The Freedom of Secret Selves — Poet Phan Nhiên Hạo

Translator’s Note

Phan Nhiên Hạo
BY Linh Dinh

When I first met him several years ago in De Kalb, the medium-sized city in northern Illinois that produced barbed wire and Cindy Crawford, Phan Nhiên Hạo told me, “They don’t know about my secret life as a poet.” We had just slipped inside of his quiet office like conspirators to talk poetry, so I figured “they” were his colleagues (who called him “Howie”) at the university where he continues to work as a research librarian. Despite conducting much of his everyday existence in English, Phan carries out his secret life in his native Vietnamese and writes with the melancholic knowledge of someone whose poetry is doomed to a limited audience abroad and a virtual one online. But “they” could just have easily meant an imagined community in Vietnam, where Phan is not permitted to publish. In the years since, as I have read, studied, and translated this leading contemporary Vietnamese poet, the secret life of Phan Nhiên Hạo has taken on greater significance: his life and poetry, it seems to me now, suggest the predicament and possibility of writing in, to, and from the Vietnamese diaspora.

Born 1967 in Kontum, Phan Nhiên Hạo came of age in a post-war Vietnam shaped by the new regime of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Border wars, food shortages, social marginalization, refugee flight, reeducation camps, and regimes of censorship — these are some of the excesses that a young Phan witnessed and experienced before immigrating to the United States in 1991, where he has lived since. These historical changes background and contextually frame the paradoxical features of his style — a deceptively plain-spoken idiom given to telling secrets as much as keeping them, the ambiguity and unexpected shifts of the images spinning around an emotional center of gravity, even if the emotion can be difficult to pin down, the dislocations of the surreal within the real, melancholic forms of address in search of an audience — as though his poetic vision was trained to the shadows and his poetic ear tuned to the lower frequencies of the dark time which he has escaped.

Essentially a poet of exile, Phan is reluctant to give up exile’s badge and baggage, its restless independence, even when, as the title and body of one of these poems demonstrates, the exile’s cultivated detachment can sometimes feel a little like “Flying a single engine airplane, fuel almost empty, and need[ing] to pee.” The exiled poet often runs the risk of crashing on the ponderous shores of self-assertion, but, thankfully, Phan’s ironic self-awareness, reflexive language, and lightness at the controls, help to safely pilot his craft along its ever precarious lines of flight. The scrupulous solitude of Phan’s trans-Pacific exile “demands ample fuel” indeed; his new poems, as evidenced in “Flying a single engine airplane” and “At Meridian Zero,” register a world-weariness, existential exhaustion, and depletion of resources. Still, Phan insists, as did Joseph Brodsky before him, that exile “has to do with the necessity of telling about oppression.” Consequently, Phan’s poems tell the open secrets of post-war Viet Nam while maintaining the freedom of secret selves.

The exile poet often runs the risk of crashing on the ponderous shores of self-assertion, but, thankfully, Phan’s ironic self-awareness, reflexive language, and lightness at the controls, help to safely pilot his craft along its ever precarious lines of flight.

The poems included here demonstrate Phan Nhiên Hạo’s plurality of vision. They are all new poems, recently published in Vietnamese literary webzines. None of them is included in either of his first two poetry collections in Vietnamese, Paradise of Paper Bells and Manufacturing Poetry 99-04. One of the many things I have come to admire about Phan’s poetry is its sense of time and timing, the measured velocity of his verse, say, the right amount of words at the best speed of delivery. In translating these poems, I have tried to capture and convert this energy into English that is likewise economical and polysemous without being stingy on meaning or overburdened with explanation. In at least two instances worth noting here, this has led to greater departures from the semantic sense of the original text. In “Flying a single engine airplane,” for instance, I translate “ly dị” as “separated,” whereas the Vietnamese carries the stronger sense of the word “divorced.” Also, in “At Meridian Zero,” I translate the last line’s expression of exile as the loss of homeland in the more ambiguous terms of “nothing can grow on this soiled life,” where a more literal rendering of the figurative site of exile in the Vietnamese might read “nothing can grow on a life that has lost is soil.” In the end, these and other decisions may be infelicitous, but the necessary betrayals of my translations are everywhere guided by a fidelity to Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry from the damaged life.

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