We’re camping in Utah. Make that, supposed to be camping in Utah. We arrived at Armageddon yesterday afternoon and decided not to try and put up our tent in torrential hail and firewater. This morning from the hotel window, the mountains look like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. I will probably be away for a while, since I don’t think there are many free high-speed internet stops up there among the cedars.
Back to the national poet project. This is not a trick question. What do Daniel Defoe, the Abbé Prévost, Samuel Richardson, Nguyen Du and Thomas Hardy have in common? Answer: They all sat down and wrote down a long list of really bad things that could happen to a female protagonist, and then put them all into an epic narrative. Yes. Four of the protagonists are Moll Flanders, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa and Tess of the D’Ubervilles. Who is the fifth?
Kieu. Her name is Kieu. And the story told of her was the Tale of Kieu, written by Nguyen Du, the national poet of Vietnam. A near-genius poet and musician, the girl Kieu falls in love, denies love for family honor, is tricked into selling herself, and goes from one dreary form of prostitution and servitude to another, until she reaches a place of relative balance, a place of compromise, and wisdom. Lots and lots of things to be read about Kieu on the internet, and the tale is hectic and long. The one thing I come away with, for the moment, is how, for Nguyen, Kieu was Vietnam.
Nowhere are the unique vectors of East Asian nationalism and postcolonial identity more crucial than in Du Nguyen’s magnificent verse novel, The Tale of Kieu (1813), the national epic of Vietnam. A high-ranking mandarin who personally witnessed the tumultuous birth of the Vietnamese nation-state, Nguyen created a masterpiece equal to the greatest verse epics of Goethe and Schiller, but which has languished in relative obscurity.
I have no hope of conveying anything meaningful about Kieu in a single post on a flighty poetry blog. The best I can hope for is that you go off to find out the meaning stuff for yourselves. The themes are enormous – where did China end, and Vietnam begin? What are the ruptures and howls of nation-birth? What does it mean to cleave to your family, to your love, to your nation, or to yourself? Describe the dark of choosing between them. What sound do you make when you realize you are just a raindrop – how do you value the tiny wetness that you bring? In Vietnam, every child studies the Tale of Kieu in school, adults refer to it in daily conversation, and even illiterate farmers know the whole work by heart. Some randomness:
A dream scene from the Tale of Kieu.
The Tale of Kieu, Bilingual Edition
Edited by: Huynh Sanh Thong
Book review of the Tale of Kieu, Bilingual Edition.
Excerpts from some of the opening stanzas, with illustrations.
Her voice was like jade, clear of guile
What is a floating cloud
compared with Thuy-Van’s flowing hair?
Like autumn seas her eyes,
her eyebrows like spring hills far away.
To part from Kim meant sorrow, death in life.
A raindrop does not brood on its poor fate;
a leaf of grass repays three months of spring.
Heroic Tu Hai, the icon of the national revolution and Kieu’s third love:
A tiger’s beard, a swallow’s jaw, and brows
as thick as silkworms – he stood broad and tall.
Carrying heaven on his head and trampling the earth,
he lived in the world, he was Tu Hai of Yueh-tung.
On rivers and lakes he roamed at large,
carrying a sword and a lute and plying one oar through
hills and streams.
Check it out. I mean, check it out.
Blog of Death, anyone?
And a bonus word from the Amherst hermit:
The bustle in a house
by Emily Dickinson
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth.
The sweeping up the heart
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
A celebrated mountain poet from the ethnic outskirts of the Soviet empire, anyone? On with the national poet project. Today we’re taking a look at the national poet of Dagestan. And no-one need pretend they’ve heard of Dagestan or have a notion of where it is. Dagestan is situated in the North Caucasus mountains and is the southernmost part of Russia. It’s a republic, but is a federal subject of the Russian Federation. So it has a constitution and parliament and a president, but is represented by Russia in foreign affairs. And defense too, one would guess. Not an independent sovereign state, therefore. Its capital is Makhachkala.
And by the way, the word Daghestan means “country of mountains”, and is derived from the Turkic word “dagh” meaning mountain and Persian suffix meaning “land of.” (So now you what “stan” means.)
Our poet’s name is Rasul Gamzatov and I’m not going to share any of his poetry (except four lines below), because, frankly, it doesn’t work for me. See what you think. I suspect part of it is weak translation work, and part of that is probably the impossibility of translating Avar into English. Gamzatov wrote in the Avar language, which is only spoken by 600,000 people today. But what I do want you to read (please do) is Gamzatov’s biography, as it appears on his official website. Go on, read it. A little rough in the translation, but it’s like a fairytale in itself. His father was a bard!
The most famous thing he ever wrote were the words to what turned into a gigantically famous WWII Russian song called Zhuravli (The Cranes), written in memory of the Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki . The memory of the paper cranes folded by the dying girl haunted him for months before he wrote it. Wikipedia says: White cranes have become associated with dead soldiers, so much so that a range of WWII memorials in the former Soviet Union feature the image of flying cranes and, in several instances, even the lines from the song. Unfortunately, haven’t been able to find anything of an English translation of Zhuravli that works for me, except these four lines, which are sticking:
From The Cranes
By Rasul Gamzatov
It seems to me sometimes that our soldiers
who were not to return from fields of gore
did not lie down into their beds of honor
but turned into a bevy of white cranes…
He died in 2003.
Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899 – 1976) is the national poet of Bangladesh. He was a Bengali poet before Bangladesh became itself in 1972. I discover in discovering this that Bengal is/was a very ancient Indian province that got split between India and Bangladesh. He (Nazrul) was on fire about everything. Not for nothing did they call him “the rebel poet” and celebrate “his fierce resistance to all forms of repression”. His signature piece, which took Bengal by storm, was Vidrohi: The Rebel, written in Bangla or Bengali (I think the latter is less politically correct). I posted a fragment from Vidrohi below, yesterday (READ IT). You can find the rest of it here, although I warn you that it is a most annoying site, of the kind that has one URL for the entire site, so I have to tell you to enter the site, click on “works” then click on “poetry” then click on “English” then click on “Vidrohi.” If you have the patience for all this, you will discover that Nazrul was channeling Walt Whitman (who died in 1892, so it’s entirely possible, my dear Watson). Check it out. Who — as we never tire of asking — knew? This is going to be my horizon-widening project until I get tired of it. Exploring National Poets. And you’d be surprised at how many of them there are out there. Oh, and one more thing about Nazrul. In 1942, he fell ill and gradually lost his voice and his memory. Treatment at home and abroad produced no results. For 34 years — from July 1942 to his death in August 1976 — the Rebel Poet lived in a state of silent forgetfulness. Yikes.
A fragment from
Vidrohi: The Rebel
by Kazi Nazrul Islam
I am unstoppable, irresponsible, brutal,
I am Nataraja, I destroy the universe
with my metered dance.
Like a cyclone, I blow fear into the hearts of men,
I crush underfoot rules and traditions,
fully laden boats I sink: a dark menace,
a torpedo, a floating mine.
My hair disheveled, I am the untimely storm,
unpredictable. I am the first raindrop.
Tenderly, I kiss the parched soil.
Rebel incarnate I have come
from the womb of Mother Universe.__________
Suddenly hugely overwhelmed and depressed by the thought of all the things I don’t know.