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We Redeem What We May

Gilbert Wesley Purdy reviews

Ca Dao Viet Nam transl. by John Balaban.

Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
88 pp. $15.00. ISBN 1-55659-186-1.

This piece is 1,100 words or about three printed pages long.

The outline of John Balaban’s life is well known throughout the poetry world by now. A conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, he went to the country with International Volunteer Services, in 1967, to teach at a university. He was caught up in the fighting, nonetheless, when the Tet Offensive came rushing toward him. He was wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel and evacuated. After his recovery, he returned with the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children. In all, he served in Vietnam, as a deeply concerned non-combatant, fulfilling his obligation for alternative service, for most of the period from 1967-69.

Balaban returned to the U. S. to live an unsettled and sometimes violent life. His Vietnam experiences regularly welled up in him. The war had not finished with him. It still hasn’t to this day. In 1971 he received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to return to the country in order to record its folk poetry.

Accompanied by his new wife, he took an apartment in Saigon and traveled around the Mekong Delta region recording oral poetry. His primary guide was a Buddhist monk. His equipment was an off-the-shelf battery powered cassette tape recorder. His method: to walk up to promising looking Vietnamese, after their workday had ended, and ask ‘Would you sing a poem for me?’ Over 500 Ca Dao folk poems were collected after this fashion.

The direct result of this effort was the volume Ca Dao Viet Nam, first issued in the early 70s, by Unicorn Press, presently revised and reissued by Copper Canyon Press. It is one of two volumes John Balaban has translated from the Nôm dialect of the Vietnamese. He has received a 2003 Guggenheim grant intended to leave him free to translate a third.

Ca Dao Viet Nam wisely begins with an introduction by the translator. A quick stop at some ten minutes of recordings from the archive at Balaban’s well-appointed Internet site makes clear that there can be no getting the original sound-quality of the poems into English. They are all sung in a five-tone system, similar to the four-tone system we left behind with the ancient Greeks, and in an inflectional language. The sound of Ca Dao is profoundly foreign. Some background gives the reader a chance to hear something of the music of the poems, however faintly. At 16 pages, this introduction is a study in concision. The reader is well served.

The sentiments of these poems, on the other hand, are universal. The exoticism of the translations comes entirely from the strange objects from which the images of the poems are drawn — plenty of rice, water buffaloes and pagodas, etc. — and the muted tones. They are habitually short — the longest poem in the volume is 25 lines — and textually simple.

While there are only a tiny number of people who can understand the Nôm dialect any longer, the book is a dual-language production. In all but one instance the English translation occupies the top of the page and the transliterated Nôm original the bottom. The poems being so short, as a rule, this allows for a one poem per page format in which each page is gratifyingly filled with text.

Again, the sentiments are universal. Many of the poems are about the pain of separation from loved ones or one’s homeland. Others are about the hardship of life. Wives decry their treatment. Between these poems are others like ‘Harmony in the Kingdom’ beginning:

When the rice fields lie fallow,
lying on the back of my buffalo, I play the flute.

and ‘Lullaby’:

Study hard, little one, grow up
to tend our native place, these mountains and rivers.

The country life can have its pleasures. A good king is in the land and all is well. A child grows up in a world of simple, sturdy expectations. The generations pass. We understand this world better than our own, perhaps.

As for the quality of the translation, there is only so much a reviewer devoid of Vietnamese can say. The circumstantial evidence all attests to these being excellent translations. Balaban is highly respected for his fluency in the Vietnamese language. In each of his many media appearances he has made his points in a straightforward and compelling fashion. What little can be grasped from the parallel texts indicates that the translator has taken considerable pains to be true to the original.

What appears not to be present is the kind of quote-unquote creative spark that led Ezra Pound, in The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, to insert Brer Rabbit into ancient China:

Ole Brer Rabbit watchin’ his feet
Rabbit net’s got the pheasant beat;
      When I was young and a-startin’ life
      I kept away from trouble and strife
But then, as life went on,
Did I meet trouble?
         Aye my son;
Wish I could sleep till life was done.

As delightful as that kind of thing can be — and even informative — it is a method that still gets very mixed reviews. Each reader must make his or her own decision.

What can be said is that this is a book to rival Pound’s Classic Anthology. Whereas Pound had more competition and more source materials available, Balaban appears to have stayed closer to the original text. Each has done the great favor of introducing us, on some meaningful level, to a new idea of poetry. The two books, different as they are, stand shoulder to shoulder. It is not difficult to predict that Ca Dao Viet Nam will be a book with a long shelf life.

John Balaban is highly decorated for his part in another series of endless brush wars. His own poetry has been selected for volumes in the prestigious Lamont and National Poetry Series. His most recent volume, Locusts at the Edge of Summer, received the also prestigious William Carlos Williams Award.

It is tempting to think that nothing good ever came out of the Vietnam War. Balaban’s life and work are a witness that such is not the case. Because the war carried his life away in directions he could never have dreamed of we are now joining another rich poetic history to our own. It is not clear what would have become of that history — or of him — otherwise. In a happy irony, something of Vietnam’s folk poetry may have been saved — and John Balaban’s own skills as a poet and translator brought to our attention — by it. We redeem what we may.

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