In March of 1975, in the early stages of their bloody and triumphant march to Saigon, North Vietnamese forces laid siege to Kon Tum, a provincial capital in the Central Highlands, near the border with Laos and Cambodia. Outgunned and abandoned by central command, South Vietnamese defenses chose to retreat, and within two weeks this former resort town had all but emptied out. In a melancholy article, the New York Times described a ‘vast exodus of refugees’ heading southeast, most of them on oxcart or foot. The column of dispossessed stretched 140 miles.
The child of a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, Phan Nhiên Hao was among the lucky few airlifted out of Kon Tum. In a 2002 essay, ‘This Year I Am the Same Age as My Father’, he recalls a curious incident from his final day. Before boarding the military aircraft, the seven-year-old walked to the surrounding fields, where he released his pet cricket, which ‘disappeared in the blink of an eye’, amid smoke and the din of artillery fire. ‘I didn’t want to keep my little cricket in its prison’, he writes, ‘because I sensed my own childhood coming to an end and the misery that awaited me in the days ahead.’ Phan’s father stayed back to fight and was killed a month later. ‘Even now, I still see my father in my dreams from time to time’, he confesses. ‘He remains a symbol of the war and the loss I carry with me throughout life.’
Phan arrived in the United States in 1991 on the Orderly Departure Program, an emigration scheme set up to grant safe passage to southern refugees. Since then, he has written a steady stream of poetry and criticism in Vietnamese. His translator Linh Dinh regards Phan as among ‘the best and the most courageous’ Vietnamese poets of his generation, though this status is not widely known. His work, which is censored back home, appears on diaspora websites and sometimes on his blog. He has mostly ignored – and been ignored by – the circus of American publishing. In 2006, a slim and striking volume of his verse, Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker, appeared, and in 2020 he released another, Paper Bells, translated by Hai-Dang Phan. Both books, from small presses, vanished without trace. In three decades, Phan has given a handful of cagey interviews, avoided the reading circuit, and kept his criticism and nonfiction untranslated. Welcomed to the feast of liberty, he was offered one of two seats, reserved, respectively, for ‘communist dissidents’ and ‘Asian Americans’. He backed out the door and found himself alone.
Phan’s poems address the country’s post-war disasters: hunger and reeducation camps, corruption and market reform. Yet he has resisted the language of victimhood, as well as the first-person confessional mode which has dominated American poetry for the past three decades. ‘A poetics of pious solitude for a neoliberal age, one that has transformed us all into atomized loners’, as Ken Chen recently described it. Rejecting both assimilation and nostalgia, Phan has gone his own way, writing short, spiky, shapeshifting poems, rooted in the present, although Vietnam is never far from his mind: ‘Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat.’ His poetry lays bare a self that, if not exactly erased, is constantly on the run, in lyrics possessed of a fugitive beauty:
Growing up I thought speech could heal
Open a wound, disinfect, then rebandage it . . .
Now in this silence sometimes I see
memory’s two hands reaching out
to clap violently without making a sound
Phan has made a virtue of displacement, finding a language for the strangeness of his exile, in which nothing can be taken for granted and the consolations of Western society ring hollow. At the same time, he satirizes all forms of oppression, and maintains what Hai-Dang describes, in the introduction to Paper Bells, as a ‘commitment to a more just memory and history for South Vietnamese.’ In this sense, Phan neatly inverts much ethnic literature, whose protagonists are forever striving to break into society, setting aside issues of morality and justice for the melodrama of identity. The context is important. ‘Vietnamese American literature fulfils ethnic writing’s most basic function’, argues Viet Than Nguyen in Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016). ‘It serves as proof that regardless of what brought these others to America, they or their children have become accepted, even if grudgingly, by other Americans.’ Phan’s modest body of work, composed in obscurity, shows one way out of this impasse.
Born in 1967, Phan lived in Vietnam until he was twenty-four. At school he had to overcome what he described as ‘the political difficulties of my family background’, since anyone associated with the southern government and military were targeted after reunification. Graduating with top grades, he was admitted to the Teachers’ College in Saigon, where he fell in with the city’s avant-garde writers, among them Nguyên Quôc Chánh, whom Hai-Dang has described as ‘the unacknowledged trailblazer of post-1975 Vietnamese poetry.’ This emerging tradition was marked by a kind of rough, earthy and – truth be told – undisciplined surrealism. (Unlike most European writers, surrealists were not censored after the war, because of their ‘communist sympathies.’) A representative poem by Nguyên Quôc Chánh runs:
The sun lunges forward crossing a boundary puncturing a late sleep
An egg hatches a sound.
I grip my hand holding a shadow and releasing it into a glass of water
On the silent shore the sea of memories spares two shells odorless and empty.
Phan’s early verse conveys a similar longing and restlessness, though from the first he has been more focused and patient, and his images sharper: ‘time puffs out/its bronzed chest/pinned with medals/each one for a day I lived/in the pits of pain’.
Moving to the United States in 1991, Phan worked different odd jobs – janitor, newspaper delivery man – before settling in Northern Illinois, where he is now a research librarian at its state university. In the 1990s, he briefly lived in Little Saigon in Orange County and studied American Literature and Culture at UCLA. ‘My first reaction to American literature was disappointment’, he has said. ‘But then I understood that the direct, non-fussy quality . . . is suitable to a pragmatic culture, with its focus on results.’ He studied the country’s plainspoken modernism, translating William Carlos Williams, Frank O’Hara and Charles Simic, among others. These influences tempered his youthful lushness, making for a verse of lucidly registered mysteries, in which the border between documentary and interior report blurs. In ‘Night Working as a Janitor in Seattle’, he writes:
Peering into countless toilets each day
by the end they become mere loudspeakers to you
babbling fouls songs
about desperation and hope
. . .
You drive home through clouds of steam
rising from street grates and manholes like coffee for the waking city
on your right is the ocean
a white ship sinking
The tone is oneiric, even vatic, though leavened by self-deprecation, and firmly grounded in the world. In a typical move, Phan goes from material to metaphorical and then back to material description, catching the drift of a mind under duress, without framing the anecdote as an ‘emotional crisis’ of the kind favored by lyric confession. Nothing is explained, let alone resolved. One dismal mystery has given way to another. That the poet registered both suggests he will live to fight another day.
Anonymity and defenselessness are two of Phan’s great themes, and neither should be confused with loneliness. He is less interested in American society than its landscapes – eerie farmlands and fantastical cities – where vaguely threatening activity plays out: ‘Sixty-five miles west of Chicago/the day smells like peanut butter/on the fields of glory tractors are busy drawing/the austere face of freedom’. In a parody of the immigrant narrative, where the newcomer is remade in the melting pot, Phan circulates in the country’s bowels, like a parasite or microbe: ‘In the Coca-Cola Museum/I pissed more than I drank/of the different sodas/tricking my thirst/I heard America burp’. Or again, more ruefully, in ‘Like the First Time’:
Like the first time I was swallowed whole by
a serious suit worn for an interview
on the forty-eighth floor of an ugly log-like building
in downtown Los Angeles
standing in the elevator I saw I resembled a matchstick
struck against the day’s dampness
The speaker is at once combative and vulnerable, clever and bewildered. ‘The first time’ is a nice touch, undercutting the sense of crisis, turning loss of self into a routine. Phan has spoken of the influence of Camus, whose books he read as a teenager: ‘At a very deep level, Existentialism has influenced the way I look at life. This strong belief in the essential isolation of man has helped me cope in the US. Without this philosophical foundation, I must have already killed myself just by living here.’
Several of the poems in Paper Bells recount trips to Vietnam, taken, it seems, after a decade away. These are looser, longer, less internal, and more direct, closer to speech. If in the United States Phan is primed for survival, back home he is wound up to attack. Favored targets include politicians, royalty, tourists and businessmen:
Camped out in the Gentleman’s Club chewing dog meat
the worldly smart asses talk big
then stumble home
to hang themselves upside down
in the style of bats.
Those shady dealmakers
clowns (who are rightly
scorned), travel in packs through the slums
plotting land grabs.
These lines – from ‘Regarding the Spiritual and Social Situation in Vietnam Today’ – are buoyed by outrage and revulsion, ballasted by social concern, and tinged by a kind of caustic patriotism. Time and again, Phan is drawn to extremes of feeling by the spread of greed and commerce, which has deformed a place he once loved: ‘Da Lat now has gotten fat,/With streets stretched way out, houses recklessly thrown up./Motor scooters have all stolen the peace of morning’. Still more powerfully, he writes about poverty, and the shame of living decently as others stuffer:
Now imagine a child
A small child
wandering the street of Saigon for a living
in a country where the poor have two choices:
to take a piss in the street
or hold it.
Keep holding that image until your head
And you catch a whiff of your own life
Is Phan Nhiên Hao a great poet? Probably not, or not yet. The ‘homespun’ technique Hai-Dang praises can only be stretched so far; often, it snaps into a kind of doggerel: ‘History is a series of seizures/If lucky we live in the meanwhile/in periods of peace’. Phan’s verse is not as burnished as Bei Dao’s or as consistently rich as Luljeta Lleshanaku’s – two poets that he resembles. Still, he is a serious and independent-minded writer whose willingness to confront politics and history without self-pity marks him out in the American landscape. He is also at heart a social realist, exposing the operation of power and siding with its casualties. Lines like these don’t lose their urgency:
When the nameless are executed in the city’s square,
write their faces in blood, and never wash your hands –
not until freedom spreads like soap bubbles
from scrubbing history’s shameful spots.
Read on: Pierre Brocheux, ‘Reflections on Vietnam’, NLR 73