The is New Year's Eve 2012. A year ago as the world was preparing to enter the front end of 2012, I found myself ushering in the New Year at a street party in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam. It was a fun evening, even for someone of my quickly advancing years, and I knew at the time that the evening would undoubtedly be one of the more interesting and memorable New Year's celebrations that I would be likely to experience in my lifetime.
Today's poetry selection was written by Nguyen Chi Thien, a Vietnamese "dissident" poet who was born in Hanoi and grew up around the seaport city of Haiphong. Mr. Thien, a Vietnamese national treasure, died this year in California at the age of seventy-three. He spent over twenty-seven of his seventy-three years in Vietnamese prisons and "re-education" centers where he composed hundreds of poems, without the aid of pen and paper, and committed them to memory. Each time he had a brief release from incarceration, he would quickly transcribe his accumulated poetry from memory and send the work to publishers outside of Vietnam.
Mr. Thien's first trip to prison came about in 1960 when he bucked the Communist Party line and told his students that Japan was defeated in World War II, not by the Russians, as the Party wanted people to believe, but rather by the Americans when they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was the same year that the following poem, "If Tomorrow I Have to Die," was written.
At another time the poet was jailed for writing "politically irreverent" poems.
Quite a bit of my trip to Vietnam was focused on the country's cultural history. I like the following poem because it has numerous references to that cultural history, a nostalgic look at Vietnam as it was before the malignant impact of the war.
If Tomorrow I Have to Die
by Nguyen Chi Thien
If tomorrow I have to die
I still would not regret my springtime
Life no doubt is lovely, inestimable
But suffering has taken its toll – gone is the best part
In the deserted night I look at the distant stars
And let my soul drift into the past
For a minute I am oblivious to the cruel reality
And forget all about hunger, cold & bitterness…
History takes me back in time
To that golden age of sumptuous pavilions & palaces
To scenes of success at the imperial exams with
long chaise and parasols
To scenes of poor scholars reading through the night
Once again, I find Confucians of integrity
Who choose poverty and stay away from the cities
Then I see virginal and virtuous country lasses
Weaving silk on their looms near a pool with water jets
In dream I witness joyous festivals
And paddy threshing on golden moonlit nights
Images I tenderly nurture in my heart
Where there still lingers the echo of immense river calls
And the smooth clip of a shuttle going back & forth
I love the forests dense and dark
Full of dangers and secrets, exuding with life
I love also and miss the gongs that give the alarm
Sinister-looking thieves’ dens & the path thereto
Scenes of war with horses neighing & troops clamoring
Also fascinate me, bewitch my soul!
Why I do so, I know full well
That in old days there were emperors & mandarins
That life was riddled with injustice
Why is it that I dream only of the better facets,
That only glories of the past seep through to my poetry?
That I am forgetting the seamier side?
Can it be that life today
Is filled with poison in its very innards
Whereas the old society’s defects were mere pimples?