Monthly Archives: October 2012

Oct 29, 2012 They Exiled Me

An obituary I read earlier this month really touched me. Nguyen Chi Thien was born in 1939 and wound up living 25 years of his life behind the walls of notorious prisons in Viet Nam, for a heinous crime: expressing himself. His story–I did not know about him before a couple well-placed obituaries–illustrates 3 enduring passions of your editor: unjust incarceration, immigration, and poetry. In his case the incarceration was at least partly due to his refusal to recant or stop publishing his poetry. He was an enemy of the communist state, and was held in deplorable conditions–often solitary–that ruined his health early on. His immigration to the United States in 1991 represents a moment when the U.S. lived up to its obligations to protect victims of persecution elsewhere. And the poetry written during and after his incarceration rails passionately against injustice and ignorance, against power unchecked by mercy. Unbelievably, he memorized most of his poems, line by line, editing and re-editing in his head, until he had an entire volume tucked away in mental files. When he was released in 1977 because of health concerns, he transcribed the poems, barrelled past guards at the British Embassy in Hanoi to get them into the hands of a consular employee (a sheaf of 400 pages hidden in his shirt), and was shortly thereafter arrested and imprisoned again. In prison, the free-spirited, intoxicated poems of the Chinese poet Li Bai, recited from memory, kept him company. And the imprisonment made his moral authority and rhetorical power all the more fierce, as the following poem attests. 

The most celebrated of Mr. Thien’s poems were published in a dual-language version as “The Flowers of Hell / Hoa Dia-Nguc” in 1984. He lived the remainder of his years among the Vietnamese community in Orange County, CA, indulging in cigarettes and green tea. And he died a hero. -ed.

They Exiled Me

They exiled me to the heart of the jungle
Wishing to fertilize the manioc with my remains
I turned into an expert hunter
And came out full of snake wisdom and rhino fierceness.
They sank me in the ocean
Wishing that I would remain in the depths
I became a deep sea diver
And came up covered with scintillating pearls.
They squeezed me into the dirt
Hoping that I would become mire
I turned instead into a miner
And brought up stores of the most precious metal
No diamond or gold, though
The kind to adorn women’s baubles
But uranium with which to manufacture the atom bomb.


Oct 22, 2012 Paradoxes and Oxymorons

Well, the comments have been made, the invitation sent… I can no longer avoid a “cut and paste” job, and re-printing this MV classic, first printed 15 years ago, down to the month. How many of us were there then–12? 20? The research department here at MV tells me the latest known publication was 6 years ago, again to the month, October 9, 2006. Reading today’s poem for the first time was like total infatuation, but it hasn’t faded much: I’ve been going back to the well of John Ashbery throughout these years. Please take a moment to enjoy one of his most lucid, concise, and lyrical statements. -ed

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there.
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


October 15, 2012 The Short Answer

Dear readers,

last week I was out in the tall pines of northern California talking with a friend about how her child–her year-and-a-half old child–likes poetry. That sounded pretty good to me. I asked whether the child likes John Ashbery, but apparently they haven’t made it to the contemporary Americans yet, working as they are through the Renaissance and 19th Century. When one reads Ashbery, the urge is first to say nonsense. I’m not sure he’d have a big problem with that, but I’ll defend him from it nonetheless. It’s not so much that Ashbery’s poems lack meaning, it’s that meaning is beside the point. What is the point? It is that, and other things. Long-time readers will recall that an Ashbery poem–probably still in my top 5 all-time–was one of the very first MV selections. It’s one we’ve returned to again and again. How pleasant, then, on my flight home, to realize that I’d swiped another friend’s copy of the New Yorker during my trip west, and that there, on p. 57, was a new poem by our court jester supreme. I’m not the best at recognizing contemporary poets, but I wager that just from the number of question marks and the word “pince-nez” I’d have pegged this as an Ashbery. Something about his approach strikes me as side-splitting, and plenty serious enough. -ed.


I am forced to sleepwalk much of the time.

We hold on to these old ways, are troubled

sometimes and then the geyser goes away,

time gutted. In and of itself there is

no great roar, force pitted against force that

makes up in time what it loses in speed.

The waterfalls, the canyon, the royal I-told-you-so

comes back to greet us at the beginning.

How was your trip? Oh I didn’t last

you see, folded like the margin

of a dream of the thing-in-itself. Well, and

what have we come to? A paper-thin past,

just so, and more’s the pity. We regurgitate

old anthems and what has come to pass, and why

dwell on these. Why make things more difficult

than they already are? Because if it’s boring

in a different way, that’ll be interesting too.

That’s what I say.

That rascal jumped over the fence.

I’m wiping my pince-nez now. Did you ever hear from

the one who said he’d be back once it was over,

who eluded me even in my sleep? That was a particularly

promising time, we thought. Now the sun’s out

and it’s raining again. Just like a day from

the compendium. I’ll vouch for you,

and we can go on scrolling as though nothing had risen,

the horizon forest looks back at us. The preacher

shook his head, the evangelist balanced two spools

at the end of his little makeshift rope. We’d gone too far.

We’d have to come back in a day or so.


October 9, 2012 Scaffolding

Founding member Sara Cohan came to my rescue last week, forwarding on the below Seamus Heaney (anagram: eyes as humane) poem for our reading pleasure. This is from his very first collection, but I’d never read it before. I think Sara had noticed my flagging energy, what with no poem last week, and since I was out of town yesterday and consequently tired to tears today, the gimme is much appreciated. In brief, what can we note about this selection? Rhyming couplets. The typical Heaney harmonies–look at the middle stanza in particular, a happy marriage of alliteration and rounded vowels. And is anyone giving that final word a second look?



Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints,

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done,
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.