Hot Days in Vietnam
A Travel Journal
Tokyo Narita Airport 7/6/09
So maybe old men ought to be explorers;
I sit among the naïve Nippon young
On my quixotic journey to Hanoi,
Hearing the birdsong of another tongue.
What are you searching for, for all these years?
Perhaps that ancient gasp of wonder you
Gave when you saw at dawn Ascension rise
Over the ocean sixty years ago.
The rain-clouds clear toward the West as we
Climb in pursuit of the still-fleeing sun.
This strange long day is like my restless life
Unending, but as always re-begun.
Cockcrow in Hanoi 7/7/09
Jetlag’s luxurious exhaustion shows
The city in its frank and open light.
The foolish fowl cries what he always knows
And the old man takes up the work of sight.
An Asian city under the monsoon,
A little French, with wrought iron and croissants,
Some new construction, hooting of a horn;
Again he must give himself up to chance.
What else has he to give his gentle hosts?
Somehow he left his poetry at home.
He must have given over all his ghosts,
To shape his life once more into a poem.
The River of People 7/8/09
At dawn the shutters open and the coals
Streetside glow under pots of pho,
Fig-roots, festoons of wire clog the poles,
On tiny stools folk eat before they go.
A maiden in a cone hat balances
Seventy pounds of melons in two pans;
Nothing’s as elegant as her passage is.
Fresh basil’s stuffed in empty coffee-cans.
Now motorcycles pour down Le Thai To
In a fresh torrent of humanity;
Young and clear-skinned, enthroned, they do not know
How perilous a single slip would be.
How could we have made war on such as these?
How could their parents think we meant them ill?
What fire is in these gentle Vietnamese?
What use to them is my delayed goodwill?
The Pale-faced Lady and the Full Moon 7/8/09
Our hostess sees, at dinner, my distress.
It is the night when Buddhists go to pray.
She leads us to the shrine. A dark recess
Holds a gold Buddha, seeming far away.
He glows against the crimson temple wall,
His lips composed in something like a smile
Of infinite compassion for us all—
I stand quite tame and humble for a while;
And then we turn a corner, and nearby,
Under the white moon’s blaze of bluish light
The old cathedral rises to the sky
As if its pillaged stones yearned to take flight.
One is a dwelling, one a pointing spire;
But they are neighbors, red shrine and the white.
One knows the root of suffering is desire;
One knows the fruit of suffering is light.
The Women of Vietnam 7/9/09
The singers in their purple silks so sway
As these green willows do in the warm wind.
Their slim hands modestly give all away,
Their voices, shrill as birds, are unrestrained.
Dawn in Halong Bay 7/10/09
A flock of dove-grey clouds drifts slowly through
A primrose sky that fades to eggshell blue.
A darker flock of islands silently
Lies on the levels of the silver sea.
The Poets 7/10/09 (for Hoang and Kha and Cuong)
Through all the politics, through all the grief
Of life, their tragic clownish faces smile,
Because they bear the great gift of belief
In a sweet hard truth that defies denial.
This road-trip’s getting stranger by the minute;
Suddenly we’ve all turned into hams.
Music breaks out—who knows what will begin it?—
The boss’s gorgeous daughter feeds me clams.
We’re lighting incense at a dead man’s shrine,
We’re scribbling poems in a traffic-jam;
We’re eating Haiphong squid with white moonshine,
We’re home now in poetic Vietnam.
Goodbye, Goobye 7/12/09
My poet friends come out to see me off.
Two of them fought us forty years ago.
To make us brothers, maybe it’s enough
To see a brave man’s simple tears flow.