Opening words by Hải Ngọc
“The symbolic meanings of water can be reduced to three dominant themes: source of life, means of purification, center of regeneration. These three themes are found in the most ancient traditions and they form combinations of imagery that are the most diverse, and at the same time, most consistent” (Gheerbrant and Chevalier, Dictionnaire Des Symboles).
Present in both the inception of life and endgame of creation, water breeds and destroys, forgives and punishes; brutal and pristine, it exists both inside each human body, as the most private hidden part only our inner selves could hear and feel, and outside, as something we observe, contemplate, immerse ourselves in and delve deep into. The convergence of these infinite pairs of contrary meanings allows water (and its myriad variations) to be an everlasting symbol evocative of poetic meditations and dreams.
We would like to introduce a special selection of five poets’ works that were inspired by obsessions with water. The compositions of these five poets, when juxtaposed, form a narrative that begins with Sea Horse, a poetry collection by Hoàng Hưng. First published in 1988, Sea Horse deserves to be acknowledged as a turning point for Vietnamese post-war poetry. The collection is filled with relentless preoccupations with the sea and the wave, pushing post-war poetry to confront the subconscious realms of anxiety, impatience, longing and passion. Poetry becomes a capturing of the most ambiguous and undefined dispositions which rational experience cannot express. Rereading Sea Horse, keeping in mind the running theme of water’s implications, one could think of the collection as a purification of poetic language, enabling such language to be reborn with a fresh power to reach for the tenebrous, untamed, yet mesmerizing spaces of the internal.
The state of drifting is another significant association of ‘water.’ In the poem The Shelter by Đinh Trường Chinh, memories and trauma from an exilic journey are awakened by the variations of water: “rain,” “sea,” “blood.” There is no purification or rebirth that allows humans to shake off the past, no “shelter” to conceal time; any refuge could also be a confinement from which one must break loose. Drifting, initially a situation of banishment, turns out to be a deliberate choice to become permanently undefined. The Shelter by Đinh Trường Chinh is introduced in this selection as a Vietnamese-language literary work dealing with the sort of traumatic experience that is still absent from worthwhile anthologies and scholarship.
Two poems by Nhã Thuyên in this issue – ocean hours and taste of waters – evoke yet another set of pleasures as we imagine and dream about water: amorphousness. In practice, Nhã Thuyên invariably makes sure not to denominate the genre in which she writes; for Nhã Thuyên, writing, simply and profoundly, is a free experience, a liquefaction of all identities. Writing, therefore, is blended and soft; for Nhã Thuyên, writing opens up a space for multiple voices to resonate and intersect, and therefore the regulation of grammar and rigidness of pronouns must become more graceful and flexible, elusive even. Writing, like water, in challenging boundaries, entices us into the fervent experience of sensuality.
“9 greenishblue poems lacking the word “sea”” by Lê Vĩnh Tài perhaps offers an example for us to contemplate difficult questions about poetry, especially Vietnamese contemporary poetry: How could poetry not disengage from current issues and daily life, and still preserve itself? How could poetry practice its unique politics, the politics of the poet’s individual voice, without disappearing into the voice of the crowd? How could poetry maintain its power when it rejects to be the voice of the powerful? How could poetry talk about pollution without polluting its own language?
Our narrative closes with a haiku collection by Đinh Trần Phương, inspired by visions of water. Now that we have together listened to troubled voices, haunting hidden memories, sleepless impatience and restless concerns, Đinh Trần Phương’s haiku invites to quietly listen and look at the sounds and images of water. It was the attentive experience of looking and listening that brought forth the most profound insights of humanity from Heraclites of Greece, Laozi of China and so on. The lucidity of water could only be discovered with child-like serenity, innocence and not-knowing. It is essential to nourish more not-knowing. To eternally remain surprised by this universe, this life.
It is the only thing that resists the desiccation of perception, emotion and language.
Written during the sweltering days of summer 2016
- translated by Quyên Nguyễn