Soak the Government in Ashes
After one Communist term, the cloudbursts
Become so authoritative
In their dragon of heir in-transparency
A Confucius tree walks to its first sight
Of arboreal gunfire from the north
Ca sĩ Hương Lan soaks silhouettes
With her nine-layered voice
At midnight, the clay sets out to
Unbundle its five-hundred-year-old mud
War sobs bind their soul to one ministry
Wailing for the battlefield of bribery
To become a public servant tomorrow
Tuberculous has to return to Moscow
Aubades revisit colonialism
The monsoons remain out of tune
How high up there is the yellow star of socialism?
A soldier weeps next to his wife
His mind hidden inside a blade
The serpent way to combat infertility
Each word is an infantryman
Marking the hoof prints of a thousand stones
The tree seeks death in one yellow rose petal
Our sabbatical days memorize war music
The plant collecting wind with its herbaceous shirt
Harmony waters its own eardrum
While the wet grass grows weary
From oblivion & fading
Two raincoats ambulate in the rain
Moisture is not a man dressed in cloth
Serenity has no servants
Without masters, war doesn’t have to wait
For her to fall asleep on a stone
A postcard revisits a battlefield, Điện Biên Phủ
The monsoons have a way of listening
To the French rap songs of mortars & artilleries
For 1 month, 3 weeks, 3 days
Without having to forcefully subdue
Fireworks on their way to being wet soot.
In Vietnamese, Điện means electricity
& Phủ is a sexy military word for ‘shield’. And,
Do you really need a literal translation or dossier
For the middle name of one battlefield?
Cải lương splits the throat of tradition
With her octave mourning
Lamenting is a revolutionary word
To unfriend the refrain of sorrow
One must break the ribcage of a city
Watch it struggle to breathe
Its combat tents bruise like a pair
Of collapsed lungs
If he can’t breathe, he won’t sing
The injured soldier of a city
Must clutch his heart like a grenade
Above, the mountains
Have found a way to live
With independence & war crimes
Hồ Chí Minh sleeps in his grave
With one eye opened, one eye closed
Fish sauce is a kind of pelagic sodium
Not fermented by the smoke of war
Sleeping in clear cylinder glasses
Pretending to be malted beer
When torn from water, what fish doesn’t conform?
For Trưng Trắc (徵側) and Trưng Nhị (徵貳)
The two most famous matriarchal leaders of Vietnam
My mother has a way of taking
her pain out on my brother by beating
him to a pulp with a sugarcane
my father ‘hid behind
the curtain of rain, mung beans,
hủ tiếu steams, ginseng, immobility’
when it was time for my brother
he chose my father
his bystander over his abuser,
my mother, for the
inevitable scars tucked
Beneath the manhood of his adolescent thighs
his calves, his unescapable addiction to
gambling, especially in the enigmatic
apertures of his winning, losing
‘is an opium den for the madhouse of the psychosis’
A place where you win by losing & lose by losing
slot machines aren’t the only ones who are a BITCH
each whim of instinct informs
me that my brother
is selective & smart at how
He dispenses his fondness for the way
‘my father turned a blind eye against my mother’s cruelty’
I was ten or twelve years old
and like my father, I was also a bystander, an abuser
that guilt that won’t retreat back
into amnesia for me ever
I live beneath the heartbeat of this crime
like peeling an onion to reveal a bruise
The guilt & regret compulsion
still stays with me since
I was thirteen I tried to
Discipline my brother by striking his calf
with my mother’s sugarcane. It was the only
time I ever hit him and the untranslatable
offense remains. One day at a casino in Florida,
my brother pre-applied three to four credit cards under
my father’s name and maxed them all out. Within
a year, my father’s credit score went from 850 to 300.
I thought my father had it easy. My well-timed retribution:
After I struck my brother’s eleven year old leg, creating
a ribbon of agony & sorrow the size of a bookmark
he stared at me and with the cane still leaning against
my hip, I stared back at him, both in disbelief & surprise,
for a very long time. The disciplinary gaze my brother
fearlessly gave me that afternoon was made of pity, not
hatred, not resentment. Nearly thirty years later, sitting next
to him while he drove me to the post office. I viewed his
gaze as the first hug he ever gave me for not knowing
any better or his gaze was an indefinite response to shock:
his inability to comprehend how his sister could hurt him so
Violets Gasping for Air
To be with me or to toss me in a war zone, does it matter?
Two gallons of soy milk rear-end each other—by then the authority between us broke apart newton
the cybernetic coil in the zenith—however lonely
& now you gaffe a body for a body. Near Vietnam
newsworthy mechanisms are trending: tsunami
volatile, violins and violets gasping for air,
virtual videos held captive in a vault, virgins & victims abandoned in warehouses,
Edward’s pheasants chained to caves and waterfalls.
You surrender your SUVs to be near me
You cook green beans near a military base to receive one glance from me.
You rescind your gaseous words of assault against the enemy of communist to have me.
Somehow it doesn’t matter what you do
since your blunder is that you often oversleep.
You allow a ball of fire to fall into a river. You
know nothing about the deceit of sacrifice.
You suffocate me & left me isolated in a recycling bin.
Near the bathroom tile, you surrender your collarbone
You know my voice is tense. The birds evaporate easily
unlike asking a cloud to stop moving.
In the distance the private song it sings is vaporous.
Large mountains, snowcapped, bối rối.
They stand in shock from permanent immobility.
By then heaven had locked her gates.
Below, the city opens her eyes
Can’t tell if it’s a cloudy day or if it’s wearing sunglasses
It’s a city dressed in pollution & toxins
Even the moon has to spoon a satellite to avoid
second-hand lung cancer
By the end of November—
the herons have been outnumbered by apathy.
To swim against a current we know too well:
This is no road to health
Green is not a sign of wealth. It’s copper poisoning.
After a day or two, a couple hike up the alp,
to abandon their only child: a gas station.
If the sky lowers her voice? From gray to cobalt?
Can you still hear the mountain singing?
notes on the poems: ‘Soak the Government in Ashes’ references Thị Điểm Đoàn’s Lament of the Soldier’s Wife. ‘Opium’ references Adrienne Rich’s poem ‘Planetarium’ from The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems 1950-2001. ‘Violets Gasping for Air’ references Yu Xiuhua’s poems ‘Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You’ and ‘On the Threshing Floor, I Chase Chickens Away’ translated from the Mandarin by Ming Di.
Photograph © Dr Mary Gillham Archive Project