetry must change the way it is written, in response to the demands of translation. With respect to words, if normal, everyday language is used to make poetry, then poetry becomes absent of rare and archaic words, and the readers do not get stuck with words when they read poetry. As for style, poetry moves closer to prose and utilizes repetition in order to create rhythm, so meter is conserved, and traces of prose are removed to form poetry.” 4

Because, upon translation, the sounds of one language are confused in another language, meaning is lost if translations are word for word. Otherwise, if a verse is translated literally, the result will be a very distasteful verse in the target language. In poetry, musical and rhythmic qualities are pervasive, linking up emotions and ideas. So the translation of poetry is no easy task; this we all know. In order to resolve these matters, we must first change the way we compose before any translation is rendered. For example, alliteration (repetition) techniques in Vietnamese poetry add a new critical dimension to rhythm which upon English translation is preserved. The English reader will be able to read the poem as if it was composed in English and not in another language originally.

Another advantage is that the English reader is able to empathize and relate to a foreign country and culture even though they are reading uniquely different poems. Those who read Vietnamese will recognize, upon encountering the English translation of the poem, the outstanding characteristics of Vietnamese poetry for one simple reason: a bilingual reading is deliberate and otherwise time-consuming, requiring careful and thorough reading of the poem.

An American poetry commentator (critic), Angela Saunders, had the following thoughts about Vietnamese New Formalism poetry when she wrote her introduction for the anthology “Poetry Narrates”.

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“Poetry itself, in any language, is a traditional literary method to pass oral accounts and stories from one generation to another. The rhythm and sounds of a poem provide the means of delivery and way to remember the verse. Sounds that flow in the native tongue of one language are linguistically specific and are not easily translated into another language. A poem set to melodies and tunes in a native tongue lose its aesthetic appeal in translation. Thus a conundrum is created. In an increasingly mobile society, how does one bridge the gaps between linguistic, cultural, and generational barriers while preserving traditional heritage?” 5

And she recognized the following characteristics of Vietnamese New Formalism poetry,

“[As] a patterned number of syllables, enjambments are used at exact syllable counts that remain consistent throughout the poem.

This means that a thought that begins on one line may continue or suddenly stop on the next. Traditionally, enjambments, or stops, will occur to highlight specific words or thoughts. This unnatural stop pattern will often enhance the visual and emotional impact of the poem. Each use of repetition, enjambment, and imagery allow us to truly see the beauty of the thoughts each author is trying to portray. The placement of each word is such that one must consider each meaning implied by positioning, line endings, and strong sensory imagery. For each element paints a desired portrait; each word an integral part of the poem; and each repetition and position shouting out the thoughts of the author and the translator and each poem taking on life of its own.” 6

Once the poem is translated and able to be read as if it was an original composition, the result is that American and Vietnamese poets can read each others’ poems in two languages. 7 As examples, such interesting meeting of the minds happened in “Bilingual Poetry” (a bilingual edition) and “Other Poetry Voices” from Thơ Khác • 92

web site www.thotanhinhthuc.org. In a letter calling for American poets to lend their voices, I wrote,

“Come join us in this small, yet warm corner of poetry. Let us raise a glass and toast each other in this meeting of minds. Dear friends and colleagues, only poetry has the ability to transform us and let us see each other for what we truly are, as equals, and to share suffering as well as happiness in the human condition.” 8

To recap, the past ten years of Vietnamese New Formalism poetry have accomplished notable results. Actually, there are no bad poetic forms, only limits of expressions. For example, in the middle of the 14th century, the Earl of Surrey translated Italian poetry as blank verse in English poetry, but it wasn’t until a half century later that William Shakespeare, and another hundred years later that John Milton, brought Blank Verse poetry to justly deserved prominence.

It is important to recognize the 64 poets who have made these concepts a reality in the bilingual anthology of “Blank Verses”, and the 21 poets who made up the bilingual collection of Poetry Narrates. We believe that, as long as change is a necessity for poets and they are able to communicate with the world beyond their own immediate societies, they will seek readers from other languages and cultures, and so Vietnamese Blank Verse will continue to be an effective and essential vehicle.

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Footnotes

1 & 2/ Khe Iem, New Formalism, Four Quartets, and The Other Essays, Ebook, website www.thotanhinhthuc.org.

3/ Formal Poetry and Related Terms: Formalism, New Formalism, Neo-Formalism, Pseudo-Formalism, Neo-Classicism, Traditional Poetry, and the Multitudinous Variations Thereof by Michael R. Burch.

5/ ”Publisher’s Notes” – Poetry Narrates.

6 & 7/ “Introduction”, Angela Saunders, Translated by Phạm Kiều Tùng into Vietnamese – “Poetry Narrates”.

8/ In only the first two weeks, after the letter was sent out, ten American poets sent their poems to participate in “The Other Poetry Voices”: poets Alden Alden, Bill Duke, Frederick Feirstein, Frederick Turner, Michael Lee Johnson, James Murphy, Rick Stansberger, Stephen John Kalinich, L. K. Thayer và Tom Riordan.

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HOW TO READ

______________

Nguyễn Hoàng Nam

Three bull-frogs in a swamp look past a window and see a refrigerator full of beer in the house. One of them begins with a croak

“Bợợợt”; and then the next one follows with a “waaaiz”; and then the last one ends with a “zơơơ.” This is not the realm of surreal-ism, where unconcious meets with conscious, giving rise to that strange merveilleux [marvelous, brilliant]. This was a computer-generated commercial graphic. The Budweiser Company must have gotten bored with beautiful women in bikinis holding bottles of beer, so they created this new game for fun. But these commercials were repeated again and again many times on television, to imprint in our minds the beer brand and the subliminal message,

“even frogs love Budweiser beer, so humans should too.” Or, to be more roguish, we can infer that: “If humans don’t love Budweiser beer, then they are worse than frogs.”

That’s commercial. Anything goes with commercials, as long as it increases consumption and isn’t illegal. What about poetry?

First of all, how should a poem go? To raise an issue is to place restrictions, whereas true poetry is not bounded by any limitations.

We must begin with the questions, what is a poem, and what does it mean that anything goes. Then we can properly pose another question: When the poet has complete freedom of form and expression, what should the poet do, and how should he do it? And, by extension, what should a reader do?

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This means that, if you are used to reading Vietnamese poetry in the past (old style), you will meet with difficulties.

With “Television Script”, you might feel that you do not need to read, you do not need to absorb and digest words because there is nothing grandiose about it, no deep thought, no expressing some illusory yet great suffering. Your initial reaction is to associate with the beer commercial which Khế Iêm blatantly stole wholesale and placed in front of your face as if nothing has happened.

Clearly, the poet had overtly taken advantage of the proliferation of the Budweiser beer commercial. You might have felt uncomfortable because the poet appears to be shameless, without concern or deference for any solemn attitude, which the Vietnamese often attribute to a person of letters, in this case, an editor of a literary magazine. You will feel even more uncomfortable upon noticing the fine print beneath, which seems to convey even more than the poem, but it is not a footnote to clarify any meaning; instead, it is a

“suggested use”, as if the poem is a common household item, such as a karaoke machine, an iron, flu medicine, condom, etc.

I am trying to choose my words carefully so as not to offend you.

If you have all of the symptoms which I have just described, then how you read poetry is obsolete, even while that old-style notion has no solid philosophical foundation at all.

Try to think of the things which I have just presented. First of all, poetry is no longer precious ornaments to decorate the mandarins, the learned men, and those who went abroad to France and returned back home. (I’m not sure what these people really learned.) Let’s pose a simple question: If we have been greatly influenced by French poetry from the end of the 19th century, then why is Rimbaud’s shining example not alluded to, and why do we have so many people who have nothing to say yet keep writing on and on? Secondly, the poet is not stupid enough to want to be God. It is futile to self-affirm with a higher purpose or mission in order Thơ Khác • 96

to find salvation for humankind. There are many geniuses who have failed, like Rimbaud has failed and Breton has failed (which raises another question about what was learned from French poetry); for those who have some minor talent, indulging in deceptive arrogance results in a waste of time spent learning and practic-ing. Third, do you really understand what “romantic” is? Many poets whom you admire or worship glibly and without condition cannot readily answer this question. The notion of poetry which you are familiar with has a strange history of development. It started, about 50 years late, with the influence of French poetry at the end of the 19th century, the period of post-Romantic writing beginning with Symbolism, and then somehow transformed into “romantic” in Vietnam. Actually, there is almost nothing Romantic, very little post-Romantic and even less Symbolism, when we compare this notion of poetry with the original movements of these schools. Mostly, it is the exaggeration of unreal suffering, the praising of high-school girls in vague terms, like the little braggarts in sword-hero drama tales and epic movies who refer to themselves as “we”. These things are repeated over and again, and gain meaning because of familiarity. Poetry becomes a con-test of talent with words – anyone could internalize or memorize a Vietnamese modern play; one needs only be a spectator and watch the leading actors and actresses perform. Towards the end of the 1960s, being about 30 years late, this notion of poetry suddenly leapt across the threshold of Surrealism, and there it has remained until now. What’s even stranger is that, during that foggy half century, philosophical debate and criticism had been very poor, almost non-existent.

Therefore, the above issues, and the notions about poetry which accompanied it, are truly difficult to understand. However, the type of poetry which is “Television Script” is easy to understand because it has a clear tradition from the start.

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First, there is the story about Tristan Tzara mixing up words in a bag and then blindly drawing them out to form a poem. We can easily confuse a poem with a simple game, when, in actuality, the meaning of a poem lies in how the poet had created the poem. The poem’s only role is to stimulate the reader to seek knowledge of how the poem was created. Tzara mixed up words to make the statement that everything in life is dependent upon chance, that God is dead, that a child’s game is more interesting than human experience, which is dry and stagnant, etc. Certainly, you have heard of these miscellaneous things somewhere already. But what we need to grasp is that how the poem is created is part of the poem, and how the poem was made might be the most creative aspect of the poet’s work.

Next, there is the story about Marcel Duchamp submitting a toilet for exhibition. Modern artistic expression emphasizes that art is not just in museums or on “perfumed” pages, but that we can discover many interesting things in normal everyday things all around us – beauty is something which each of us can choose for ourselves. Creativity is nothing grandiose; anyone can embark on it because, besides the search for happiness of each individual spirit, the search for meaning is subjective in a meaningless world.

Thus, has it become too easy to gain fame? Not necessarily. On the one hand, Tzara is the first person to mix up words, just like Duchamp is the first person who submitted a toilet for display in an exhibition. For example, if I were to mix up words, that would be redundant; that is, I cannot speak to anything more. However, if I like to mix up one thing, I can mix up other things. On the other hand, the lesson for us here is not necessarily that we have to do shocking things in order to gain fame, but that the spirit of human beings pays attention to observe life around us and to practice looking at things differently, more strangely, more interestingly.

That, in fact, is the poet in all of us.

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That is basically the tradition that your notion of poetry recklessly ignored and leapt over to stand peeking into the window of Surrealism, as I have mentioned in the above paragraph. But, if that is the case, then what does “Television Script” wish to speak to? Or should we repeat the words of the Dadaists?

Don’t be impatient. First, Tzara’s poems from 1916, Duchamp’s toilet from 1919, and Khế Iêm’s poems from 1996, are considered part of post-modernism, so, obviously, more must be said. The application of artistic notions in modern times is still limited to the subjectivism (and arrogance-narcissism) of the superpowers:

“international” in fact refers to Russia, America and Europe. In the social realm, it is even more contracted. Take Dadaism for example: The discoveries of this movement are really a reaction by Western progressive intellectualism in response to the stubborn-ness of the petty bourgeoisie (middle class) of the period, of which the Impressionists are representative – all of which are the doings of white men. (For example: Duchamp exhibiting a toilet is understood, but, when our own TTKh * entered a catfish bridge for exhibition, it was not understood. What is acclaimed as “the common human experience” is in fact the perspectives of white men.) Criticized roundly in post-modernity, this kind of singular venera-tion has faded in recent years, giving way to a common notion of respecting multiple cultural and gender voices – internationalism has truly become international. The voices and experiences of the third world, of ethnic minorities in the West, of women, of homo-sexual men, have gained recognition on the international literary stage.

And so, although we utilize forms and philosophies which are traditionally Western, our own unique cultural and spiritual imprint can be expressed. Because we are telling our own stories, our own experiences, we do not have to close our eyes and praise the experience of the great Western artists and thinkers, as the past generation has done in Vietnam. We can think of “Television Script”

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to be a kind of satire of life in a negative spirit, promoting the commercials of those who live in the West, yet the bull-frogs are a symbol for Viet Nam. That is, a poem could be a kind of “home away from home”: to watch the bull-frogs on TV is to remember the swamps of old. A person who subscribes to reconciliation tendencies can think that “even frogs and beer can be reconciled, so why not nationalism and communism.” A conservative person could curse this poet because he dared to poke fun at our national character (although it is only bull-frogs.) Or a poem could be a satire of Vietnamese folk poetry: Anyone can think of himself as the “uncle of heaven” when, in fact, they are just a frog (sitting at the bottom of a well), a bull-frog (noisily empty), a tree frog (hid-ing in the shadows and jumping out to startle the unsuspecting).

Perhaps even more complex is the mixing and merging between commercials and poetry, between real images and TV images and images on paper, the croaking of imaginary bull-frogs on TV, and the silent sounds of bull-frogs imprinted in past memory – motivational sources from many different influences borne out of our ordinary daily experiences which create meaning, without our conscious awareness and without time for analysis. Or, to put it simply, an alcoholic would crave cold beer with buttered frog-legs upon encountering this poem. And etc. and etc.

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At this point, we recognize that the poem is not important, that the author (poet) is even less important, that the most important thing is the reader and how the poem is read. The creativity in every subjective viewpoint does not mean that each person is in their own world, but it demands that each one of us realize for ourselves that there are always many different perspectives to our subjectivity. And that is the best hope for us in our post-war era.

The Fall of 1996

____________

Note

* TTKh. was a Vietnamese woman poet who wrote poetry in the 1930s.

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index-102_1.jpg

HEAVEN AND EARTH AMIDST DUST STORMS

(OR READINGS OF

THE SONG OF A WARRIOR’S WIFE)

___________________________________________

Khế Iêm

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index-103_1.jpg

Beginning with Nietzsche: God is dead, the author is dead (Roland Barthes), words are dead, reality is dead (Michael Benedikt).

So many deaths, but bodies are nowhere to be seen. Actually, God is not dead; God has become hyper-real, according to the theory of Jean Baudrillard pertaining to simulacrum (image, representation): 1

1. Reflecting reality

2. Hiding and distorting reality.

3. The absence of reality

4. Complete detachment from reality.

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Reality is overabundant and has become hyper-reality, wherein the images which are produced have no relations to reality, yet contain all of life and art. From this point, the experience of Virtual-Reality is ushered in via the computer medium, deceiving the senses and creating the impression that we are living in a different world. Cyberspace is a kind of space without air, intruding into daily life, such as chatting, meeting, shopping, ordering plane tickets or booking hotels via the internet, and is also what takes us to a virtual world; of course, all with the help of high-tech equipment, such as a special helmet, special gloves or a special body suit. In this world, we can have the illusion of walking in the streets of Paris, visiting an ancient landmark, or participating in some event of our choosing. That world helps us to escape from the shackles of space and time. Death becomes unreal because we can communicate with people who lived centuries apart from us. What can be more interesting than living in one place but roaming the planet, living with angels, or going to heaven without ever dying? And then, when we look back upon this world and its histories, humans seem never to have existed at all. So, between reality and illusion, which is more real?

A thought: If something is to be poetry, let it go to the extreme of being wordless. But the poem “The Song of a Warrior’s Wife” has the Nôm version translated by Đoàn Thị Điểm, and the Hán version by Đặng Trần Côn. Therefore, obviously, the poem “Readings of The Song of A Warrior’s Wife” is somehow incomplete.

And, indeed, it is somewhat difficult to understand if it isn’t considered a kind of optical illusion.

A popular legend, it is the story of Lưu Thần and Nguyễn Triệu, who enter paradise and then return, but are then unable to find their former place and former friends. But the place is still the same, and the former friends are not non-existent, but are now an absent reality, hidden by a present reality. When it is no longer Thơ Khác • 104

possible to find our own reality, a new reality confuses us, like the ghosts of many merged realities. The reality that the two men sought, and thought they had lost, has actually never been lost; it has just become hyper-real. They may or may not recognize the situation. That is why the men left and entered the absent reality, the hyper-reality of their reality. The story has a sensible and happy ending.

Back to the poem “The Song of A Warrior’s Wife”, there is no certainty that there is only one Hán version by Đặng Trần Côn or one Nôm version by Đoàn Thị Điểm. But there may have been multiple Hán versions or Nôm versions which had been copied from one generation to the next. Even the Quốc ngữ versions have been produced by several publishing houses with many different critical reviews or commentaries by various authors. No one can be certain which is the original version, nor that there have not been copies mistaken for originals. Thus, that original version is in fact an absent reality, an illusory reality, and the versions which we are presently reading are only copies and not the original. To say that we are not reading the original means that, even if we do find the original Hán or Nôm version, we still cannot read it, and, if we can read it, we cannot determine definitively that the version we are reading is the original Hán or Nôm version. So we can never determine the true meaning or value of that work.

The poem “Readings of The Song of A Warrior’s Wife” includes multiple originals, as if one reality contains many various realities. It is a leap, shoving nonsense into nonsense, wiping out a part of life. So the poem “The Song of A Warrior’s Wife” remains in the imagination, like echoes from the past, but now even those echoes have become lost. (Here, we can raise a question: If the poem “The Song of A Warrior’s Wife” has 412 verses, yet only one section remains, to be viewed as pages of words tossed together and thus able to be condensed or abridged, how can we know how many grammatical errors have been committed in this 105 • Other Poetry

work? How many phonetics, languages, concepts, etc. have been transformed?) Because there is no such thing as reality. And so the poem has gone beyond the bounds of the work “The Song of A Warrior’s Wife”, has become lost in legends and now has returned to the era in which we presently live. The challenge of poetry is that it can become absent from itself, and there is no way to avoid misunderstanding. We are thus humored by a worthwhile enter-tainment.

Rebellions against tradition have become a tradition of the modern age. 2 To rebel against is not to destroy or to deny, but is growing pains (driven by technological progress), illuminating from many directions, and art becomes more colorful and vibrant, providing continuity to tradition.

Did the art of photography, when it was first brought to life, push the plastic arts to the wall, from where it was thought that there would be no escape? Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) with his Impressionist school no longer captured reality as it is but through the viewpoint and perception of the artist. Things were no longer in-active but were dynamic, interpreted by the emotions of the artist. The view contained the viewer’s perspective and erased the boundaries with nature. But it did not stop there. Cubism took it a step further, treating humans on the par with things, locking action, combining space and images, which was also consistent with the trend to present reality in a way that photography cannot intrude upon. Everything went smoothly, and art opened onto a wide avenue, upon which it confidently traveled to discover new things.

There is nothing simple in life. In 1936, the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin, in his treatise, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, warned that printing technology, producing copies en masse, would reduce the value of the originals.

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Previously, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp had put forth a new discovery – Readymade Art – that art is already present in things if we remove meaning and usage from them. And then there were wholesale anti-art movements, like Pop-Art and Conceptual Art, paralyzing reproduction. For example, in 1970 in London, two artists, Gilbert and George, presented Living Sculptures, emphasizing the personal appeal of artists.

The rebellions have come to an end, just as the confrontations of the Cold War are no more. Modernism had ended with the war against itself and has become post-modernism 3. The “just now”

of modernism had become the “after just now” of post modernism. And, in reality, reproduction had not reduced the value of the original but on the contrary had increased the value of the original.

So why shouldn’t we continue to live in these good conditions?

Everything has been set according to Marcel Duchamp’s perspective; all we have to do is re-use and recycle. The only issue which remains is how to re-use and recycle.

Taking it one step further, in the social political realm, we often speak of the parable of the scapegoat 4. In ancient Greek cities, people domesticated these wild animals at the expense of the community. When there was an epidemic disease or a famine, one of the ugliest animals was chosen; the people fed him with barley cakes and figs, and then struck him with leeks, wild figs and other wild plants, and pounded his penis and scrotum with squills – a bulbous herb – until the goat died of intense pain. Then the beast was cremated, and its ashes were taken to the sea and thrown to the four winds. Thus the city was purged. If the scapegoat is the symbol of evil, he is also a prescription to cast out the devil and disaster. Even though he was pushed out of the city, before that, he had been in the city. Logocentrism is a theory advanced by Jacques Derrida to distinguish between the central and the marginal. As we know, Socrates, Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss always favored the spoken word 107 • Other Poetry

over the written word. Henceforth, Derrida debunked many other centers, neutralizing them and introducing the principles of de-mocracy into philosophical systems and schools of thought. But he did not stop here; he went on to explain that life is like text, a game which differentiates between the absent and the present.

In 1966, Jacques Derrida went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, and advanced the theory of decon-struction, another shocking development for philosophy. Henceforth, the entire Western philosophical system was pushed to the cliff of doubt; boundaries between philosophy and literature were demolished, within and throughout the East and the West, and in various different fields also, such as a new type of study in Zen.

Post-constructionism is considered the forerunner to post-modernism 5.

When all boundaries are demolished, that which we refer to as parody, reproduction and hyper-reality are just another way to rediscover the original, although the original is only a bunch of confused thoughts. Certainly, this is not a satire or denial of tradition, but is in fact a restructuring, like shuffling a deck of cards to find a new order. Or, to be more clear, this has created a new tradition.

To explain a poem, or if the poem is a reason to seek something else, then, first, we are certain to fail. Zero degree of writing or zero degree of sense implies that the readers create their own meaning. So there is no explanation that is approximately correct or most correct. A poem or an artistic production has meaning in itself, and the readers or the observers, from many different an-gles, perceive and receive it differently. Perhaps, the explanation of each individual reader is the most correct explanation (for their specific case). This in itself is a major contribution to the multiple meanings of a single work.

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“Readings of The Song of A Warrior’s Wife” is a blurry-eye experience, as if one is stepping out from darkness into the light, from illusion into reality. The world which we are living in is so indifferent, without sense, sad and devoid of sound, in contrast to the illusory world, yet is more interesting and strangely new, like a beautiful dream. But that is exactly why we must make it more vibrant. The only way to achieve that is to return to space with air, conscious of the satna (moment) of breathing and of tangible objects, with all the thoughts and feelings of humanity. Poetry, like an attitude of life or like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, returns to the simple life of nature, or to find a way to adapt to the environment, to chose a moderate attitude, like that of Jacques Derrida. So we must begin to find new forms of expression.

So are we making reality to be illusory to explain reality? And when we explain reality, it also means that we are affirming our own place in the world we live in. The roots and origins of things become less important. Words are no longer the sole means to express poetry; images become more important. In other words, all means have the same value, depending on the ability of the artists to command the means at their use. Reality and imagination have died, and each work is an attempt to define its own rules. We are entering dust storms. And, in such heaven and earth, a new romantic era re-emerges, and the world we live in is the deserving world to live in. Artistic discovers, whether illusory to any degree, by taking the future into the present, by pushing the present into the past, by destroying the concepts of space and time, are really stimuli which help us return to and discover the true character of life. Poetry and other artistic works need to be happier, newer, more compelling to balance life, so that we are not trapped in the delusional mindset of a civilization.

How to create a different tradition? But what is different when, in the new, there is the old; when, in the present, there are already other presents? Found objects, things captured from reality (the present), and other things wake us from the amnesiac zone of the illusory world, stripping naked the irrational and returning us to 109 • Other Poetry

the original form, from which our journey begin. And how shall we begin, within the metempsychosis* or beyond the metempsychosis? All things are indeterminate because the boundaries of differences have been erased. We are forced into the game, living falsely and dying falsely between the two shores (frustratingly, both shores are illusory), so isn’t it true that, in such a painfully rare moment of awakening, poetry once again emerges? Even if it is treated as a misbehaving child or as toxic elements, like so many scapegoats, it is still an effective means to cure the epidemic; poetry was pushed onto a path with no way out.

(*metempsychosis = the passing of the soul at death into another body, either human or animal)

Our era certainly is not an era of finding ways to conquer reality or to escape from it, but to recognize it. And if we say that post-modernism is an ideology which has been netted within modernism, that should not give rise to any concern because, even if that is the case, we are beginning a new cycle, and poetry, like other artistic fields, is confronted with challenges. To repeat or have happen again, illusory or real, absent or present – all lie within the overall reality. If, to its end, poetry is wordless, then, to its end, life’s purpose is to answer the question of existence amidst the storm of the century, which is about to sweep us away. That is the question for which there can be no satisfactory answer.

The Winter of 1998

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Footnotes

1. Introducing Postmodernism, by Richard Appiggnanesi and Chris Garratt, Totem Books, 1997.

2. The modern era began around 1890-1900, meaning that the beginning is approximately within 10 years time, but it had actually been intimated a century early.

3. Derrida, by Jim Powell, Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc, 1997.

4. The post-modern term had emerged at the beginning of the 1950’s, but literary changes have always been tied to social changes. Therefore, it could be viewed that, from the 1950s to the 1980s, these ideological tendencies had only been incubated. In comparison, the incubation period for modernism lasted almost a century, so why has the post-modern era not lasted even half a century? Perhaps it is because the information revolution happened much faster than the industrial revolution two centuries ago. Another reason is that the collapse of the former Soviet Union happened too fast (1989), ending the Cold War, which lasted almost three-quarters of a century. The spectacular events mentioned above of-ficially took humanity to another era. So it wasn’t until the 1990s and beyond 2000 that we have begun to see clearly the progressive steps of post-modernism.

5. On July 15, 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe building, a part of a housing development of St. Louis, Missouri, a project which had received an ar-chitectural award for low-income housing, was demolished because it was not habitable. The architect, Charles Jencks, had proclaimed on this occasion that the post-modern era had begun, that international modernism had died.

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REVIEW

________

Review of Other Poetry

Alexander Kotowske

During the countless pleasant hours that I have spent with my nose buried in a book of poetry or literature, there are occasions when I lift my head from the book or raise my eyes from the rhythmic flow of the poem, and ask myself a question that begs to be answered: what is it that compels me to continue; what exists within poetry that keeps my hungry eyes fixed to the alimental lines, year after year? Several reasons rush to mind, and they are all equally important and true, except one, which seems to stand superior to them all.

This is when the lines of poetry connect me to my lost Self, the wandering I, and awakens the soul amidst this chaotic world that is consumed with materialism, reminding me that I possess what is immaterial; then I seem to remember why I love poetry, because poetry has remembered me, the hidden eternal me. And when I stumble upon a piece or book of poetry that withholds this timeless, priceless and, I re-gretfully say, within our contemporary world’s writing and poetry, rare element, then I know that I have stumbled upon something great.

The deeply insightful poetry and lofty, thought-provoking essays of Khe Iem, and especially his latest debut collection of bi-lingual poetry entitled Other Poetry, are a golden example of this greatness which I speak of so highly. Once Thơ Khác • 112

the readers are able to remove their eyes from the beautiful interplay and rhythm of the designs which cover the surface of this book, and to dive into the deep of Khe Iem’s poems, they may find that his endearingly simple, fluid, articulate and profound poems may lead them in no other direction then into themselves, and towards a more lucid understating of their own reality. As we slowly step through the labyrinth of introspection-sparking thoughts intertwined throughout Khe Iem’s poems, we begin to question the reality of time, the reality of space, and the life we consider our reality. At times, a solemn poem ends with a sudden feeling of sublime loneliness, as if the only things to know, to feel, linking us to our reality, are the emotions roaring within. And then, in these moments when Khe Iem leaves us wondering where we should go, he begins to wave goodbye to another illusion, as he stands upon the opposite side of the street, longing to say goodbye to the immovable emotion of sadness, but it remains steadfast on the other side of the street; and, although he may say, while waving his hand, “sadness, goodbye, oh, sadness,” he cannot part from a close friend he kept within and “nurtured” for so long. The poems repeatedly remind us of the transitory nature of our life, and of the few thin strings that connect us to it, but bursting forth from this seemingly temporal existence come the bold words within the poem The Story of Your Life, “Deaths that have never been real deaths they have never occurred”. This ironic enigma which he proposes seems to mysteriously free us from the needless worries of the unknown. He seems to say that there is more than life and this existence to be known, so do not cling too tightly to it, rather release the fearfully clenched grip and drift into the everlasting, for you already live within it. In the poem, On the Spur of the Moment, the reader pleasantly 113 • Other Poetry

absorbs a relaxing day of coffee and the song of birds he speaks of, and the fugacious shade of a passing cloud seems to remind us of our fleeting but beautiful life, and just as the reader thinks that he knows what’s coming or what may have been implied, Khe Iem concludes the poem with, “but nothing comes of it… not even cloud shadows.” The sometimes ambivalent and ironic nature which characterize some of the poems is perhaps one of the most interesting and unique elements of his poetry. They allow the reader to come to grips with the world he presents and the polarity of the possible truths, leaving the reader the ultimate decider of their own view upon reality.

As I read and enjoyably re-read the poems, I continually find the urge to read them aloud, and although they are translated from Vietnamese into English, I hear a universal song float off my tongue, which is recognized as no known language.

The lines flow both quietly and eloquently. The poems are uninhibited and uninfected with the plague of the modern writing man, pretense. Khe Iem has borne his warm modest spirit and insightful mind within these lines, and we begin to feel acquainted with the poet as well as his poems as they drift along the rhythmic river of his wise thought. There are times while reading Other Poetry that the readers who focus deeply and inwardly on what is written will find a consoling sense of serenity in the quietude of Khe Iem’s thought. In such a poem as A Dead Bird, the rigidity of time and inevi-tableness of death seem to float away, as the bird which was once beautiful and living descends in death upon the immor-tal canvas for “a thousand generations,” and then, within this magnificent cycle we call life, it then can return to the living as long as what is beautiful in the world remains. Although Thơ Khác • 114

this all may seem very perplexing, with our beautiful lives and unavoidable deaths, and all the unanswerable questions which surround it, Khe Iem leaves us in a state of indescrib-able solace, as he calmly says, “no matter what, life continues to be unexplainable confusion, goodbye.” We hear the words of a man who has truly made peace with what is unknown, and seems to live no longer in fear, but smiles at the beautiful mystery wrapped around our existence.

There are subtle questions within the poems; age-old questions that cause me to ask myself, “How can I claim to exist if I don’t know what it truly means to exist?” And then another poem comes along later to demolish my doubt with the clever question and answer “who am I,” and a voice returns with the almost sarcastically implied truth,“i am who.” Khe Iem does not need to state elaborately detailed explanations of the truths he so cleverly purports. He merely propounds a possible truth, and leaves the thoughtful reader to make the final decision. Khe Iem’s Other Poetry is an abysmal well of simplistic wisdom. The readers are invited to take a drink of his thought, and to see what may be found quenching within it. I am sure the readers will not go thirsty. Whether the subject is the delicate topic of suffering or a beautiful dark skinned girl who cannot dry the sadness that has soaked into her eyes from the spilled grief of another’s life; whether it’s a poem that pokes around the reality and tries on the different perspectives of an object as mundane as a chair, a calm current of tranquil and serene thoughts seem to flow throughout all the poems, and leaves the reader in a priceless peace of mind as the final page is turned.

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COMMENTS

___________

It is a splendid concept, and an important contribution to world literature. Perhaps the old idea of the “republic of letters” can rise again in an age where we are all recognizing our common humanity and finding literature and art a better basis for communion than ideology.

Poet & scholar Frederick Turner

“Chairs,” challenges the assumption that a chair is a chair, cataloging a series of things one chair might be, or might not be, or is, or isn’t, or is different from chairs, concluding essentially that we know nothing at all about chairs, and cannot; nothing at all about anything, and cannot ...

One of the poems, “Between Who and Who,” begins The truth is, the truth is, the truth

is i don’t know how to begin,

since i acknowledged the space be-

tween the unoccupied chair and

the chair i am sitting in, but

i had sat in the unoccu-

pied chair before...

This gives you an idea of Khế Iêm’s interest in the elusive Thơ Khác • 116

and/or contradictory aspects of reality, and to some degree, how they impact personal relationships. While the faces of his poems are clear and simple to read, his concerns are complex.

Many of the poems overlap like shingles, more than the sum of their parts. They reflect something of the experience of being bicultural, the “who and who” being one person, two people, or a gap – the expatriate’s gap, and the gap between all of us and the world in which we find – and don’t find –

ourselves.

Poet Tom Riordan

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BIOGRAPHY

____________

Richard H. Sindt

English language consultant

Richard H. Sindt has a strong interest in Việt Nam. He lived in Việt Nam during the War – in 1967 and in 1969-1970, serving as a mapmaker in the US Army. He visited Việt Nam for a month in 1997 – traveling from Hà Nội to Hồ Chí Minh City. He moved to Việt Nam in 1999, and taught English for 2&1/2 years. He has written numerous letters and essays about Việt Nam. He plans to return to Việt Nam again to teach English and to write more about Việt Nam. Richard H. Sindt was born and raised in Boulder, Colorado. He earned a BS degree in Geography at Arizona State University. He currently lives in Orange County, California, and is an English language consultant.

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Ðỗ Vinh

(Joseph Dovinh)

He was born 1968 in the Central Highlands of Việt Nam. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1975, and studied at the University of Washington, where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. He became active in the literary cir-cles of the Pacific Northwest in the mid-1980’s through the early 1990’s, regularly attending Red Sky Poetry readings and appearing at Bumbershoot open mikes. During this time, Dovinh was exposed to the writings of Sam Hamill, William Stafford, Nelson Bentley, Raymond Carver and Eric Scigliano. His poetry and writings have appeared in Tiên Rồng, The New Asian Journal, The Seattle Weekly, The Vietnam Forum of the Yale University, and Tạp chí Thơ (Journal of Poetry). He gave readings at World Beyond Festival, Beyond Baroque and LA Poetry Festival as part of their Newer Poets series in 2001 and 2002.

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Khế Iêm

(True name: Lê Văn Đức)

He was born in Lê xá, Vụ Bản, Nam Định, North Việt Nam, in 1946 (birth certificate shows 1947). Founder and editor in chief of Tạp Chí Thơ (Journal of Poetry from 1994 to 2004), Editor of online Journal for New Formalism Poetry Club, www.thotanhinhthuc.org, since 2004. His translated poems have appeared in Xconnect (volume III, Issue II), Literary Review (Winter 2000) The Writers Post and Word Bridge. His essays have appeared in The Writers Post. He has published Hột Huyết (Blood Seed) play, 1972, Thanh Xuân (Youth) poetry, 1992, Dấu Quê (Vestiges of the Homeland), poetry, 1996, Thời của Quá khứ (A Time Past), stories, 1996, Tân Hình Thức, Tứ Khúc Và Những Tiểu Luận Khác (New Formalism, four quartets, and other essays), 2003.

The essay “Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry: On the Path of Transformation” was his presentation given at the 56th Confer-ence of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), on March 4, 2004 in San Diego, California. (“Poetry as a Window on History and Change in Southeast Asia” is the main topic of the Panel.) He has edited Blank Verse (2006) and Poetry Narrates (2010); both are Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry. His collection of poems, a bilingual edition, is “Other Poetry”.

He has introduced to Vietnamese readers: American avant guard movements, New Formalism Poetry and Slam Poetry; American poets Alden Marin, Frederick Feirstein, Frederick Turner, Michael Lee Johnson, Rick Stansberger, Stephen John Kalinich, Tom Riordan; English poets James Murphy, Paul Henry and Australian poet Phillip A. Ellis.

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Frederick Feirstein

Frederick Feirstein is a playwright with a dozen New York productions. His first play SIMON AND THE SHOESHINE BOY

was first produced at the Chelsea Theater Center. His second play THE FAMILY CIRCLE, was first produced at the Provincetown Playhouse (New York), and subsequently published in the Modern Classics Series in London (Davis-Poynter/Harper Collins). He has written the book and lyrics for three musical dramas: THE

CHILDREN’S REVOLT, (which he directed starring Willem Dafoe), MASQUERADE, which won an Audrey Wood Playwriting Award, and HEROISM (music by William Harper), first staged at the Raw Space (New York) by Chicago’s ARTCO in 2001.

He also writes for film and television. He wrote TWO FOR ONE

and STREET MUSIC for David Da Silva films (FAME), G.I. DIARY for CBS, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE with Philip Magdaleny, and DAYTIME with Doris Frankel and Doug Marland.

Frederick Feirstein has had eight books of poetry published. His first, SURVIVORS, was selected as one of the two Outstanding Books of the year by the American Library Association. His second, MANHATTAN CARNIVAL: A DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and performed on stage in New York, Cambridge, and Los Angeles. His fourth and sixth books, FAMILY HISTORY, and ENDING THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, won the QUARTERLY REVIEW OF LITERATURE’S international prizes. His fifth, CITY LIFE, was a Pulitzer nominee.

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His seventh, NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, was published in 1998. His eighth, FALLOUT, was published in 2009.

Among his literary awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, the Poetry Society of America’s John Masefield Award, England’s Arvon Prize for Poetry, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s OADR Award For Playwriting.

He was co-founder of the Expansive Poetry movement and originated the Barnes & Noble reading series.

His biography is in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and his autobiography is in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series.

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Dictionary of Literary Biography on Frederick Feirstein One of the founders of the Expansive poetry movement, Frederick Feirstein has championed the reestablishment of formal verse, verse narrative, and verse satire in American poetry – just the prescription, he feels, for bringing poetry back to the people and tearing it out of the rarified climate of academia, where it has languished, self-referentially, for half a century. His own poetical works focus on the postmodern beauty and brutality of his native New York City , the obsessively sexual orientation of classic New York-style psychoanalysis, and the problem of Jewishness in American identity. His sense of outrage sets his work apart from the poetry of his quieter, more introspective academic colleagues in the New Formalist movement. Indeed, although he is considered one of America’s foremost and most original New Formalist poets by those in the movement, Feirstein objects strongly to the ascendancy of that term over the broader intent of Expansive poetry. Feirstein, and earlier founders of the Expansive poetry movement such as Dick Allen, Frederick Turner, and Wade Newman, prefer the word “expansive” to describe a vigorous new poetry that not only employs traditional verse forms such as the sonnet and heroic couplet but also encourages a wide-ranging freedom of subject matter and promotes the creation of longer narrative poems, a former staple of English and American poetry.

Feirstein has insisted on a clear and revolutionary break with establishment schools of academic poets who have rigidly enforced the notion that real American poetry could only be written in free verse that emphasized esoteric language and the primacy of the 123 • Other Poetry

poet’s sensations and personal feelings over the world outside.

Feirstein wants to turn poetry outward once again, “expanding” it by abandoning the narcissistic obsessions of confessionalists and Language poets who typically prefer not to deal with the concerns of the public at large.

Of Eastern European Jewish stock, Frederick Feirstein was born on 2 January 1940 in New York City, the son of Arnold and Nettie Feirstein. His early years were spent growing up in a crowded co-operative apartment building in a teeming, multiethnic neighbor-hood on the Lower East Side of New York City.

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Stephen John Kalinich

(Born in Endicott, New York, USA) is an American poet. He has also collaborated with many musicians, including P.F. Sloan, Art Munson, Kenny Hirsch, Randy Crawford, Mary Wilson of the The Supremes, Odyssey, Clifton Davis and Diana Ross. He wrote several songs for The Beach Boys including “All I Want to Do”,

“Be Still”, “Little Bird” and “A Time to Live in Dreams” with Dennis Wilson.

Đỗ Minh Tuấn

The Poet and Film Director/Producer DO MINH TUAN was born 1952 in Ha Dong, Vietnam. He graduated from the University of Literature and College of Filmmaking.

Literary Works:

Prophetic Flowers, poetry (1992)

Awakening, poetry (1992)

The Paper Bird, poetry (1992)

Love Poems, poetry (1993)

Romantic Methodologies of Nguyen Du in The Tale of Kieu, essays (1995)

The Day Literature Ascended the Throne, essays (1996) Deities and Butterflies, novel (2009)

He is a multi-talented intellectual, poet, literary essayist, novel-ist, painter, and is the author of numerous famous films such as: Heaven’s Flower, Light in a Dream, Foul King …

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Lê Thánh Thư

Painter Lê Thánh Thư was born in 1956 - Qui Nhon, Vietnam.

Member of Vietnam’s Fine Art Association, Ho Chi Minh City.

Đinh Cường

Painter Đinh Cường was born in 1939 in Thu Dau Mot, Vietnam.

Lived in Hue, Dalat and Saigon until 1989. Currently residing in Burke, Virginia, US.

Nguyễn Đăng Thường

Poet Nguyễn Đăng Thường was born in Svay, Cambodia, educated in Việtnam and graduated from Sàigòn University’s Faculty of Pedagogy. Former French teacher at several high schools in Sàigòn. Presently living in London, England.

Nguyễn Đại Giang

Painter Nguyễn Đại Giang was born in 1944 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Created and developed a new school of art, known as the “Upside-Down-Art”.

Nguyễn Hòang Nam

Poet Nguyễn Hòang Nam was born in 1967 in Biên Hòa, South Việt Nam. Began writing in 1986. His poems have appeared in Tạp Chí Thơ, Văn, Văn Học, Hợp Lưu ...

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Alexander Kotowske

He was born in Lake Forest, Illinois in 1989, a suburb north of Chicago. He is deeply devoted to poetry and literature and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history. He is an American reader who belongs to the youngest generation.

127 • Other Poetry

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VIETNAMESE

_____________

129 • Other Poetry

THƯ CẢM TẠ

_____________

Tuyển lại một số bài thơ ở giai đoạn khởi đầu của thơ tân hình thức Việt mang ý nghĩa chuẩn bị cho dòng thơ này chuyển sang một thời kỳ mới. Sự chuẩn bị là cần thiết, vì những thế hệ sau, khi tiếp nhận thể thơ không vần của thơ tân hình thức Việt, nội dung và cách diễn đạt của họ đã hoàn toàn khác hẳn. Và như vậy, những bài thơ không gì khác hơn một món quà nhỏ gửi tới bạn đọc, các bạn trẻ, và những người bạn đã cùng tôi làm việc và quan tâm tới dòng thơ này như một lời cám ơn, nhà thơ Frederick Feirstein, dịch giả J. DoVinh, nhà biên tập Richard H. Sindt, nhà thơ Stephen John Kalinich, Mr. Michael Estelle, nhà văn Phạm Kiều Tùng, những họa sĩ Đinh Cường, Lê Thánh Thư, Nguyễn Đại Giang, những nhà thơ Nguyễn Đăng Thường, Đỗ Minh Tuấn, Nguyễn Hoàng Nam.

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GIỚI THIỆU TUYỂN TẬP THƠ KHẾ IÊM

___________________________________

Frederick Feirstein

Robert Frost có nói rằng đọc một bài thơ dịch giống như hôn một cô gái qua lớp vải của chiếc khăn tay. Điều khó khăn nhất, là không thể nghe được bài thơ bằng tiếng nước ngoài. Nhưng với bản dịch thì chúng ta có thể có được cấu trúc, hình tượng và vần luật của bài thơ, và tất cả những thứ này sẽ ban cho chúng ta một cảm nhận về điều mà nhà thơ đang nỗ lực để truyền đạt về mặt cảm xúc.

Đây chính là trường hợp của tác phẩm thơ của Khế Iêm. Thông qua Internet tôi đã nghe được vài bài thơ tiếng Việt của ông, khiến tôi cảm nhận được rằng thật đẹp làm sao những giai điệu gồm bảy âm của chúng. Điều thú vị là vần luật thơ ông gợi cho tôi nhớ lại những bài Kenneth Rexroth dịch thơ Trung quốc trong đó ông sử

dụng những dòng thơ gồm bảy âm tiết với việc lặp lại của kĩ thuật gọi là trùng âm mà ông học hỏi được từ người Pháp. Tương tự

vậy, Khế Iêm cũng sử dụng những dòng thơ gồm 5, 7, 8 âm tiết có lặp lại những từ khóa đồng thời còn sử dụng kĩ thuật láy phụ âm (alliteration) cũng để lặp lại, vốn là những phương thức rất hữu hiệu trong thơ tiếng Anh Cổ đại (cũng là loại ngôn ngữ một âm tiết như tiếng Việt).

131 • Other Poetry

Những dòng thơ được giới hạn trong khoảng 5 tới 8 từ đơn tiết, mỗi khổ thơ gồm bốn dòng, có hoặc không có vắt dòng, điều này đôi khi tạo ra một đối âm giữa những mô hình đối xứng và không đối xứng. Việc sử dụng kĩ thuật vắt dòng cũng cho phép Khế Iêm viết nên những bài thơ tự sự ngắn vốn phụ thuộc vào tính liên tục của tư duy và cảm nghĩ. Dòng chảy này được tuôn trào dễ dàng hơn nhờ cách diễn đạt thẳng thắn của ông, là cách diễn đạt mà Trường phái Tân Hình thức Mĩ coi là yếu tố quan trọng.

Khế Iêm thường đề cập tới tính khả tín và tính bất xác của người tường thuật, và tính khả tín của điều được tường thuật. Tỉ dụ ông kết thúc bài “Những Cái Hộp” theo cách này: “… Nhưng / tôi sắp nói những điều tôi đã / nói, mặc dù, thà có hơn không, đó / chẳng phải là những điều tôi muốn nói.”

Trong bài “Những Chiếc Ghế”, nhà thơ kể ra cho chúng ta biết rằng những chiếc ghế không là những gì, và là những gì, cho tới khi chúng ta làm mất đi cái từ “Những Chiếc Ghế” qua một nỗ lực nhằm tìm lại được cái thực tại cụ thể của từ đó. Khế Iêm đã thành tựu được điều này ở cuối bài thơ sau một cơn lốc những từ về

những chiếc ghế: “… những / chiếc ghế không ở đâu xa, những /

chiếc ghế ở ngoài mọi điều; những / chiếc ghế chỉ là chiếc ghế.”

Tôi là một nhà phân tâm học và cũng là một nhà thơ, và tôi hiện đang chữa trị cho một nhà thơ trẻ, anh ta cố gắng biểu đạt cho tôi biết điều mà anh ta không thể biểu đạt bằng lời lẽ. Anh ta muốn biết liệu tôi có hiểu được loại trải nghiệm không lời lẽ của anh ta là như thế nào. Tôi đọc bài thơ “Những Chiếc Ghế”của Khế Iêm cho anh ta nghe, và anh ta nói ngay, “Đó chính là điều mà tôi cảm nhận.” Sau đó chính anh ta bắt đầu mô phỏng bài thơ theo nhiều cách khác nhau.

Ba bài trong số những bài thơ hay nhất mà Khế Iêm sử dụng sự

tương phản khả tín/vô khả tín (trong một tập thơ được chuẩn bị rất kĩ lưỡng) là “Bộ Bàn Ăn”, “Trang Sách”, và “Chuyện Đời Kể”.

Thơ Khác • 132

Dù ông thăm dò tính không xác thực của thực tại, nơi mà ranh giới của thời gian và không gian bị xóa nhòa, nhưng ông trả lại cho chúng ta cái thực tại theo một cung cách gần như là Thiền, ở phần cuối những bài thơ này.

Một trong những bài thơ cảm động nhất trong tuyển tập thơ này là bài tự sự “Cái Chết Trên Truyền Hình” trong đó “… Người đàn bà nhận ra cái chết của / con mình trên màn hình nhưng không tin

/ con mình đã chết, và dù rằng một / tin báo tiếp theo như cơn bão tiếp / theo về cái chết của đứa con, bà / vẫn không tin điều mình đã thấy.”

Điều này là một trải nghiệm rất thường thấy nơi những người sống sót sau những cơn tâm chấn (chấn thương về tâm lí, tinh thần).

Leon Klinghoffer, một người bạn của gia đình tôi, là một trong những nạn nhân người phương Tây đầu tiên của phong trào khủng bố đương đại, được dư luận biết tới khá rộng khắp. Ông đã bị bắn bỏ khi đang ngồi trên xe lăn và xác bị ném qua mạn tàu, chiếc tuần dương hạm Achille Lauro [*]. Khi người ta phỏng vấn vợ ông, bà Marilyn, về sự cố này, bà đã trả lời rằng bà có cảm giác đó là chuyện không có thực khi bà chứng kiến sự việc trên truyền hình, rằng trong một thoáng bà cảm thấy là mình vừa coi một sô diễn trên màn ảnh truyền hình.

Trải nghiệm này một phần do kết quả của sự xóa nhòa những ranh giới [giữa hư và thực] trong thời đại bị bão hòa về những phương tiện thông tin đại chúng của chúng ta. Đây là chủ đề trung tâm trong tác phẩm của Khế Iêm, được thể hiện nghiêm túc và đôi khi thậm chí còn là hài hước như trong bài thơ của ông về lon bia Budweiser sặc mùi thương mại, nhằm minh họa những nỗ lực của những nhà quảng cáo muốn bước hẳn vào cõi vô thức của chúng ta.

Khế Iêm là một trong những người lãnh đạo phong trào văn học của chính ông, trong phong trào đó có một số nhà thơ có tác phẩm 133 • Other Poetry

được ông tuyển tập [**] đã đi theo phong cách của ông và tuân thủ những phương thức qua đó ông nhận thức về sự tương phản giữa thực tại và phi thực tại. Phong trào có tên là Thơ Tân Hình Thức Việt ─ tính tân kì một phần do việc sử dụng cách diễn đạt thông tục phối hợp với kĩ thuật vắt dòng hoặc dứt dòng của thơ

không vần. Ông nêu dẫn nguồn gốc của thuật ngữ này từ một tên gọi được dùng để chỉ một khía cạnh của loại Thơ Chan Hòa (Expansive Poetry), là phong trào mà Frederick Turner và tôi khởi xướng nhằm mở lối thoát cho thơ Mĩ thuở đó bị hạn chế trong khuôn khổ thơ tự do trữ tình nặng tính chất tự thú. Như tôi đã chỉ ra trong bài tiểu luận của tôi, “After The Revisionists” (Sau Những Nhà Thơ Xét Lại), rằng Thơ Tân Hình Thức chẳng có gì là mới mẻ, rằng nó chỉ là sự trở về với một truyền thống đã bị chối bỏ

bởi một số những nhà Hiện đại và Hậu hiện đại. Khế Iêm cũng đã nhìn rõ điểm này. Tôi đã không chỉ từ bỏ những gì mà những nhà mô phỏng của chúng ta đã thể hiện khá kì quặc về mặt hình thức, mà còn nhấn mạnh rằng Thơ Chan Hòa (Expansive Poetry) chỉ là một phong trào văn học có sử tính, như những phong trào Hiện đại và Hậu hiện đại. Tôi trông chờ ở Khế Iêm, với thi ca đầy tính sáng tạo độc đáo của ông, sẽ có thể tìm ra một phương thức biểu đạt mới, và có lẽ sẽ mở rộng những gì mà ông và những người đi theo ông đang thể hiện. Về phần tôi, tôi mong mỏi được thấy, nếu như điều tôi muốn thấy thì chưa từng hiện hữu, là sẽ có nhiều bài thơ tự sự rất dài mà thể loại này cho phép thể hiện. Xin đơn cử

một tỉ dụ, là Turner đã hoàn tất ba bài thơ tự sự có độ dài của một cuốn sách.

Tôi rất quan tâm tới những gì mà phong trào của Khế Iêm thực hiện, không chỉ trong thơ ông, mà còn được minh thị trong văn xuôi. Trong bài tiểu luận của ông, “Introduction to Vietnamese New Formalism Poetry”, ông đã xác định rõ ràng những đặc tính chủ yếu của phong trào của ông. Ông cũng đã nhấn mạnh vào một trong những mục tiêu rộng lớn hơn của phong trào khi nói rằng

“Mục đích của thơ Tân Hình Thức là muốn đưa thơ Việt bước ra Thơ Khác • 134

ngoài thế giới, nên mới chú tâm vào dịch thuật, để tìm kiếm người đọc khác ngôn ngữ và văn hoá.”

Từ những gì tôi đọc được nơi Khế Iêm và nơi bản dịch những tác phẩm của những người liên kết với ông, thì với tôi, chừng như

Khế Iêm đã thành tựu được điều vừa nói trên. Ông có tờ tạp chí Thơ của chính ông và ông có dịch một số tác phẩm của chúng tôi sang tiếng Việt. Ông đã trích dẫn câu sau đây trong một bức thư đăng trên trang web www.thotanhinhthuc.org : “Hãy đến với chúng tôi, nơi chốn nhỏ bé và ấm cúng này của thơ, để nâng ly rượu mừng trong ngày họp mặt.” Và thế là tôi đã nâng cao chiếc li của tôi, và tôi xin có lời chúc mừng tác phẩm tuyệt vời của ông, cùng những tuyển tập và những tiểu luận của ông.

Phạm Kiều Tùng chuyển dịch

Chú thích

[*] Leon Klinghoffer [1916-1985] một thương gia Mĩ về hưu, phải ngồi xe lăn. Năm 1985 ông cùng bà vợ đi trên chiếc tuần dương hạm Achille Lauro để kỉ niệm lễ kết hôn lần thứ 36 của hai vợ chồng. Không may cho họ, là tuần dương hạm này bị nhóm khủng bố của Mặt trận Giải phóng Palestine PLF khống chế, đưa yêu sách đòi nhà nước Israel phải trả tự do cho 50 người Palestine đang bị nhà nước Israel cầm tù. Yêu sách không được đáp ứng, lập tức nhóm khủng bố lựa ra một người gốc Do Thái, là Leon Klinghoffer, bắn vào trán và vào ngực ông, khi ông đang ngồi trên xe lăn, rồi ném xác ông qua mạn tàu.

[**] “Thơ Không Vần”, Blank Verse, Tan Hinh Thuc Publishing club, 2006, gồm 64 tác giả. Và “Thơ Kể”, Poetry Narrates, Nxb Lao Động, Việt nam và Tan Hinh Thuc Publishing club, 2010, gồm 21 tác giả.

135 • Other Poetry

GHI CHÚ CỦA TÁC GIẢ

_____________________

Đây là tập thơ đầu tiên của tôi được dịch qua tiếng Anh, sau hai tập thơ vần điệu (Thanh Xuân) và tự do (Dấu Quê), và là một giai đọan thơ hòan tòan khác biệt. Tôi luôn luôn sáng tác bằng tiếng Việt, một ngôn ngữ giúp tôi thể hiện nhuần nhuyễn hồn thơ và nghệ thuật thơ, vì đó là ngôn ngữ tôi yêu mến, và là ngôn ngữ mẹ

đẻ của tôi. Nhưng là một người di dân đến Mỹ, tôi cũng yêu mến miền đất mới của tôi. Và đó là những động lực thúc đẩy tôi làm việc, giới thiệu với bạn đọc Việt, những nhà thơ tiền phong và những phong trào tiền phong Mỹ, đồng thời tìm một phương cách sáng tác mới, dễ dàng trong dịch thuật, giới thiệu thơ Việt một cách hiệu quả đến với người đọc Mỹ. Phương cách đó tôi đã nhắc tới nhiều lần, và để hòan thiện, tôi cũng đã giới thiệu đến người đọc Việt lý thuyết Hỗn Mang (Chaos) và hình học Fractal, áp dụng Hiệu Ứng Cánh Bướm (Butterfly Effect), sự phản hồi (feedback) và lập lại (iteration), vào thơ để có được nhịp điệu tự nhiên. Dĩ

nhiên, để có những sáng tác như ý, chúng ta cần phải có thời gian rất dài để thực hành.

Nhìn lại thơ Mỹ, từ thời hiện đại, từ Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos William, e. e. cummings… nửa đầu thế kỷ 20, cho đến nửa sau thế kỷ từ Charles Olson tới phong trào tiền phong Thơ Ngôn Ngữ (L=a=n=g=u=a=g=e Poetry), thập niên 1980, mà Paul Hoover gọi là Thơ Hậu hiện đại Mỹ, tôi hòan tòan kích động với phong trào thơ Tân Hình Thức (sau này là thơ Mở Rộng), và phong trào thơ trình diễn slam poetry, xuất hiện sau đó và nở rộ

vào những thập niên 1990.

Lý do là thơ Mở Rộng, đã hồi phục thơ thể luật, cân bằng với sự ưu thế của thơ tư do. Hơn nữa thơ Mở Rộng và thơ slam, sử

Thơ Khác • 136

dụng ngôn ngữ thông tục, đưa thơ Mỹ ra khỏi ảnh hưởng hàn lâm, đến với mọi con người, là chức năng đích thực của thơ. Điều này chẳng khác gì thơ Việt, từ cổ điển tới hiện đại, thơ chính yếu, chỉ

phục vụ cho giới cung đình và tầng lớp trí thức. Đó là một cuộc cách mạng thực sự để bước qua thế kỷ mới. Thơ bây giờ không còn quan trọng và ảnh hưởng như những thế kỷ trước, vì nền văn minh điện tóan đã làm cho đời sống con người bận tâm tới nhiều điều khác. Nhưng có điều trái ngược, là tại sao ở mọi nơi, mọi lúc, người làm thơ lại nhiều gấp bội? Tôi cho rằng, thơ vẫn còn sức mạnh tiềm tàng và không hề suy giảm, có khi còn tăng lên, vì thơ

có khả năng đưa con người trở về với đời sống thực, cân bằng với đời sống ảo của internet.

Trở lại với tập thơ, có những bài thơ như “Đọc Chinh Phụ Ngâm”,

“Budweiser”, chúng tôi cần có bài viết đi kèm để bạn đọc hiểu rõ bài thơ hơn. Có những sáng tác không thể dịch ra tiếng Anh, vì cái hay của nó nằm trong ngôn ngữ việt như vở kịch “Ghế và Người”, bài viết về tiến trình thơ tôi của nhà thơ và nhà phê bình Đỗ Minh Tuấn. Tập thơ có được sự giới thiệu của nhà thơ Frederick Feirstein, là điều tôi hân hạnh và cảm động, vì những thành quả nhỏ nhoi ấy của chúng tôi đã được biết đến. Nhưng những thành quả nhỏ nhoi ấy lại là do công sức của rất nhiều người, những dịch giả, những nhà thơ tham gia sáng tác thể lọai thơ này, và xa hơn, những bạn đọc, nhà thơ, nhà phê bình, dịch giả cả trong lẫn ngòai nước đã cộng tác nhiệt tình với Tạp chí Thơ trong suốt 10 năm (1994-2004). Nhân đây, tôi xin gửi lời đa tạ.

Tôi cũng xin đa tạ những nhà biên tập Dr. Carol Compton, Angela Saunders, Richard H. Sindt, những nhà thơ Mỹ Alden Marin, Frederick Feirstein, Frederick Turner, Michael Lee Johnson, Rick Stansberger, Stephen John Kalinich, Tom Riordan, những nhà thơ

Anh James Murphy, Paul Henry, và nhà thơ Úc Phillip A. Ellis đã cộng tác và giúp đỡ tôi rất nhiều trong những công việc kể trên.

137 • Other Poetry

TÂN HÌNH THỨC

VÀ CÂU CHUYỆN KỂ

Khi tôi ngồi uống cà phê ngoài lề

đường và kể lại câu chuyện đã được

kể lại, từ nhiều đời mà đời nào

cũng giống đời nào, mà lời nào cũng

giống lời nào, về người đàn bà và

đàn con nheo nhóc (nơi góc phố được

gọi là chỗ chết, nơi góc phố được

gọi là chỗ sống), kẻ những đường kẻ

bằng than đen; gãy góc, xấu xí như

cái bóng trong tấm hình cũ, như dĩ

nhiên hôm nay ngày mai ngày mốt, như

thế thôi thì thế thôi, biết đâu chừng

nhưng người đàn bà và đàn con nheo

nhóc, vẫn kể lại câu chuyện đã được

kể lại, như người khác đã từng kể

lại, dù chẳng để lại gì ngoài câu

chuyện đã kể, bởi câu chuyện đang tự

kể lại, và không ai, ngay cả người

đàn bà và đàn con nheo nhóc, bước

ra ngoài câu chuyện đã được kể lại.

Thơ Khác • 138

CÁI HỘP

Những rác rưởi ở ngoài lề đường, những

giẻ rách ở ngoài lề đường, những cái

hộp phế thải ở ngoài lề đường, đó

là điều không thể chối cãi, đó là

điều không thể hồ nghi; nhưng tôi sắp

nói những điều tôi sẽ nói, như tôi

cứ nói những điều tôi đã nói, rằng

tôi chật chội, chật chội trong cái hộp

phế thải, như tôi chật chội, chật chội

ở ngoài lề đường; mà tôi không thể

nào bước ra ngoài cái hộp, và cái

hộp cũng không thể nào bước ra ngoài

tôi; những cái hộp đựng giày dép cũ,

những cái hộp đựng quần áo cũ, những

cái hộp toàn đồ lạc xon, những cái

hộp vất vưởng, những cái tôi vất vưởng;

những cái hộp kể chuyện đời cũ, những