About three years ago, Torie, a colleague at the campus library I worked at suggested that in April we use a white board on the foyer of the library to put up a poem a day. April being National Poetry Month, that was a no brainer.
So the librarians, and anyone else who wanted to would put a poem up on one side of the board, and the next day turn it around and put another on the blank side, and from then on, erase the oldest one and post another. There was a Vietnamese student, a short, impish young woman who asked one time if she could put up a poem from Vietnam. I asked her if she could put up the English translation and the Vietnamese original, and she did so.
The poem is by Hô Xuân Huong, whose name translates to “Spring Essence.” This poem is called
Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch.
A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips.
Four pink trousers flapping hard,
two pairs of legs stretched side by side.
Spring games. Who hasn’t known them?
Swingposts removed, the holes lie empty.
When she was finished, I went to read the poem on the board. The second time through I got red in the face. The young woman, a cheeky sort, said “It’s kinda erotic.”
Jumping to yesterday, I sat in on a Zoom visit American poet John Balaban made to a “Literature of War” class at my old employer, Portland Community College. Balaban lives in Pennsylvania, and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He did his service there as a sort of cultural liaison between our countries. He learned Vietnamese, was wounded by a bomb in the Tet Offensive, and later returned to help get injured children the medical help they needed in the U.S. Typically that was reconstructive surgery after facial wounds. He also has had a long practice of recording and transcribing Vietnamese poetry, and saving an old script that was once used to write the Vietnamese language.
He read some of his poems, and one translation of a Vietnamese poem about how the rivers of Vietnam have a particular smell that comes from all the rice fields they flow through. As he discussed it, I raised my hand and asked if he knew the poem about the swing-set. “I ought too” he said, “I translated it.”
Today, thinking that over, I thought…what are the odds of that? It isn’t like Vietnamese poetry from the 1700s is something most Americans are aware of. I counted myself lucky to know one! Depending on my mood, I will call what happened yesterday a great coincidence, or, if in different spirts, a little wink from the Universe, karma, or a deity.