Reviewed Simon Shieh
In The Secret of Hoa Sen, Nguyen Phan Que Mai paints a series of intimate and deeply personal lyrical portraits of her country, her family and contemporary social concerns. The Vietnam war in this work is a scar, but it is only that. At the forefront and foundation of Nguyen’s poetry is her own story; one of family, self-discovery, social consciousness, healing, and rebirth.
Members of the poet’s family appear throughout the book, first as caretakers and teachers in the fresh, exciting world that is her home village. Rituals of tedium and labor that, in themselves defy elegance, are made elegant in Nguyen’s verse: “That day in our kitchen/I saw how perfection was arranged/by soot-blackened pans and pots,/and by the bent back of my mother, so thin/she would disappear if I wept, or cried out.” In these first poems, the poet’s memory is a dreamscape of natural wonder and human kindness, observed with a poetic and feminine sensitivity that harnesses the imaginative power of childhood innocence. As an American reader, I find the unique insight Nguyen provides into women’s familial and community roles in the Vietnam of her childhood very valuable and interesting.
The self-discovery that Nguyen expresses in the subsequent poems is as tender and delicate as teenage love: “Side by side I sit with my love, by the garden of our longing;/our naked fingers dig deep into the earth.” This delicateness is evident in the title of the book, and in the poem with the same name (“Hoa Sen” in English means “Lotus”). Each poem betrays this delicateness, even as it handles indelicate themes such as war, and it becomes a testament to the overwhelming power of aesthetic beauty and heartfelt compassion: “Only the hoa sen/witnessed how I became/the flower/that trembled on the chest of light.” It is a tenderness that originates in the poet as she discovers herself, and as she discovers it to be not a weakness, but a strength.
The Vietnam war as well as other social concerns enter the work through private channels, and are given new life through poetry: “The old soldier/brings faraway raindrops to my eyes.” It was a war that touched the poet in profound ways, but by no means does she let it’s pain define her. Speaking of the people who are still searching for the remains of their loved ones, she writes: “Tonight I hear their footsteps/coming from two separate worlds.” It seems that the speaker has found a distance from the war; however, it is not one that alleviates the pain of being inextricably tied to Vietnam and the people who were directly affected: “With each footstep I place in my country,/how many bodies of wandering souls will I step on?” Some of the worst legacies of the war — Agent Orange, PTSD, surviving family — have only manifested themselves in Nguyen’s lifetime: “Agent Orange lives in their bodies. Their blood/flows and drags their crying babies from their arms.” Each poem about the war is intensely personal, like the one in which the poet relates a meeting with an American Vietnam War veteran: “We sit opposite each other/a dewy curtain of hatred/replaced by the smoke screen from two steaming bowls of phở.”
The healing and rebirth conveyed in the second half of the collection are less concerned with resolution than they are with the progression of life. Many of these poems are about her mother, her young children, motherhood, and lovers’ communion. The collection moves cyclically in this sense, as it starts with the poet as a child, a lover, then a daughter separated from her mother: “I cross the Lam River to return to my homeland/where my mother embraces my grandmother’s tomb in the rain.” And finally, a woman for whom motherhood and a calling to poetry and development work has renewed youthful wonder and a love more refined and spiritual: “I am five years old again, in a hide-and-go-seek game;/I find myself behind closed doors,/your tiny hands/opening the gates to paradise.”
The poems in this collection, while distinctly personal, are so dependent on Vietnam’s natural beauty, its history, and people. Nguyen’s poetic attention is diverse and wide in scope, but never far from her country and family. In her speech at the 23rd International Poetry Festival of Medellín, Nguyen spoke about Poem Mountain in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, where a poem by the 15th Century Emperor of Vietnam, Le Thanh Tong, is carved into the mountain side. Reading this collection by Nguyen, one cannot help but feel that each poem is written into the Vietnamese landscape of the poet’s imagination. Not carved, but delicately inscribed; so as to preserve the beauty of a country whose wounds must not define it.