The Vietnamese Poet Nguyen Chi Thien

Nguyen Chi Thien, Vietnamese Poet

Nguyen Chi Thien (Courtesy: Los Angeles Times)

A friend sent me the Economist’s obituary of the poet, of whom I knew nothing. The sorrow of his life is documented for Western readers in the dozens of other obituaries to be found on the Web, and in his autobiography, which can be found at the Viet Nam Literature Project.

A slim volume of 36 pages was the first of the poet’s work that I was able to obtain:  Life, Poetry, and Prison, translated by Nguyen Thi, and published in bilingual edition in 2007. Although the translations are of modest quality, the availability of the Vietnamese text allows one to recognize that the terminal rhyme schemes, and the commencing and internal assonance, are highly structured; that metric refinement is essential and fundamental; and, that the language, being Sinitic, as my same friend explained, is predominantly monosyllabic, and that the vowels are extensive in quantity, and pervasively diphthongal and tripthongal in pronunciation.

An improved representation of the poet’s work, in translation, can be found, again at the Viet Nam Literature Project, all of which are excerpts from the manuscript, Flowers of Hell, that the poet smuggled into the British Embassy in Hanoi in 1979, and for which act he was immediately re-incarcerated a third time by the authorities. The poet spent 27 years in prison.

The poem “A Silent Love,” in the translation by Nguyen Thi, has these lines:

But what is left beside the unspoken desire
When the wounds of my love are dripping blood noiselessly

“My Verses,” in the translation on the website of  the Viet Nam Literature Project, has these:

Impotence’s voice in the midst of collapsing earth
All the sounds of a life not deserving half its name
Or even the name of death

And “My Poetry,” these:

My poetry is somewhat weak in imagination
Being true like jail, hunger, suffering
My poetry is simply for common folks
To read and see through the red demons’ black hearts

2 thoughts on “The Vietnamese Poet Nguyen Chi Thien

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