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“Night falls onto a sinful whispering realm”

The third part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Nathan Thompson
December 30, 2013

The third part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

Compiled by Nathan Thompson          Illustration by Victor Blanco


Thanh Tam Tuyen lived in South Vietnam for most of the 20th Century. He wrote free verse and was part of a literary movement that wanted to deconstruct the rules and gimmicks of traditional Vietnamese verse. His poem “Resurrection” deals with the moments where brutal reality intersects with religious experience.

The repetition throughout the poem mirrors the resurrection of the author through multiple rebirths. He asks the question of what remains of him as he travels from lifetime to lifetime: Can you hear the screams of one life in the next?

The final stanza alters the repeated structure. Instead of addressing the war-torn world, he addresses someone called “dear” and describes the process of his resurrection into a new life as “gentle” and “pure” – the sin and horror of a life lived during the Vietnam War subsides.

Despite being allied with the communists during the war, Tran Vang Sao has since been blacklisted. He rejected the grand themes of communist poetry and subverted it by focusing on the banal.

“Taking The Wife To Give Birth” is a poem influenced by the Imagist movement of the early 20th Century. The Imagists sought to extricate poetry from the windy descriptions of Romanticism and focus on describing a single event or image, allowing the reader to bring their own interpretations to the poem.

Is this poem a depiction of a pre-feminist world of female subjugation? It could be. The wife is denied a voice and exists to serve the author both in bearing children and being the subject of his poem.

Or you could try an ecological reading. The descriptions of the environment mirror the act of birthing:

“the trees on both sides of the road were still wet,
mother lit a bunch of incense sticks…”

Here the subconscious picks up the phrase “wet mother”, while the road represents the birth canal. The trees mentioned in the first line give birth to the incense sticks of the second. These techniques draw our attention to the web of life. The poem’s banal descriptions are transcended as the poet points us to the profound and religious sense we have during momentous events such as childbirth.


Poetry in Southeast Asia


“Taking The Wife To Give Birth”

by Tran Vang Sao

a morning in May I took you to give birth
it was during rice harvesting season it had drizzled
I’m happy you had an easy birth
and a boy
the trees on both sides of the road were still wet
mother lit a bunch of incense sticks to thank
the sky the earth and our ancestors

my wife lay breathing on the birth table
her belly big and round
I’m a man with nothing to do I stood outside
smoking a cigarette and peering in
I can’t remember anything
two upturned metal dippers by a water tank
a few pebbles beneath the eaves
it won’t rain anymore
I squatted I stood up I smoked a cigarette I looked back and
my wife lay breathing on the birth table
her belly big and round
a window opened brightly before her face
the banana leaves in a nearby garden showed drops of water
I heard the voices of two women from inside the room
a truck’s engine crackling on Thuan An Street
and the sound of a child crying
I stepped onto the threshold
the two women looked at me and smiled
I walked home
there was a light breeze among the leaves
I said out loud to myself
it won’t be sunny for a while yet



by Thanh Tam Tuyen

I want to cry like I want to vomit
on the street
crystal sunlight
I call my own name to soothe my longing
thanh tam tuyen
evening a star breaks against a church bell
I need a secret place to kneel
for a little boy’s soul
fearful of a fierce dog
a hungry dog without colours

I want to die like I want to sleep
although I’m standing on a river bank
the deep dark water is restless
I scream my own name to slake my rage
thanh tam tuyen
night falls onto a sinful whispering realm
O child wearing a red kerchief
Hey there wolf
a wandering sort of wolf

I crave suicide
an eternal sort of murderer
I scream my own name in distress
thanh tam tuyen
strangle myself into collapsing
so I could be resurrected
into an ongoing string of life
mankind doesn’t forgive the crime of murder
the executioners kneel
the time of resurrection

a shout is a prayer
for the waiting centuries
I want to live like I want to die
among intersecting breaths
a flaming chest
I call softly
open the door to your heart
my living spirit has turned into a child
as pure as the truth one time.


Also view:

“My country and my people, I never understood” – The first part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry

“There is a country and there is no rule” – The second part of a Southeast Asia Globe series on the region’s finest poetry


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