Poems by Phan Nhiên Hạo

Meeting a Cab Driver in New York

The yellow cab runs on roads ripped open
by earthquakes and never sealed
skyscrapers jut overhead
Nguyen Van B. has lived in New York for 28 years
he’s still not fluent in English
his French is better

Robbed three times at gunpoint,
B. says: “Anything worth losing I’ve already lost,
country, youth, dreams
Back in Saigon my family had two servants
and one chauffeur
now I am the chauffeur of millions of people
In this city you catch a cab by whistling
just wave your hand I’ll run right up to you
like a yellow dog called Taxi…

…don’t worry, no need to tip me,
after all, we’re both Vietnamese.”

Sunday, May 10, 1998

Sunday morning, May 10, 1998
nothing special really
the birthday of thousands of people not me
nothing special really
some dead whales wash ashore
I open a can of sardines
fish without heads think in silence
I open my hand
the lines on my palm tell me it’s not yet time to die
I open Walt Whitman
leaves of grass still green in the middle of a haughty smile
I spread your legs open
a sad creature is born
I open the door of morning
it’s already past 10
Sunday morning nothing special really
except I’m missing 25 cents
for laundry

Greyhound, 1992

In ‘92 I crossed the country,
from Atlanta to Seattle, by bus.
I had $300 and about that much English.
Over the flat fields of the Midwest
I saw cows crowded like ants.
The air smelled like shit for miles and miles.
The locals were unfazed.
Had I lived there long enough,
I wouldn’t smell anything either
I guess.

Many black people rode the bus.
Only later did I learn it was the easiest way
for poor people to travel state to state.
They have lots of time and little money.
In the restroom of a transfer station in Denver
a white kid offered me a joint and something else.
That was also the first time I saw an Indian
not from a movie. He was too drunk
to remember what tribe he belonged to.
He didn’t carry a gun or bow,
but held a beer can–tall boy–while slumped in a corner.
I turned down the joint and something else to avoid
becoming a yellow man who exists only in a movie.

I sat beside a Hmong man–shorter than me!
This guy drank milk the whole trip.
You might have thought he was a loser
hoping for a second growth spurt.
But I know why he guzzled so much milk:
his stomach hurt.
I, too, suffered from gastritis once.
The result of years of starvation
and bitterness from growing up in a piss-poor nation.
He clutched the jugs (Made in the USA, 75 cents)
like a pair of fake breasts you toss in the trash after sucking.
Back then, I felt like an immigrant made from plastic,
resilient and resistant to all types of acids.

In 1992, the Greyhound from Atlanta to Seattle
only cost $85 for the 2,600 mi. journey.
America, you swallowed me down your great throat
cheaper than dirt.

Seattle Memory

The day rains, stops, the afternoon blazes and night comes late. Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat. The little afternoons tucked away into a corner of that city, where I crossed hills, sun shining like red fruit ripening, tranquil lakes. Penniless one morning I went down into the city, over footpaths of fallen petals. I lived there. Days graceful and carefree, days flickering between dream and reality. I didn’t question myself. I dozed in a wooden box that smelled of pine, and dreamt. It was my spot for dreaming. People were planting cabbage and flowers, people hungry and poor. A dream. I sensed disaster coming. I sat on distant chairs. I walked beneath sheets of rain and asked the grass on the hilltop why it grows. As a snake slithered by, I heard dinosaurs roar and volcanoes erupt. I lived in my sphere of privacy.

Now I live in this city, with its outdoor markets, soaring freeways, days of heat, nights of fog, mornings of snow. How far is Da Lat? The blue ocean lies between. I have nobody left to miss and little to say. The world is vast, see yourself spinning. Ahead, the road joins earth to heaven. On summer days, the winds from the north blow forever. My sleep is disturbed. I drive on icy roads. My writing is haphazard. I try to keep myself calm at all costs. Still, my work is meticulous. I’m a miner inside a cave that has collapsed. Everyone escaped. Not a soul knows I survive. From ages ago.

Manufacturing Poetry

On an afternoon with nothing to do
I sit manufacturing poems
out of sixteen screws, two metal plates,
and four wheels. Poems fueled
by a mix of strife, hope, love, and futility.
Enough to run from America to China
in a pitch-black tunnel bisecting the Earth’s core.

Blasting open fate
I tunnel deep.

E-mail from Nguyen Quoc Chanh

Been in Da Lat
a week already
Sai Gon was too hot
hotter than years past
I am more afraid of people every day
even the grass and trees looked a little fried.

Rained here yesterday
black clouds filled the sky
and flies coated the ground
inside a pho shop I asked someone
what’s up with all the flies
he said it’s fly season.

Cheers.

Bios

Phan Nhiên Hạo

Phan Nhiên Hạo was born in Kontum, Vietnam in 1967 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1991. He is the author of two collections of poems in Vietnamese, Thiên Đường Chuông Giấy (Paradise of Paper Bells, 1998) and Chế Tạo Thơ Ca 99-04 (Manufacturing Poetry 99-04, 2004). He received a B.A. in Vietnamese Literature from the Teachers College in Saigon, a B.A. in American Literature from UCLA, and a Masters in Library Science, also from UCLA. His poetry, essays, criticism, and travel writing have been published in overseas Vietnamese literary journals such as Việt, Hợp Lưu, Văn, TC Thơ, Văn Học, and Văn Uyển, as well as online in webzines like Sydney-based Tiền Vệ (www.tienve.org) and Berlin-based Talawas (www.talawas.org). His poetry has been featured in the anthology 26 Nhà Thơ Việt Nam Đương Đại (26 Contemporary Vietnamese Poets, Tân Thư, 2002), Of Vietnam Identities in Dialogue (Palgrave, 2001), Three Vietnamese Poets (Tinfish, 2001), and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (Chax Press, forthcoming). In 2006, Tupelo Press published a full-length, bilingual collection of Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry translated by Linh Dinh, entitled Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker.

Hai-Dang Phan

Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam in 1980 and grew up in Wisconsin. He currently lives in Gainesville, Florida, where he is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Florida.

Copyright (c) Phan Nhiên Hạo, 1998, 2004. English translation copyright (c) Hai-Dang Phan, 2011.