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.
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.