Two Responses to the Poetry of Thanh Thao, by Michelle Cahill & Boey Kim Cheng

Two Responses on the Poetry of Thanh Thao

by Michelle Cahill and Boey Kim Cheng



Humility in the Work of Thanh Thao

by Michelle Cahill


When Boey Kim Cheng and I first read the poems of Thanh Thao we were immediately struck by their quiet tone, their gentle transformations of personal and public suffering, which stem from the kind of humility we are in need of as writers to feed our souls. What is the soul anyway, we might ask ourselves, and why has it become so unfashionable to speak of compared to the other resources available to a poet’s creativity; such as language, or the body, or food? That would be the subject of another essay, though perhaps the reason is part of a broader, secular, and largely culturally-programmed sensibility. This aside, we felt that Thanh Thao’s poems, translated by Paul Hoover and Nguyen Do as part of an anthology of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, have much to offer our readers. Most of us can recall an emotional or ethical response to the Vietnam war: because it was the cause of such social and political dissent; because it was the war that epitomised the 1960’s Beat generation; because there are palpable scars, wounds and trauma in the history of Australia’s eleven year involvement in that protracted conflict and its aftermath; because it was a kind of prototype for the way in which the Australian public can undermine official versions of any war. We are mostly familiar with the protest or witness themes of Judith Wright, Jennifer Maiden, Denise Levertov, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Allan Ginsberg, but the Vietnamese perspective is relatively unknown, and it’s within this context that we can locate Thanh Thao’s work.

The dominant and interconnected themes of Thanh Thao’s poetry are the war and memory. Memory and forgetting mark out an imaginative landscape of resounding echoes, in which the poet is able to recover and reconcile the past, with its conflicting and long-suffering legacies. The poet depicts fragmented moments of unmasked vulnerability:

 echoes from fifty-six years ago
a day as pale as today
that no one cared about, no one remembered
a little puppy is dumbstruck looking at a lonely street

(“March 12”)

The images encountered are personal and domestic; of childhood, family, village, field, and against which the war becomes a prearranged backdrop.

 like someone beating a drum, the rain dropped on my waterproof army poncho
which was torn and badly needed mending
my friends were like forest trees, diminishing day by day
the war cut them down
like an electric trimmer
but now they’re all at peace
I remember also that evening, as a child,
the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,
even sweeter when she carried me on her back!
the road over the dike echoed the soul of the river
dark brown sails and bamboo shadows floating slowly
a bridge where an older man got tired
and lay down to rest but not sleep  
(“To Suddenly Remember”)

 The poet is able to segue events here into a temporal fluidity where childhood returns to old age, where war becomes peace. Often the lines are unpunctuated, and uncapitalised, allowing their clauses to drift. The voice weaves through these suggestions with remarkable clarity; the rain beating like a drum, the bridge and the bamboo shadows providing the associative narrative links. There is no blame or anger evoked in any reference to the war, the poet adopting an entirely non-partisan attitude. The authenticity and immediacy of the speaker’s voice, resembles the surreal empiricism of Yusef Komunyakaa’s Vietnam poems. Komunyakaa’s poems however move at a much faster pace and are more brutal in their tone. In Thanh Thao’s verse, the brutality of the war is described indirectly and seems to be subsumed by the natural landscape. There’s a subtle irony, for instance, that his army poncho is badly in need of mending, or indeed in the figure of the old man, exhausted but not quite sleeping. In another poem, “To Suddenly Remember,” the poet juxtaposes an image of the war with the sound of thunder and with gentle descriptions of nature:

the aged sunlight
an evening of summer rain
and the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder  

(“To Suddenly Remember”)

Without knowledge of the Vietnamese language, one cannot fully appreciate that the rhythmic simplicity of these translations attempts to be faithful to the floating lines and to the monosyllabic tonal variations. This also renders the poet’s subdued impressions of war. War is referenced in Thanh Thao’s poetry in a manner that suggests that the function of memory is not to make recriminations, but to preserve the suffering, and to speak for those who have suffered. It’s interesting to read the poems within the context of the time-honoured ca dao tradition of folk poetry with its repertoire of landscape imagery: paddies, harvest, village. In his essay on Vietnamese war poets, Kevin Bowen refers to this lasting connection between the land and its people;

The belief in the power of the land to sustain and transform the terms of struggle is pivotal to both poem and culture.

A culturally-derived reading will also identify in these poems a residual trace of Tang tradition which fused Buddhist, Confuscian and Taoist values, preferring to reflect not on reality but “the idea beyond the word”. That kind of meditative moment and simplicity can be found in Thanh Thao’s work where we sense the poet’s self-effacement, his cautious recognition of the enemy within.

With two pens,
two chopsticks,
I’m going to look for the source of water
slowly and quietly.
Look, the pen is a little nervous,
breathing with every stroke.
I know I’m in a drought;
go slowly and silently. 

(“Andante for the Millenium”)

At the same time the quest for darkness in his poems differs from much of the nationalist Vietnamese poetry of the post-war period, with its elegiac tone and its ideological correctness. Visual phenomena arise accidentally and without warning, as in the poem “Suddenly”:

without apology
a man flew through the treetops
leaving behind a woman, a thin trail of smoke
the ships searched for a place to rest
the stars searched for a place to be seen
crowding into a puddle of water
where it gives birth to the sky
as the poems searched for their flames

The images are fragmented and arbitrary, hinting at horror with ironic lyricism. It’s as though the text becomes an existential and unofficial platform, offering its own version of reality. Similarly, in the poem “Untitled,” the metaphor of fishing conveys to us the movement, and the synaesthetic moment of the surprise catch.

of snatching shadows from under the green sadness
of water hyacinths.


With their sibilant sounds, there is nothing fierce or deliberate in these lines. The language seems effortless, not attempting to qualify or categorize; being born out of the sense of a deeply subjective darkness, one which is searching for its “flames,” as if the poems themselves were the source of light. That play of light and darkness is a recurring motif, a wave oscillation that shifts from abstractions to concrete images, as in the poem “A Journey,” where a cow is described as chewing the sunset:

A daydream takes me; I go into the private darkness of light.
The darkness differs significantly from reality, but it is still the reality
of a cow chewing the sunset; on one side is the yellow sunrise, on the other the   darkness of sunset –
the faint border between
reunion, separation, reunion.

 The poem invites us to take this journey; to experience the points of entry and departure. Yet there is no indulgence in the materiality of language. Rather than delineating the boundaries of presence and absence, the past and present are integrated into a new whole. This perspective in the poet’s work admits to the possibility of recovery and healing. The Vietnamese people have much to heal; their country having been occupied at different times by China, France, Japan and the USA; their war of independence lasting over 120 years, during which time hundreds of thousands of civilians perished or were displaced. The configuration of darkness in Thanh Thao’s work can be interpreted as a personal and deeply registered acknowledgement of that suffering. In his most controversial poem, “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”, which was prohibited until political reforms took place in 1988, the poet’s tone becomes more overtly critical:

In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.
The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as the past generation has gone,
by ways various and new.

The seemingly inconsequential details of the soldiers’ lives are evoked with compassion in the “small lumps of steamed rice” they share, or the “cans of sour soup.” And while the camaraderie between the troops is described, their sense of a shared destiny is conveyed more palpably than that of a shared purpose. This humanity leads away from any myopic nationalistic sentiment, to something of a more universal condition.

What do you want to tell me in the hazy night, Quoc,
as you sing passionately the whole flood season?
The Dien Dien flower raises its hot yellow petals
like the face of a hand that sunlight lands and stays on.
Our country comes from our hearts, simply,
like this Thap Muoi that need no further decoration
and is completely silent.
Stronger than any romance, this love goes directly
to any person
who doesn’t care about the limits of language

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

 The poem does not try to be a testimony, nor does it attempt to protest the immorality of war, a criticism that can be made of much of the stateside poetry of Levertov and Ginsberg. The suffering while not arbitrary, belongs to a more general condition, a landscape where a star rises “from a water-filled crater”, where the faces of many are seen to be floating.

They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a distant meadow
on an endless evening. 

They’re the people who fought here first, 
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.

That evening
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
the faces of
       our generation!

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

The clarity of Thanh Thao’s poetry, his “strange and attractive voice”(Nguyen Do) can be attributed to the many faces of the war he describes. While private and personal, the poems always hint at the historical and social context of the world they remember. It’s poetry that makes the text-world relationship vulnerable, without an undue reliance on complexity or anything ostensible. Yet there is a gentle irony in this resignation, which points to the possibility of dissent, of perceiving new and different realities. And in this humility, in this acceptance of suffering as a condition of human existence, there is immense compassion; something which feeds our soul, leading us beyond the poem.

I already know
that other worlds
are no different –
a bird that tries to love its cage
has no need to begin singing.

(“Andante for the Millenium” (2000))


“Some Other Poets of the War” (1994) by Kevin Bowen is referenced in “War Poets From Vietnam” by Fred Marchant
Humanities, March/April 1998, Volume 19/Number 2

“The “Other War” In Thanh Thao’s Poetry”, Nguyen Do, Sacramento, December 21 2004




War Against Forgetting: The Poetry of Thanh Thao

by Boey Kim Cheng


In Ho Chi Minh City you see everywhere signs of a new Vietnam emerging: the widening of roads, the ubiquitous construction cranes, the gleaming new shopping complexes, the convoys of new foreign cars. The country is eager to catch up with its northern enemy, turning itself in a matter of a decade from a failing impoverished Communist state closed to the rest of the world, into an Asian tiger that is communist in name only. The Indochina conflict and the Vietnam War seem distant memories. In a country so long trapped in its traumatic past, the prosperous future promises deliverance from its troubled history. But it is a deliverance that carries with it the danger of forgetting not just its proud and bloody past but its traditions, the values for which it fought those wars. That is why Thanh Thao’s work is vital. It is a deep and searching work of memory, of a self engaged in the project of salvaging its own and the country’s memories.

Thanh Thao has the ability to make you feel like you are listening to him remember and what is remembered are not the big events, but little markers of time, seemingly insignificant images that can conjure up an entire scene, and make the memory so vivid:

comes a faint sound of women selling rice cakes  
on my birthday
it makes me remember
a packet of rice
a bowl of dried sweet potato mixed with molasses
a mother who was thin as the morning light
and laughter beside a heap of trash

(“March 12”)

The past comes to life through a metonymic process, the sensory details evoking the poet’s childhood, a series of vignettes flashing before him, all giving a sense of coherence, wholeness, uninterrupted by war. There is a wrenching nostalgia that is born out of the time’s depredations and the effects of war, a longing for pre-war harmony and innocence that is pastoral in nature. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell identities the pastoral impulse in the war poets as arising from a need to counter the traumas of the trenches with idyllic images of rural England. In the same way, the longing for the ancestral home, the rural vision in Thanh Thao’s work bespeaks a need to heal the wounds of war with images of peaceful rural Vietnam, a Vietnam that may not have existed in history but which lives in the poet’s imagination.
There theme of return underpins Thanh Thao’s work, the return to that place in time where the adult poet can rediscover the child he was:

I come again to my father and mother’s home
were a yellow plum that was just planted suddenly blooms
like a spotlight on a flood plain,
like my mother’s eyes
staring from the garden’s corner
where custard apple has a pure greenness.


The memory yields a moment of connection with his roots, bestowing a sense of coherence and belonging, the fruits conjuring a sense of Edenic innocence and pleasure. Home is a recurrent word in Thanh Thao’s work. The poems attempt to salvage the memories of home, to heal the ravages of war and time. In retracing the steps back to his childhood memories, the poet rediscovers a pastoral scene far from the war, the abundant fruit imagery here suggesting innocence and also, a deep part of him that is unscarred by the war. The brutality of war is there, but there is a saving tenderness that connects the speaker with his past, with his humanity. Memory provides the way to healing, to a past where a sense of wholeness and coherence can be found:

my parents lived there a home
a ten-square-meter country
but because of our greater home
my parents didn’t prevent me
from going into battle
not for a brave death or a rainbow
I’m the hand on a compass
that only turns toward home.

(“To Suddenly Remember”)

Thanh Thao’s poems of memory are attempts at homecoming, bringing the displaced wounded spirit of the veteran back home. The land is a nourishing and healing presence, though it is also fraught with travails and ambiguities. In this regard his work can be located within the ca dao tradition, the oral poetry that sings of the intimate connections of the Vietnamese with the land. In “This Is Usual,” we find a kind of ars poetica in which the poet affirms the ties between the land and poetry: “I lean on time to catch the time that doesn’t run out. / To ignore the land is to be old, dry, lean, and thirsty.”

At the heart of this intimate relationship between the land and the self is the presence of the mother. Like the word “home,” the mother is a recurrent image, a deep source of sustenance to the poet’s life and work. “Wave Oscillation” is an elegy to the poet’s mother:

For all of my life, two shades have consoled me.
Whose steps remain
On the village trail?
What lights are in your eyes now that the rain has cleared?
Now the small line that separates two sufferings,
But still leaves the spicy fragrant smoke of our stove
In the garden with its dark green banana leaves –
From morning to night you still walk back and forth there! 

The mother is still very much alive, at least in the poet’s memory – the present tense and the atavistic vision in the last two lines suggest the immanent presence of the mother. In “To Suddenly Remember” the memory of the mother is also atavistically invoked: “I remember also that evening, as a child,/ the sweetness of the banana in my mother’s hand,/ even sweeter when she carried me on her back!” Smell, the most primal of the senses, metonymically connects the mother with the child and remembering war-veteran, and brings the past into alignment with the present. The maternal image allows an escape from abjection, to use the Kristevan word, a return to pre-war intimacy and harmony with both family and the land

Thanh Thao’s pastoral yearning, his nostalgic impulse and longing for the maternal embrace stem from a sense of displacement, a traumatised sense of history that is as much his as the nation’s. His work seeks healing but does so without denying the past. The poet does not eschew the horrors but includes them in his attempt to understand himself and his country. It is a poetry that excludes nothing, that takes in the past in all its beauty and terror. In “To Suddenly Remember,” the memories of family home, the mother, “the ripe smell of bananas,” “some old chairs/ a small ancient teapot/ the aged sunlight/ an evening of summer rain” are inextricably mixed with the friends cut down by war and “the bomb’s echo from the Duong bridge that sounded like rolling thunder.”

Rather than keeping the binaries of absence and presence, the past and present distinct and separate, Thanh Thao’s vision integrates them into new wholes. Another binary in his work is the personal and the historical. By locating the personal in the historical and the historical in the personal, and bringing the past, however difficult and horrifying it is, into some comprehensive relationship with the present, the poet achieves a perspective that allows the possibility of recovery and healing. Through weaving together the private and the communal, the poet forges a conscience that reminds and warns, to use Wilfred Owen’s sombre word, and commemorates those who suffered and those who perished.

Perhaps the intersection between the personal and political is nowhere more powerfully articulated than in his most controversial poem, “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”:

The day we’re leaving,
the doors of the passenger train openly wide.
There’s no longer a reason for secrets.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots
playfully stick their heads from the windows.
The soldiers young as bamboo shoots,
with army uniforms too large for them,
crowd together like tree leaves on the stairs of the cars.
The train whistles too loudly
And too long, as if broken,
like the voice of a teen who nearly has his man’s voice now.

In our generation,
that train whistle is a declaration.

The generation in which each day is a battle,
its mission heavier than the barrel of mortar 82
that we carry on our shoulders.
The generation that never sleeps,
that goes half naked and patiently digs trenches,
that is naked and calm in its thinking,
that goes on its way as our past has gone,
by ways various and new.

As the title announces, the speaker is taking on the role of a spokesman for a generation that is being forgetting in a rapidly modernizing Vietnam. Through his own autobiography, he evokes the travails of a whole generation, bringing to life the faces of the individuals lost in the numbing statistics of casualties. The details, like those in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam story “The Things They Carried,” accumulate to give us the reality of the war; as in O’Brien’s story the relentless rhythm builds up to suggest the march, the inexorable trudge that is so much a part of the soldier’s existence. The details also bring the Vietnamese soldier close to us, his humane face free from demonization as the insidious VC or inhumanly fearless NVA:

Each backpack contains a uniform,
some dried fish sauce, and a small lump of steamed rice.
The camp’s wood stoves flame on the stone bank of a creek,
above which hang tall cans of sour soup
made from Giang leaves and shrimp sauce.
What we have,
we share,
share on the ground
To enemies, we spend all we have in battle.
To friends, we give until all we have is gone.

If you see that our skins are black from the sun,
our misshapen bodies seem older than they are,
and you can count the calluses on our hands
along with the war medals-still, nothing quite describes us.

(“A Soldier Speaks of His Generation”)

The poem commemorates the camaraderie, the sense of communal effort but it steers clear of patriotic drumbeating. It pays tribute to the individual soldier, confronts individual fears and privations. There is a moment reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s “Strange Meeting”:

Unexpectedly, I meet my close friend again.
We both lie down on a My Long trail,
on an army coat under the dark sky,
where just this evening a B-52 harrowed the earth three times,
where for several years the bomb craters are uncountable,
where I suddenly speak a simple dream:
“When peace truly comes,
I will go to trail number four, spread out a coat and lie down
                completely satisfied.”
My friend gazes
at a star rising from a water-filled crater.
His eyes look so strange; I see
they contain both the star and the crater . . .

This a touching moment, a tender reprieve in the horrors of war, when the self moves beyond it own sufferings to share the pain and hope of the Other. In extremis, the self does not withdraw into its own privations but reaches out to the Other and this is a fragile but affirmative note in Thanh Thao’s war poem. There is also a further movement in time that locates the individual suffering in a broader context:

That evening rockets attacked,
Bending down the Binh Bat trees.
Sunset covers both banks like blood.
The canal is white from the flow of toxic gases.
Suddenly I see my face on the water’s surface,
among those poisonous mists,
on which floats the Binh Bat fruit,
on which floats our breaking country,
and I see
also floating the faces of many people,
some of them friends and some I have never seen.
They are so very young
as they flicker along on the stream
into a faraway meadow
                    on an endless evening.

They’re the people who fought here first, 
twenty years ago as one generation,
and also the ones who will come later,
twenty years from today.

That evening
on the small canal
artillery attacks and flowing water.
How clearly you can see
                the faces of
our generation

The speaker recognizes himself in those who had fought in the earlier war, as well as those who will inherit the legacy of this war. “A Soldier Speaks of His Generation” is not an anti-war poem, but a powerful war poem that effectively conveys what Wilfred Owen calls the “pity of war.” It is rooted in private experience but opens out to touch and embrace the others.

Thanh Thao’s work is driven by a dark imperative, an urgent need to remind, lest we forget. These are poems of intense, sometimes excruciating, disquieting beauty. The project of memory, of redeeming the past becomes especially urgent in new Vietnam, where capitalist developments are rapidly demolishing the world and beliefs that veterans like Thanh Thao fought for. His is a poetry of witness, of bearing witness to the sufferings of those who have no voice to express their sufferings. It is also a poetry of survival, a poetry that can recover a sense of beauty in the most barbaric and nightmarish experiences. Thanh Thao is a necessary poet for Vietnam and for our time.