Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry

Black Dog, Black Night is a collection of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, collated and translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover. The collection includes poets from the Vietnamese Writers Association (VWA), which is the government-sanctioned and sponsored writing organization, but perhaps more importantly, it includes Vietnamese writers from outside that group, including many who have or had been imprisoned for their political views and poetic/creative choices.

As a communist country, every form of expression in Vietnam is closely monitored, and only speech sanctioned by the government will see the light of popular publication. Knowing this, Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover set out on a mission to find, translate, and publish/distribute the greatest contemporary Vietnamese poetry they could, regardless of whether those writers were part of the authorized VWA or not. The result is a collection that acts as a study in Vietnamese writing, society, culture, and government; it is at once a virile condemnation of censorship and a championing of Vietnamese creative arts.

The collection is divided into small segments by poet. Each section begins with a brief introduction to the poet; as a western reader new to Vietnamese poetry (as most readers will be, especially anyone who does not read Vietnamese), I found these introductions, though brief, enormously helpful, as was the introduction to the collection, which discusses the realities of writing and publishing in Vietnam, as well as the penalties for going against state sanctioned themes (imprisonment, execution, etc.)

This collection is remarkable, and the styles, voices, and themes of these poets are unique, refreshing, and edifying. Some of my favorites include Te Hanh, whose “Missing My Home River,” begins, “My home country has a dark green river / Its water is like a mirror in which bamboo can see its hair / My soul is a summer noon / covered in shadow all the way to the shining river.” So many of these poets include nature imagery in their poems, but for many western readers, the metaphors and settings will be fresh and new, because unencountered.

Other favorites from this collection are Van Cao as well as Hoang Hung, whose poem dedicated to Nguyen Do lends its name to the title of the collection. Hung is one of the poets who was imprisoned (for thirty-nine months) and sent to a reform camp because he attempted to get his poetry published outside of Vietnam. Another stand out is Thanh Thao, who is the first member of the Vietnamese Writers Association to not be a member of the communist party.

One of the most interesting features of this collection, though, is that it includes poets who lived through the Vietnam (or what they call the American) War, those who are younger and know it only from the stories, those who are natives still living in Vietnam, and those who have expatriated. This provides a rich, complex experience with multiple perspectives and, perhaps, a hint at the changing landscape of and possibilities for Vietnamese literature now and in the future.

“Don’t” by Linh Dinh

According to a theory, the first word

Ever uttered was perhaps “don’t.”

Managing an unruly horde of kids,

The cave mother had to “don’t” nonstop.

Don’t [put that thing in your mouth]!

Don’t [climb up that branch]!

Don’t [wake your father up]!

150,000 years ago, the main purpose of language

Was to prohibit. In many places on earth, now,

The main purpose of language is still to prohibit.

3 Comments on “Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry

  1. ” the Vietnam (or what they call the American) War” — this makes perfect sense to me and yet I never even wondered what they called the war

    Like

    • Yes, reading works in translation, especially non-Western texts, has been eye-opening. I consider myself pretty well-read and educated, but an American reader with an American education, I have definitely been getting some very narrow views of the world.

      Like

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