OFF THE SHELF
REVIEWED BY WAYNE KARLIN
From Where the Wind Blows/Gio
Thoi Phuong Nao by Le Pham Le, translated by Dan Than Pham Le
and Nancy Arbuthnot, Vietnamese International Poetry Society, 178
pp., $14.99, paper.
Born in Da Lat, Le Pham Le taught
Languages and Literature in a high school. After the fall of South
Vietnam in 1975, along with hundreds of thousands of others, she
left her country for the dangers of the open sea, the hardships of
the refugee camps, and an uncertain future in the United States.
One of the most important contributions of those who came in that
migration is the addition of a vibrant new set of voices to the
American literary canon.
The poems in Le Pham Le's From
Where the Wind Blows are presented in Vietnamese and English.
They weave together cultures and generations through the
traditional pattern of the journey that is really a circle, a
coming and then a return with new, forever changed eyes. The
journey includes displacement: Only days before/a high school
teacher/now a beggar/suddenly the mother realizes/this is the
first step/of her journey/and stops crying; feelings of
nostalgia for the old homeland; and the discovery that one has
found a new homeland, even as echoes of the old war are still
heard in a strange and confusing new context.
Night of gunshots/someone
shouting/someone knocking,/footsteps hurrying off--roaring
cars/stumbling drunks/howling dogs--I'm lost in the Monkey New
Year day--like/smoky haze.
The broken, somewhat awkward
quality of those words reflects the unease and uncertainty of the
refugee searching for new words to explain a new world. Several
poems, such as a paean to her ambitious immigrant students at the
community college where Le works, are earnest but do not rise
above the level of banal yearbook verse. In fairness to the poet,
however, it is very difficult to translate and capture the
beautiful music and word-play of Vietnamese poetry, which can make
the seemingly simplistic or prosaic poetic, a fact translator
Nancy Arbuthnot acknowledges in her thoughtful and useful
introductory essay and captures in her best translations.
For those who can only read the
English, that complexity of meaning sometimes can occur only
through the reader's awareness of context. "Song of a Soldier's
Wife,'' for example, can be seen simply as the traditional lament
of the wife of an absent soldier: It's raining in the East/and
wet here, too, in the West, dew or snow/always falling/Have autumn
breezes/blown in the wilderness yet?/Lonely nights,/How much I
miss you. Yet, seeing it from the perspective of the refugee
experience, the separation becomes much more resonant and
The sparse delicacy and emotional
layering of that poem typifies some of Le's best work. The book is
filled with poems that touch delicately and stir the heart.
The novelist and essayist, Wayne
Karlin, who served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War, is the
series editor of Voices From Vietnam.