Nguyễn Phan Quế 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, Quế 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?
“In this once-vital place, where red gạo blossoms rim bomb craters, there is an undeniable destruction to be discovered, to be acknowledged between generations. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai explores this history of violence with great sensitivity in The Secret of Hoa Sen, a collection of 52 poems that affirms her place as one of Vietnam’s foremost contemporary poets.”
—Los Angeles Review of Books
“Nguyễn's poetic attention is diverse and wide in scope, but never far from her country and family... Reading this collection by Nguyễn, one cannot help but feel that each poem is written into the Vietnamese landscape of the poet’s imagination. Not carved, but delicately inscribed; so as to preserve the beauty of a country whose wounds must not define it.”
“Quế 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 . . . Mai writes with a nostalgic yet detail-oriented eye.”
“Born in 1973 in Vietnam’s north but raised in the south’s lush delta, award-winning poet Nguyễn writes precise, vibrant poems that give voice to her country’s present, grounded in tradition and dark history. Guavas and mangos sometimes blossom here, but Nguyễn is just as inclined to speak without overwhelming polemic of the ‘collapsed royal dynasties’ of Vietnam and ‘the blood of its division bitter in our mouths.’ One poem, dedicated to BW—presumably poet/translator Weigl, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and Vietnam veteran—states bluntly, ‘He can’t explain the reasons for the war.’ Important, especially to those still contemplating that question.”
“Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first collection in English, The Secret of Hoa Sen, translated by the poet and Vietnam War veteran Bruce Weigl, tells a woman’s story of her homeland—a place of immense beauty and generational trauma . . . This poet, in her earthy tenderness and vivid imagery, conveys the experience of women who work the earth with their hands, and who know the deep emotional suffering of war: pregnant women who survive bombings, or women who call out for their dead children or husbands. Through the rendering of these lyrical narratives and through a careful reconstruction of her own lineage, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai creates a portrait of woman that is both fractured and resilient. Perhaps through her unrelenting lullabies she finally sings the ancestors to sleep.”
“The Secret of Hoa Sen is centered on the sad stories of women in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Tri—which is considered the ‘pocket’ of explosive remnants left over from the U.S. war in Vietnam—who lost their husbands and children. [The Secret of Hoa Sen] also honors the bravery and resilience of Vietnamese people who fought for peace as well as rebuilt the country after the war.”
—Tuoi Tre News (Vietnam)
“Like a lullaby, The Secret of Hoa Sen acknowledges our collective pain by looking at it head on. Nguyễn does not sooth over old wounds, but she does break down the painfulness of the past by suggesting the journey back can offer a chance at redemption.”
“The author writes eloquently about family, femaleness and the sensual beauty of her country. When she writes of place, I feel that I am walking past the rice shoots in a long ago world.”
“Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.”
—David Willson, Vietnam Veterans of America
“The collection thus is successful in conveying to readers a timeline of Vietnam’s historical struggles, making the poems function as fine memorials. Ms. Nguyễn 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.”
© BOA Editions, Ltd. 2014