Author’s note and acknowledgment:
This critical essay belongs to my personal research project entitled Underground Voices (2011-2013), partially sponsored by the Arts Network Asia, which aims to examine marginalization in Vietnamese contemporary poetry and the avant-garde poets of its Post-Renovation period. The entire project, including five essays and one documentary video, first appeared in Vietnamese language on Da Màu Magazine (online independent literature magazine www.damau.org). A few changes have been made from the original publication.
I acknowledge the Arts Network Asia for supporting me to undertake this project in the first place and thank the editors of Da Màu for publishing and giving me permission to reproduce these essays. My deep thanks to David Payne for providing many insightful comments and encouragement, as well as sharing in friendship and languages.
An exerpt of this essay was first published on ASYMPTOTE journal, October 2015. Thanks to ASYMPTOTE for allowing us to republish the whole essay on AJAR.
Even though the pioneering poet Nguyen Quoc Chanh has ensured his own marginalization by rejecting censorship of his work by the authorities, referring to him as ‘experimental’ or ‘edgy’ seems inadequate to me, or even unfair, when such labels have become almost meaningless in Vietnam with regard to the artistic merits of creative works, implying nothing more than an attitude that isn’t in line with the official views on literature more-or-less imposed by state-run literary bodies, or at best a very embryonic stage of a new direction in Vietnamese poetry. It is true that there are many points in Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s life and work that enable us to reflect on how an artist can use his or her own self as a witness, or as a piece of evidence, in order to reveal the strongly oppressive conditions of a society within which the artist is both being oppressed and striving to fight against oppression. And perhaps some readers will see such a poet as a symbol of conscience or self-sacrifice, like a legend in the darkness. Here, however, I do not want to exploit the case of Nguyen Quoc Chanh as a means to examine the difficult and antagonistic relationship between an artist and the authorities in contemporary Vietnam; although, of course, Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s courageous existence in such a position of confrontation has touched me deeply, and I think it more or less provides inspiration for efforts to liberate art and encourages artists to make independent choices. Based on my personal observations as a young person with little real experience of the period of explicit protest poetry by poets such as Nguyen Quoc Chanh within the literary scene in Saigon at the beginning of the millennium, the relationship between the artist and the authorities, though not completely changed, should perhaps no longer be seen as the biggest constraint on creative people and the development of the arts in Vietnam. It is true that Nguyen Quoc Chanh has never received any recognition from mainstream arts organizations in Vietnam, and his name may never be included on the list of writers honored by the Literary Association or the nation. He himself refuses to appear in mainstream cultural spaces, which he identifies with slavery to official views on literature. But I want to ask: is such recognition really important for the author and his readers? I hope that the answer is no. There seems to have been a change in the degree to which the assessment of a writer’s standing and the merit of his or her works is dependent on the authorities or those who represent the orthodox view. Poets, regardless of whether their own political views are aligned with or distinct from the official line, have realized that the authorities and the cultural censorship agencies have no say in judging their art. No, I don’t want to view Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s poetry only as a symbol of resistance and protest, difficult as it may be to distinguish the literary merits from the social and political implications of Chanh’s poems, which serve as warning signals inextricably linked to the time and space in which they first appeared.
In this small essay, the essential thing that I want to do (which is also the most honest and simple thing that I am able to do at this point) is to explore how I first encountered Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s poems, and how they remain with me, both as an imprint of the time in which he has lived and worked, and as a timeless expression of language. Honestly, the longer I spend with his words, the harder it seems to find a better path into the world of his poetry. The lingering impressions left by his collections, with their compelling themes and evolving use of language and tone over time, are just like overgrown branches that I’m taking hold of with both hands, in order to grope towards the light and to know that I haven’t given up half way.
Each of Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s poetry collections are like fragments of history, not just figuratively, but as actual unique pieces of physical evidence of the social and literary landscape that he has experienced. His first collection, Sun Rising at Night (Đêm mặt trời mọc), had only just been published in 1990, with the required number of copies submitted to the authorities in June of that year, when it was recalled before it had time to reach a wide audience; afterwards, as Nguyen Quoc Chanh recounted: “When Sun Rising at Night was seized in 1990, I had been feeling that language, taking the false form of resolutions and slogans, was at risk of exhaustion and self-deception, but I stirred things up as much as possible to avoid those two outcomes.” The reason that it was withdrawn, and also attacked, was certainly due in part to some ‘political’ verses, in the which the poet expressed his life and his reaction to the context in which he was living, tainted with despair and full of hidden meanings, with a mocking, derisive tone. Published concurrently with other post-war poems in the North (that is to say, in the early 1990s), for example the works of Nguyen Duy and Thanh Thao, what is markedly different in the works of Nguyen Quoc Chanh is that he looks back at the war, not through the torment of a soldier’s experience, but through measured observations, filled with the melancholy of a shared past, a past that forms part of the much longer flow of history. He defined his generation: “Our generation/Piggybacking on the past/A disabled figure from the war”. And he reflected on the time following the war: “Paper money/smelling of gunpowder/and wages/the corpses of war”.
The collection Inanimate Weather (Khí hậu đồ vật), which came out in 1997 after a difficult process to secure a publishing license, is an attempt to penetrate, or perhaps to come to terms with being trapped in, the messy, complicated realm of language in order to form a personal artistic view. The representation of a living space, with a cramped, suffocating and murky atmosphere covering poems that combine words and images in unfamiliar ways to create a strange reality perhaps caused barriers for readers at that time, and this work remains difficult to penetrate even now. The turning point for Nguyen Quoc Chanh in dealing with both his own creative efforts and the surrounding literary context was marked by the publication of the e-book Of Metaphorical Identity (Của căn cước ẩn dụ) at the end of 2001 on the online forum Talawas. Beginning with the strong lines in the Preamble, it is immediately clear that this collection is like a landmine detector, or a bird that warns of the approaching storm: the devastating impact of the collection comes primarily not from its poetic quality, but rather from the stance of an aggrieved poet towards the State censorship mechanism of the publishing system in Vietnam.
“The fear of being labeled ‘reactionary’ quickly turned into a degrading experience. It stifled creative ability through the various artifices encoded in the phenomena known as viết-lách. Lách in the process of writing is considered clever, but in reality it is just a kind of self-deception. It is a mindset that becomes the habit of the colonized. It is as if the Vietnamese people have completely lost the will to be human, which is the consciousness of individual freedom.
[…] Writing, printing and publishing with permission is a method of providing a helping hand to the reactionary, as a way of ‘giving them enough rope to hang themselves’. It does not give the reactionary much of a push, it only adds more accomplices to the conspiracy to smother individual freedom.”
Following this e-book, Nguyen Quoc Chanh participated in the samizdat poetry milieu in Saigon, contributing to the 2005 collection, Cutting and Drilling Concrete (Khoan cắt bê tông), which brought together 23 authors through the Giấy Vụn Publishing House, and printing his personal poetry collection Hey, I’m Here (Ê, tao đây) in the same year. Since that collection, occasional poems, notebook entries and personal opinions have appeared in the Tiền Vệ online magazine, but as of now Nguyen Quoc Chanh has has not released any further poetry collections, including the previously-announced collection Die, Bastard (Mày tiêu rồi). Most recently, Nguyen Quoc Chanh held an exhibition of pottery and earthenware objects, which to my regret I have only seen through photographs, and I want to mention this because for me, this endeavor and the finished products express a powerful conception of poetry that is more important than outward beauty. At this point in time, the poet/his poetry following the path of language seems to have a found a place to reside, whether a safe haven or a precarious perch, whether a release from feeling or a falling into despair: that which was intended to be a sun rising in the night, a light shining in the darkness, has retreated into the darkness to rediscover itself, it has let go, pouring out like a broken pipe, and it has rejected language in favor of ideas in the living shape of the earth and the fire. What shapes the destiny of a poetry collection, of poetry, if not the awareness of its desires and the tragedy of its existence? This consciousness reveals strength of spirit that will not compromise with what Nguyen Quoc Chanh refers to without compunction as ‘reactionary dogma’. His refusal to compromise is above all a way to assert his personal freedom, as can be seen in his inner battles, which are an expression of an ongoing negative process within his creative activities. The negative always signifies a parallel process: destruction and cultivation, tearing down and building up, death and birth.
This conflict within Nguyen Quoc Chanh awakened a dream, a desire and also a tragedy, which can be seen as a consistent concept throughout his creative works: the dream of freedom (please permit me not to talk further about that thing called ‘freedom’, just to preserve its abstract and meandering beauty). This overarching theme in all its various forms has, I think, its own distinct meaning in the poems of Nguyen Quoc Chanh, because it is not just a general dream or a shared ideal, or an implicit property of the private realm of poets and poetry, and its voice is also not just expressing a an author’s permanent obsession with the suffocating climate and imprisoned space of society and poetry, but instead becomes the voice of shared concerns on the part of both writers and readers, and in particular by those authors burdened by Vietnam’s past. Even more than this, it is as if the change in the poet’s perception of freedom determines his whole conduct with regard to the art of writing poetry and his choice of language and tone in every phase of his life and creative work. Many years previously, in his first collection Nguyen Quoc Chanh had sketched out a self that was free and full of life and hope, a self that enlarged itself through being exiled and choosing to exile itself:
I am the sprouting seed in the hand of the sorcerer
I am the failed harvest of the drought
I am condemned to life in the sand and dust
I am thrown into jail, smashed up in the darkness
I have forgotten myself
Under the grinding teeth of the sun
Under the buffeting tropical rain
Under the gloom of repentant twilight
I grow strong
(Freedom – Sun Rising at Night)
Like young love, ‘freedom’ is actually the life force of an individual or a dream, a sustaining and liberating vision. But something about that dream sends shivers down my back, not because it brings in the light, but because it reveals the path to overwhelming darkness. In the opening lines of the collection Inanimate Weather, Nguyen Quoc Chanh confirms and commits himself to this concept: “The poet is an apostle always proclaiming the dream of freedom.” It could be said that Inanimate Weather is the darkest of Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s collections, even though it is filled with images of the sun and of sunlight; the richness and energy of the darkness cause concurrent feelings of exhaustion and hardship, excitement, unbridled ecstasy and destructive pain.
In the morning I face the sun, shadows falling behind my back and sunlight piercing my chest,
At midday I face the sun, shadows pouring around my feet and sunlight revolving on my hair,
In the afternoon I face the sun, shadows falling behind my back and sunlight still piercing my chest.
(Untitled – Inanimate Weather)
The dream of freedom here has become the motivation for a hopeless journey, enduring the pain of wounds inflicted by the arrows of time. Innermost secrets lie naked under the eyes of time, people and all of existence. Or perhaps there are no longer any secrets at all? In the murky encirclement of the dense system of metaphors interwoven throughout every poem, the collection Inanimate Weather creates an image in my mind of a prisoner trying to escape from his own cramped body, to make an escape through his own skin, skin regularly burned by the sun, burning in the darkness, a skin full of burns, to escape from this frozen dead state of existence, like the cold mechanical ticking of a clock in the night. It seems as if the ecstatic versifying of his inner world, with its blend of love and physicality, the torment of memory and the illusory squalls of light/darkness are the most enduring feelings in this collection; the dream of freedom is still attached to the dissolute personal world of a poet. But on the journey to an imaginary sea, this dream had to change: while flying over highways, and over the alleys of the city, it was caught, it was flung back, and it was unjustly beaten. Then in Of Metaphorical Identity, ‘freedom’ has become like a brand on the packaging of a line of products produced following an anti-colonial war. From here on, Nguyen Quoc Chanh no longer puts forward a dream of ‘freedom’, he just exposes the paradoxes around him and attempts to tear off the false disguise of freedom which he sees in the scarred image of the past and the present. Although the narrative pieces in the work Local Exhibition (Triển lãm bản địa), a long monologue sequence, don’t refer explicitly to ‘freedom’, the verses slam into the body, which vomits out the hidden tragedies not of a single individual but of a sinking community, vessels thirsty for freedom sinking beneath the surface of the water, leaving only slime. Reading segment IV, for instance, I found it hard to breathe due to the condensation and congestion of time, memory and reality being revealed; they were all pressed together within a framework of thick, overcrowded words, like a collage, a film that makes the viewer’s eyes flicker and twitch through jump cuts and images all jammed together, overlapping, fragmented and chaotic:
Liquid pools within the hand, the artery under the heel of the palm is blocked. The blood of many decades cannot reach the brain. Fugue of a bottle beating on the head. Dislocated, a group of people who couldn’t reach the sea in time, buried in the sand at dawn, a rising stanza. A rhapsody of felled trees. Extinguish the candles, eat the cockroach’s bread, a lane ending at the river. A torturous cave, cold winds from all directions blowing through a drain. A city that doesn’t sell sex, out-of-work callgirls sinking into nostalgic song. Stuffed animals, licking on the reason for the vastness of it. Perhaps colored pencil clouds, perhaps a path leading to fallen trees. Every morning, the face eats itself on a sleepless dish, swallowing ragged breaths behind slightly open doors. Something very rushed, something that did not go anywhere. My abdomen is pinched, on a 33-degree tilt. It could be at any time at all. Return on your back or go forward on your stomach. Be naked or…? And the bones will…? The sea, the final fetus, birds covered in oil, unable to fly away. A door ajar, a face askew. Make a still life of teeth, exhibit the whole mouth. I am alone in the corner smiling. I won’t make a sound, and I don’t know if it is the top or the bottom of the well. To see the meaninglessness that is filling up eternity.
(Local Exhibition– Of Metaphorical Identity)
And when we come to the collection Hey, I’m Here (Ê, tao đây), the dream of freedom only bares its flesh when various disguises are torn off, while at the same time each poem is a protest. With a blunt and challenging tone, with short, compact sentences like modern proverbs and sayings, with alliteration, Nguyen Quoc Chanh takes advantage of certain characteristics of the Vietnamese language to capture the quality of urban life, devoid of emotion, rejecting lyricism (which had been evident in his in previous collections) and eliminating every soaring metaphor in order to expose the conditions of slavery in which people are living; self-enslavement is the biggest obstruction to survival in each stage of the character’s life, and his restlessness seems to make this even more of a mockery.
He has one head but up to four shadows.
He has fluid filling three-quarters of his head.
He despises his head but adores his shadow.
He hates solids and craves liquids.
He puts his head in a plastic bag.
He hangs his shadows dangling in the room.
He beats his head and strokes his shadow.
He’s been doing the same for thirty years.
(Three poems - Hey, I’m Here)
So, the constant dream of freedom that is an essential, enduring factor in Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s conception of the poet was born in abstract reflection, bearing the personal nature of youth, and has at last become a series of melancholy insights into the generally inhumane living conditions of the community. The sense of yearning for the beauty of the Buddha and Jesus has gradually been obscured by mundane objects in the life of the individual and the society, changing from proclamation to derision, and from attempts to capture the poetic beauty of metaphors to a method of creating a realistic image that contradicts those images of freedom that were previously displayed in Local Exhibition. At times I was confused, wanting to distinguish between the public poet and the private poet, the one who speaks to community issues and the one who only values personal matters, the one willing to leave the search for the poetic values of language in order to speak out with a strongly individual voice, but an individual voice that could speak for many... Previously, I viewed Nguyen Quoc Chanh as a clear example of someone changing from a private poet to a public poet, as through in his successive collections his quest into the interior world of the poet was inexorably replaced by indignation and strong condemnation in response to the general problems of the society, of the Vietnamese people, and of the nation. Now, I find I was mistaken: the personal in Nguyen Quoc Chanh has transcended the dimensions of the poet himself and has taken on the nature of a public gathering. Has not the dream of freedom of which he spoke transcended the abstract meaning of poetry? It is as if he is even ready to destroy his own ego, created by his imagination and poetic creation, and turn it into a piece of physical evidence, a reflection of himself and of the important issues facing the community, the people and the nation finding a strange unity in his poetry. Awareness of the destiny of the dream can become an implicit signal, an implicit structural form, submerged in each of Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s poems, an underlying element binding together concerns and observations, binding together phrases and images that seemed to be disconnected and chaotic in his poems. I envision he knows clearly that abstract dreams of spiritual ‘freedom’ are no longer capable of comforting and soothing the dissatisfaction he feels with the institutions of society, and there is no absolute spiritual freedom in the world of poetry; freedom needs to be recognized in its full pathetic reality, and it needs to be expressed in the form of specific demands and responses to the power that is suppressing it. He understands that freedom is a way that doesn’t yet have a way, an arduous struggle, a Ulyssean voyage. He understands that freedom, before it comes to pass, needs to escape from the gulag. In the fight between light and darkness, he understands that it belongs to the darkness, to the shadows of the past, of the time in which he is living, where space and time are getting colder (like the title of one of his poems). He understands that the dream of freedom may not be able to respond to the call of hope and life that is a reflection of desperate phantoms facing their end. Perhaps he himself recognized that the face of that freedom had been disfigured, and the body of that freedom had shrunk away from the sky and the dissolute sea, it had crept into a refuge beneath a face distorted in outrage, with darting eyes always seeing clearly the walls of the prison.
The marked change in the tone and voice of his poetry after this, especially in the poems that directly expressed his protest, are another facet that shows the strange unity between the private person and the public person in Nguyen Quoc Chanh. Each of his individual creations at that time became a way to express his poetic attitude to the reading and writing community around him. When his work first appeared, Nguyen Quoc Chanh must have been provoked by the aesthetic of mainstream poetry at that time, still burdened by ‘socialist realism’, especially in the north, as seen in the paradoxical imagery of this allegory:
I was trapped under the wings of a swarm of flies
And sang out with their buzzing
I carried dead bodies in my blood
The flies took me out on their backs
(Flies – Sun Rising at Night)
Still showing his passion for redrawing human portraits, which is also a way of drawing a self-portrait, Nguyen Quoc Chanh objectifies himself, twisting his face in all directions to observe, like a multi-faced wooden statue denied the discovery of the world of imagination and emotion:
Looking straight on: my face is immovable
Looking on an angle: my face is slanted
Looking from above or below: my face is soiled
(Post-, Post-, but not really Post- ... – Hey, I’m Here)
In fact, this face that he twists to observe has had its meaning as a manifestation or expression of the individual, a representation of his identity, degraded in order that it might become a symbolic face, the face of the community or even the face of the nation. It is a tangible thing, but at the same time it is also the property of a public museum, a museum of human memories. His poetry is no longer merely a reflection of himself. The individual has been unified with history; language describing the individual intersects with language interpreting history. The body of the individual has become a fictional autobiography in material form, or it has become complicated in the same way as the surrounding social climate. From this perspective, if there is a portrait of Chanh, it could be visualized as a self-portrait that has placed itself, or has been placed, to soak in an extremely toxic solution–I don't know who it is that prepared this solution–and then, that portrait, or self-dissolution, or poisonous weed springing up, becomes a litmus paper to test that same solution. I think that the reader can more or less measure the toxicity of the society in this portrait, through which he exposes himself to us through language.
The Communal Human emerges most powerfully when Nguyen Quoc Chanh really pours his outrage into poetry, hurling violent words and intoning with a muscular, tense voice; language is no longer a means for him to explore and create ideas, it becomes a tool of ideas, and he rejects/abandons the attempt to ‘write poetry’ in contemplation of language in order to find a way to optimize the performance of these ‘language tools’. The unrestrained language in the radical outlook and challenging, blasphemous tone of Hey, I’m Here and in some other poems not included in any collection can be read, from this perspective, as a rational strategy to use language to ‘brainwash’ the consciousness of the reader, which implicitly places its hope in the direct effect of language. Eliminating metaphors and imagination, eliminating the personal narrative voice, Nguyen Quoc Chanh does not hesitate to use taboo words, to exploit the profane humor of colloquial speech and slang, and to use definitions and bold assertions structured like folk proverbs in order to speed language up for the city streets; everything has become fitting for an open display of blasphemies, no longer hidden behind festival masks, creating a strong voice in reaction to contemporary mainstream poetry. The irony, introspection and outrage about contemporary life can be felt in the way he arranges his words to form slogans, so that ‘Vietnam’ becomes an inspiring monument enduring attacking darts, as in the following poem:
To kill rats, there is nothing better than the rat-killing glue biotechnology of Vietnam.
To kill writers, there is nothing better than herding them into the Literature Association of Vietnam.
To kill students, there is nothing better than awarding them doctorates in Vietnam.
To cheat gullible people, there is nothing better than being a spiritual leader in Vietnam.
To play games with puppets, there is nothing better than being a delegate to the National Assembly of Vietnam.
To play games with civilized culture, there is nothing better than to be a citizen of the capital of Vietnam.
To know how tomorrow will be, there is nothing better than to listen to a fortune teller in Vietnam.
To know how the past was, there is nothing better than to read the history of the Communist Party of Vietnam.
To know where the present is leading, there is nothing better than to drive a vehicle through the streets of Vietnam.
To be inspired to debauchery, there is nothing better than feasting on dog meat on the sidewalk in Vietnam.
To be inspired as a reactionary, there is nothing better than passing through customs in Vietnam.
To be inspired to heroics, there is nothing better than going down into the tunnels of Vietnam.
To understand the meaning of the word blandishment, there is nothing better than to be a citizen of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
(Blandishment– Hey, I’m Here)
I imagine how Nguyen Quoc Chanh injected a stimulant into his words, and how these words, impassive, radical, angry or sneering as they went about the streets in their naked and distressed bodies, at all times caused severe provocation. Nguyen Quoc Chanh's dense urban language doesn't seem to be just a tactic or creative technique, but instead reveals the flesh-and-blood relationship of the poet with the city (Saigon) where he has mostly lived and within which he seems to have immersed himself. A fair relationship, expressed in the way he treats the city, at the same time tender and detached: tender when he buries himself in the language of the streets, and detached when he observes it. Nguyen Quoc Chanh owes no birthplace debt to Saigon, a city rapidly modernizing but at the same time bearing a heavy heritage of the past, or of a mythical past, and he seems to have never expressed a sense of nostalgia for his own past in like that expressed by outstanding poets of his age such as Tran Tien Dung and Nguyen Quang Thieu. He is like a wild wolf in the city, but not lost or uncertain about where he resides. He brought the wild dark ego of the rivers of Bac Lieu into the city of Saigon to test his tensile strength as a piece of evidence/a witness. No nostalgia, no attachment and no recollection of his roots. His identity, if he has one, lies in his collision with those spaces in which he lives. Of course, this collision is also stressful: not infrequently the urban space oppresses his body, coerces his thoughts and torments his poetry, and he constantly has to release this pressure by intense strain of reason. Perhaps I feel Chanh's poems relay life from the rebellious graffiti-covered walls, the unflinching defiance or reckless audacity of city-dwellers to defend themselves in life. The poem Fuck Until the Head Explodes (Đụ vỡ sọ), printed in the collection Drilling and Cutting Concrete, can be read like a Party traitor’s slogan sprayed on the walls of the city in the workers’ residential areas. The poem leads the reader through intense interrogations about the words which he claims are the most beautiful (though rarely written) in Vietnamese: Cunt, Dick and Fuck, asserting that “after 10 centuries of stewing by the Chinese, Cunt, Dick and Fuck have taken on other colors: Vagina, Penis and Intercourse.” With language that is both severe and humorous, the language of a guy ready to be submerged in mud and to scour life's pavements, and at the same time full of imagination and personal experiences, Nguyen Quoc Chanh has recreated a history of these suppressed words; he prizes them from the gutter, exposes them to the light, and returns to them their former crowns that had been taken away by fear and human slavery. I see here a rare brilliance in the way he uses these forbidden words, provocative in both their sound and meaning, egalitarian ways of naming things, verses that don't call for overthrow, which are themselves full of the power to overthrow. Please read one passage:
“If Jesus didn’t ask: If there is anyone among you who has not yet fucked, let him first cast a stone at her?! (Their shame saved Mary Magdalene from the hail of stones). Why doesn’t your shame make you give equality back to Cunt, Dick and Fuck? When I close my eyes (unifying my soul and body), I see them as stars, or avatars, with the energy of great emotion and mystical activity. Cunt is the distant echo of the drum, the bell and primitive memory. […] And when I pronounce ‘Cunt’, I hear its resounding echo from ancient tombstones, from the immense compassion of the Buddha and from the infinite depths of memory. Over the past 10 years, I have been thrown over three times, and my former wife married another man. I became a guy who only Fucks the sand. I don’t know how many times I lay down, prostrating myself on the sand, watching the sunrise through half-closed eyes. As I watched I saw a shift from red to black. It was no longer a sparkling red aureole; it turned into a shimmering and obsessive black hole. The blood in my body began to race and the red blood cells rushed down to my navel. My dick was warm and hard. My dick swelled up. My dick exulted. My hands dug into the sand, my stomach pressed down into the sand, my mouth gaped open as the sand and my ass rotated.”
From these stories about suppressed words, concepts like ‘time’ and ‘history’—typically represented as huge, lurking, obscure phantoms—become specific and clear. The word game of the poet is about seeking out and investigating suppressed ideas, a game in which the participants have to wallow in the black mud of the past and present, both submerged and struggling to free themselves. Through confrontation and creating a confrontational will, casting aside power and resisting any timidity in his use of language, Nguyen Quoc Chanh overcomes and challenges social taboos in contemporary Vietnamese life. In the way that they convey a sense of freedom and its plight, these poems convey a much stronger protest than those poems where he directly attacks institutions or the Party, not only because of the particular attractiveness of the language, but because his poetic intentions seem broader. To put it another way, when looking at social life in Vietnam the Communist Party seems to have become a symbol of dominance that is more-or-less a cliché; the cliché comes from how easily people make general criticisms based on presuppositions about the nature of preeminent affiliations or institutions, criticisms which unwittingly turn poetry into a political debate, as if it can’t go beyond these expressions of discontent and falls into impasse. The question of freedom, when it moves into the realm of creating antagonism between individuals and institutions, assumes that tangible ‘institutions’ are things with the power to create freedom. But that assumption cannot pave the way for individual liberation, which is what creates the highest potential for artists to discover their artistic value and promotes the development of the creative scene in which they participate. Ultimately, the manifestation of oppression and the courage to fight against that oppression don’t reside in the cramped relationship, oppositional and antagonistic, between artists and the authorities, and art does not exist to lay bare the feelings of discontent and the inequality long inherent in this relationship; the role of art in the human quest for freedom seems to reside more in the potential for interrogating existence than in passing judgment and drawing conclusions on existence. As a result, the underlying factor in Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s creative activities and works, giving them a value that transcends the temporary hysteria of poetry and of poets in expressing concern and venting outrage about the state of society, lies I think in the unity of his poetic art and the degree to which it reflects a commitment both to the present and to the history of the writer, creating a compelling and tragic beauty in his poetry.
The poetic nature and potential impact of Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s creative activities and the resulting products should probably be regarded as an unanswered question. What is the source of Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s appeal? His attitude to poetry? His stance of political opposition? The way he poses questions? His ever-changing language, twisting like a gecko’s body, which can be imagined as a caricature of the struggle between light and darkness within the poet himself? His intense poetic voice, like a gushing broken drain, as deafening as a hammer and as piercing as the rhythms of the city? Above all, I want to see in his work a poet fusing his private and public selves, a poet strongly committed to the power and critical value of poetry and social engagement. It is just one person’s perspective: looking from afar and connecting the different works, I sense the multifaceted theme of the ‘dream of freedom’, whether manifest in words or hidden in the structure of imagery and themes, but always connected with an attempt at social criticism, even though, as I previously analyzed, the change in Nguyen Quoc Chanh awareness over time seems to determine his conduct in relation to the art of poetry. More appealing still in Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s poetry is his strength of will, even though coming into contact with his works also creates a sense of impasse on all sides, which I think reflects his own impasse when he collided with society. Putting this into the context of life and poetry in Vietnam, immersing it in the so-called thirst for freedom, like a map on an explorer’s vessel lost at the bottom of the ocean, can be read as a long tale of the road of an artist, of a poet, and of the road of poetry itself. As a superficial sketch of the portrait of a poet who carries within his own self a dream of freedom which overflows the narrow limits of a single individual, who is violently thrashing about in the awareness of being surrounded on all sides, Prometheus exposing his chest for the preening crows (those crows are not outside of the creative needs of the artist himself), who failed in his attempt to free himself, who speaks with the voice of the community, who brings himself as a witness, as evidence, who inhales the dark flow of the era and exhales full of outrage…of course this will not be enough to recognize the portrait of Nguyen Quoc Chanh, but I think it might be one way to visualize the role a creative artist who has attached his fate to the concerns about the fate of Vietnamese history in many decades past. Poetry, in certain respects, is like a heart that the poet has plucked from his chest as an offering, out of his deep faith in the survival of freedom, an exposed and self-destructive offering, and when we look at the poet, we only see a hollow chest and a pale face full of darkness.
For me what endures, overcoming the rise and fall of a poet’s value as set by society, is how his or her mode of writing remains with the reader. Until now, Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s renown has not, fortunately, been accompanied by widespread acclamation, and he perhaps remains an isolated and challenging figure. At one time I just saw Nguyen Quoc Chanh as a symbol of the conscience of Vietnamese poetry in a period of crisis in writers’ attitudes. But now I think that I was mistaken: viewing him as a symbol turns our thoughts into clichés. Truly, who is Nguyen Quoc Chanh to me personally? He is still a dark shadow that is not easy to discover, his poetic works trapped in thick tangled roots. Even now, I still feel moved whenever I open the pages of old books, or open websites to read his work. I see him not as a symbol of suffering and resistance, but as a poet always seeking for some way to overcome his personal limitations in order to explore the potential of new poetry and new spaces for poetry. I think, even, that the way that a poet’s works stay with the reader can overcome those things that the poet believes over time, and can overcome all of the failures he or she may feel in relation to poetry, in the face of the exhaustion of language and his or her own fundamental need to write poetry. Through his actions, poetry, and everything else, Nguyen Quoc Chanh is present in his violations, in his resistance, in his refusal and, that means, in his creativity. In one poem, Nguyen Quoc Chanh describes the plight of birds throwing themselves into a stone crevice and dying, a mass suicide with all their beaks pecking each other, a syndrome of traumas in their flesh. I see in it the image of poets bearing within themselves the violent explosions of memory, and the multiple deaths that reside within profoundly painful lines of poetry.
Birds pass through the slit one by one.
One by one wings disappear.
One by one songs are stilled.
One by one only beaks remain.
One by one pecking each other’s eyes and necks,
They do not see death lurking in the curved branches.
They do not see the forest of guns growing in each hollow of the land.
They only hear the sound of weapons concealed under slabs of fat.
They only hear the sound of a gun being loaded, deep inside the brain.
(Syndrome – Of Metaphorical Identity)
 Source: Nguyen Quoc Chanh’s essay, Down the Road (Xuống đường), accessed at: http://tienve.org/home/literature/viewLiterature.do?action=viewArtwork&artworkId=12075
Perhaps a more detailed account from Nguyen Quoc Chanh himself will provide an explanation for this sober and melancholy attitude. He recounts: "I was called up for enlistment in 1979, and I had two years standing in line in my rubber sandals and khaki helmet, occasionally firing a rifle, but fortunately I was never in battle. I think if I were in a fight it would be easy for me to become a prisoner of war, or to surrender, or to be the first one shot. I never fought in battle but I still have two scars: an ulcer in my stomach due to hunger and bad food, and an inner scar caused by unceasing pressure from a group who were constantly on edge. In those two years, I recognized that aggression is something like an instinct or a latent urge within most Vietnamese people, and this frightened me more than imaginary shootouts with Pol Pot. But fortunately, thanks to stomach ulcers, I received an early discharge.” Source: Dinh Linh: Speaking with Nguyen Quoc Chanh–Online at:http://www.tienve.org/home/literature/viewLiterature.do?action=viewArtwork&artworkId=37
 [Translator’s note: Viet-Lach is a compound word, composed of the common word for “writing” (viet) and an archaic word which also refers to writing or marking with a pen (lach). The compound Viet-Lach has come to refer to the practice of approaching an issue indirectly, weaving or circling around a topic, to avoid being censured or criticized.]
 Preamble, Of Metaphorical Identity (Của căn cước ẩn dụ), ebook. Available at: http://www.talawas.org/talaDB/showFile.php?res=922&rb=0101
 [Translator’s note: i.e. Scrap Paper. Giấy Vụn is a samizdat publisher in Ho Chi Minh City, publishing without official permission.]
 An introduction and some of the objects from this exhibition can be seen on the Tiền Vệ forum at: http://tienve.org/home/activities/viewActivities.do?action=viewnews&newsId=224
 [Translator’s Note: Khoan cắt bê tong (Cutting and Drilling Concrete), is a typical phrase painted on walls in Vietnamese cities to advertise the service of cutting and drilling concrete, however the word for drilling (khoan) can also imply ‘to Fuck’.]