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Language
Author: Nguyễn Quí Đức
Published on: 9/21/2016 9:33:16 PM

You hear my native tongue
and think it liquid— a language
in which even wild grasses
reply in rhyme.

I don’t know what’s liquid
but here:

Năm đó hè về
Huế lặng lờ
Xác người 
Nhiều hơn xác ve ve.

That year, summer came,
Huế turned quiet again.
Human bodies outnumbered
cicada shells.

In your native language
breath is word, is spirit.
In mine, breath is fragility.  
Thều thào, thoi thóp.

In my tongue, death is constant.
I can’t think of an adequate translation
for what remains: losses, losses. 

In Huế, we say, mất mát, mất mát.

When I speak of suffering
you alone know I tire of it;
others want me to carry on
so they think they can learn
something of losses —  
They could never.

They have stolen countless countries:
yours and mine, and are stealing them
still. They have stolen their own country
from their own people.

And they ask you and me about losses?

Listen: among the leaves, in the wind,
hear still the murmurs of the masses.
Quanh đây còn tiếng oan hồn nỉ non.

You learned how to say the rosary
with scented beads. I live still
with the scent of incense burning
at a thousand funerals
that summer in Huế.

I owe you more than apologies,
but no more words. I have talked always
of memory and suffering, given details
of where the skin was torn, the unbelievable,
unhealing scars. And I've talked until
I no longer know who you are.

I thank you, for times I couldn't see
that you remember, times I stayed blind.  
My eyes still see nothing but what passed
long ago. I wait for some future that can put
my many parts back together.

But raindrops won't go back into clouds. 
Mấy thuở mưa rơi nước ngược về trời.

September was when we last spoke —
but you no longer remember.

When we last spoke, it was of demons
that inhabit the space we exiles
keep out of sight.

The language of exiles
has nowhere to go
but inside.

There are two kinds of exiles —
those who insist on the illusions
of the new country, and those
who obsess over what was left behind:

Losses, losses — mất mát.

Your mother, in her house down south,
belongs to the first kind — the one with possibilities.
Your father, forever on a plane, hopeless,
back to his island, childhood home,
belongs nowhere.

You who knew this — how did you let yourself
plunge into me, my past?

I am sorry, we’re stuck
between the two kinds: we’re desperate
for a future, but would not make peace with history.  
I am sorry for the hopelessness that is us.

It’s kind of you to have imagined us
you, in southern sunlit Andalusian village
still in mourning, besieged by the ghost
of colonial cruelty and the vanquished.
Me, in my white stucco town
beyond Marrakesh, near the sea,
writing to you of desert and water.

Water, water — Nước, nước, nước.

Water in my language,
Nước: a word we use
to mean nation.

Write me another poem, to speak
of our nations, of how
they took yours and mine, water
cut from the source.

Write, even in this language
imposed on so many, but in which
there’s no translation or truthful
words that speak of our condition:

Mất nước — nation lost.

Such is our obsession we’ve been lost
without our countries, and there can be
no substitutes.

You, uprooted, anchorless,
are on to something: the sooner
you disassociate from me,
the sooner you end your sickness,
your obsession with war and losses.

It’s brave of you to imagine us,
a separate but shared life: binding
our nations’ histories together
to bind us together.

Mấy thuở mưa rơi nước ngược về trời.
Raindrops don’t go back into clouds.

We make plans and rescind,
we are exiles – our lives
consist only of memories — quá khứ.

The language of exiles is spoken
in the past tense — quá khứ.

Sometimes, tired, I let it be:
things were the way they were.
Men act as they will, some
with kindness, some with cruelty.

We thought we could act with love,
the way I chose to sleep on the side
where the moon was luminous,
leaving you the darkness
I thought would soothe your nights.  

In your sleep, you repaired to a language
I didn’t understand.   Your words,
like lovers intertwined, danced
with the rhythm of me
breathing, breathing — thoi thóp,
dancing in time with my sighs.

Outside, cactus flowers bloomed
on the fire escape—but I shielded you,
keeping quiet about how they reminded me
of flashing flares, exposing men in hiding,
exposing the killings of my youth.

But that part of history, even if I tried,
I cannot hide from you. You take it
inside, make my nightmares yours.
Conquistadors, men in green berets,
dark suits, stripped us nation lost.

Afterwards, you went from barrio
to barrio, trying to turn the language
of exiles into poetry. And me, from single
whitewashed rooms of cold cement
to terraced apartments far away,
alone to face my own solitude.

Homes that cannot be home.

We became nomads, modern cities
are the desert we cross, not so much
for salvation, nor for subsistence:
we cross our endless deserts, looking
for ourselves.

You who know this
should have known
love would have been impossible.

We would have been impossible.

The sky changes hues, the moon turns pale,
cactus flowers shrivel after their one night
and fall. My tongue has spoken every inch of
your skin, and I am ready to recede. Before dawn,
we go back to mute despair.

Neither love nor future is possible.

I can only see the past,
and would not see you
until you are no longer here. 

We types of exiles live backwards.

Huế, to go backwards, is where
my mother was born. You would like
the Perfume River, although in Huế  
we would always prefer its native self,
sông Hương: a river that flows
unrushed out to sea, as if the town’s
one thousand years of sorrow
never entered its currents.

Upon the sidewalks, in the shade
of the old flame trees, lovers whisper
lines they think original, unaware
of all the ghosts.

Huế is where mother met father,
fell in love, and I died my first death,
that spring, when it wasn’t enough
for soldiers to kill in the battlefields.

My losses began then, and haven’t ended.

I carry you still,
the way I carry Huế.

But you and I carry the things
we love as we do losses — mất mát,
deep in a place exiles
keep forever out of sight.

- Nguyễn Quí Đức
- photo by Nguyễn Quốc Thành

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