By John Balaban

from Issue 12: Bodies


Three Mountain Pass

A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene

the cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,
the black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
and shaky in his knees, to mount once more?

—Hồ Xuân Hương

Hồ Xuân Hương is the woman who, around 1800, changed Vietnamese expectations about poetry . . . what it could be about, how it could come at the reader. Writing in the classical lu-shih compressed "regulated verse" form that Vietnamese inherited from China, in much the same way that English assimilated the Italian sonnet, she turned it into something subversive and playful. First of all, she chose to write not in Chinese, but rather in the calligraphic system called Nôm,the 1,000-year-old script that represents Vietnamese speech. By using Nôm, she could play with the language spoken by the masses, toying with Vietnamese word tone—the six pitches that can fall on a syllable—to change a word’s meaning, sometimes with naughty shifts: Deo, "to carry," with the high level monotone, is one thing; deo, with a falling tone, means "a cliff face or escarpment," while deo, with a high rising tone, is "to have sex." Pairs of such words with tones and word order reversed can suggest hilarious meanings to the Vietnamese ear, so that in a poem which refers to a Buddhist nun’s "saying her rosaries all night long," a reversal in tones suggests that she was doing something else all night long.

In the fundamentalist, neo-Confucian world in which Hồ Xuân Hương lived, in which impropriety was punished by the sword, the human body never appeared in art and sex was a forbidden topic. Yet poem after poem of Hồ Xuân Hương referred to sex and to the body. She got away with this because, primarily, she was outrageously clever in her verse, something Vietnamese have always prized. She never really directly described the body, but only referred to it indirectly, either through tonal suggestion (the proper thing is said, but the risque meaning is echoed) or through imagery (where a mountain cleft is not just . . .).

Bear in mind Hồ Xuân Hương’s legendary cleverness as we read the following poem, which I was recently asked to translate by a famous Vietnamese poet for a calendar he was editing, I hadn’t included the poem my collection of translations, Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương, but it is included in many of her books in modern Vietnamese.

Girl Napping

A summer breeze from the south
has let the girl relax into deep sleep.

Her bamboo comb has fallen from her hair.
Her red bodice has slipped off her breasts.

Two hills on Fairy Island offer fragrant tastes.
Peach Blossom Spring wells up untouched.

Lords, so reluctant to come or go,
finally leave, sorry to see it end.

What does one make of "Girl Napping?" It is almost certainly a fake. First of all, no one can find an original in the ideogrammic Nôm that she wrote in, only in the modern, Roman-alphabet Vietnamese that became popular in the early 20th century, nearly 100 years after her death. Secondly, it is a plain and obvious poem, looking on a woman’s body in a leering way. Hồ Xuân Hương would have been embarrassed and appalled. By comparison, "Three Mountain Pass," the poem that opens this essay and that "Girl Napping" might be trying to imitate in its last two lines, is much naughtier; much more acid in its reference to "gentlemen" (quan tu) or "lords."

But this may be the price of great originality: imitation. After her death in the 1820s there were a number of women-popular singers in taverns-who called themselves "Hồ Xuân Hương." She had become a type: the woman who was out there, who dared to talk about forbidden things in poetry. Her imitators were not only women of dubious social standing. As the decades passed, she gathered so many male imitators that many Vietnamese today believe that she was a fictional creation of a mandarin who did not dare pen his name to such poems.

John Balaban is an American poet, translator, and authority on Vietnamese literature. Balaban’s first published collection of verse, After Our War (1974), was a Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets. In 2000 he released Spring Essence, a collection of poems by Hồ Xuân Hương. Balaban has written other works that draw on his experiences in Vietnam. His anthology Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award. He is currently the poet-in-residence and professor of English in the creative writing program of North Carolina State University.

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