The Poem I Can’t Yet Name
by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and Bruce Weigl
For my grandmother
My hands lift high a bowl of rice, the seeds harvested
in the field where my grandmother was laid to rest.
Each rice seed tastes sweet as the sound of lullaby
from the grandmother I never knew
I imagine her soft face as they laid her down into the earth,
her clothes battered, her skin stuck to her bones;
in the great hunger of 1945; my village
was hungry for graves to bury all the dead.
Nobody could find my grandmother’s grave,
so my father tasted bitter rice for sixty-five years.
After sixty-five years, my father and I stood
in front of my grandmother’s grave.
I heard my father call “Mum,” for the first time;
the rice field behind his back trembled.
Two feet cling to the mud.
I listen in the burning incense to my grandmother’s soul spread;
uniting deep with the earth, taking root in the field,
she quietly sings lullabies, calling rice plants to blossom.
Lifting the bowl of rice in my hands, I count every seed,
each one glistening with the sweat of my relatives,
their backs bent in the rice fields,
the fragrance of my grandmother’s lullaby alive on each one.
PHOTO: Rice fields, Vietnam. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh, used by permission.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Born in a small village in the North of Việt Nam in 1973, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai migrated with her family to the South of Việt Nam when she was six years old. In 1993, Quế Mai received a scholarship from the Australian government to study in Australia for four years. Upon her return to Việt Nam, Quế Mai worked for several international organizations, including UN agencies, to foster Việt Nam’s sustainable development. Quế Mai’s main research area is the long-lasting impact of wars, and she has worked extensively with veterans and war victims. She has a Masters in Creative Writing with the UK’s Lancaster University and is a Honorary Fellow in Writing of Hong Kong Baptist University. Her PhD thesis focuses on her four research areas: the representation of women and disadvantaged groups in Việt Nam War fiction, the manifestation of trauma/PTSD in fiction, the ethics of creative writing, and how to maintain the Vietnameseness of her writing in English. Quế Mai has been honored with the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association, the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award, First Prize, as well as the Việt Nam Writers Association’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas. The Los Angeles Review of Books, in their review of Quế Mai’s The Secret of Hoa Sen calls her “one of Vietnam’s foremost contemporary poets.” Quế Mai’s latest work, The Mountains Sing, is her first novel and also the first book she has written in English. Read more about the author and her work at nguyenphanquemai.com.