Nguyen Phan Que Mai is among the most exciting writers to emerge from post-war Vietnam. Bruce Weigl, driven by his personal experiences as a soldier during the war in Vietnam, has spent the past 20 years translating contemporary Vietnamese poetry. These penetrating poems, published in bilingual English and Vietnamese, build new bridges between two cultures bound together by war and destruction. The Secret of Hoa Sen, Que Mai’s first full-length U.S. publication, shines with craft, art, and deeply felt humanity.
The roads bleed out their green blood until they’re pale.
Summer buries the sound of the cicada;
winter entombs the leaves.
I am bare on the concrete pavement—the cemetery of grass—
and sadness finds nowhere to hang.
Concrete, towering steel,
dust, thickening smoke.
In one gulp noise swallows the sun.
I put my hands to my face; I cannot recognize myself.
Rivers flow from forests which have died too young,
blood halos of red clouds;
humankind drowns itself with floods
rushing down bare mountains
where once proud trees
cling with their roots, crying out their fate.
Where young rice plants were green,
factory chimneys poke into the ribs of light.
A cancer descends, grows, and spreads from human greed.
Where can I hide, when I am chasing myself?
“Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Secret of Hoa Sen, translated by the author and Bruce Weigl, takes us along the streets of Vietnam where we meet women bearing ‘stars in the shape of carrying poles’ and women who are the collectors of garbage who ‘mend their lives whole from debris.’ Que Mai takes us deep into the earth with ‘earthworms who know how to sing the eternal song of emerald grass.' She brings forth the music in each rice plant blossoming in the lullaby of her grandma who died during the Great Famine. Through the suffering of war and greed and the celebration of life, these poems originate in the depths of mud and rise, like the lotus flower whose petals magically take flight, bringing us its truth and freedom.” —Teresa Mei Chuc, author of Red Thread: Poems
“Que Mai, a translator, poet, and winner of the Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, collaborated with poet and translator Weigl for this collection focused on the lingering physical and psychological effects of the Vietnam War. These straightforward, personal poems lament and celebrate with the landscape—the smells, colors, and people of her country—that is their touchstone ... But Nguyen also sings for the alienated orphans of the Vietnam War; for garment workers in Bangladesh; for the victims of Typhoon Bopha in the Philippines; and for mothers across the globe in perilous circumstances ... Mai writes with a nostalgic yet detail-oriented eye.” —Publishers Weekly
“Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s poetry collection is firmly rooted in the Vietnamese tradition, though her poems—or, rather, full-blown songs—also travel to Bhutan, Bangladesh, and other locales. The Secret of Hoa Sen is a collection about the earth-born: family, feeding, sustenance, and how these are intimately connected to the earth. This is what makes the poems stand out from the recent trend in writing about the urban familial settings, but this is not to say that the poems are limited to pastoral settings. Nguyen’s co-translator Bruce Weigl rightly describes the collection in the introduction as ‘a global poetry, necessary for our troubled times.’ ... Ms. Nguyen’s voice is simple, but full of compassion, and there is both the quality of the earth and the wind in her poetry, an embracing lushness.” —Asymptote
© BOA Editions, Ltd. 2014