Book Review: Paper Bells

“Paper Bells,” by Phan Nhiên Hạo, translated by Hai-Dang Phan. Brooklyn: Song Cave, 2020.

Phan Nhiên Hạo reminds us that one does not have to write in English in order to be an American poet, nor does one have to publish in Vietnam in order to be a Vietnamese poet. As a Vietnamese-language poet and librarian living in Illinois, Phan has published a new collection, Paper Bells, titled after a poem about a silent inner catastrophe:

A one-story house holding 60,000 gallons of gasoline.
My head is a flame
throwing open the door
to each blaze.
My spirit can’t take flight.
The paper bells make no sound.

The collection is the staggering result of more than ten years of collaborative translation with Vietnamese American poet Hai-Dang Phan. In an interview, Phan had stated, “Translated work is interesting because it is foreign. I think a translator should not try to naturalize a translated text.” This is as true of his poetry’s language as it is of his memories, which also refuse to be naturalized. As Sarah Timmer Harvey observes, Phan’s work is compelled by “the need to individualize history and reject the idea of a dominant collective memory.”

Rejecting Vietnamese Communist and American Dream narratives alike, Phan is a political writer who is wary of ideology’s potential to absorb the self:

Now onto the task
of dying another person’s death.
Nations, peoples, their suppressions—
I can only die my own death.
Never say, “I will die for . . .”

By turning to the obscene, Phan demythologizes these high ideals of politics. Thus, the poem above ends with the realization:

We all line up outside a restroom—
even in this business I must bring my own paper.

Through the image of “paper,” the philosophical-political realm of ideas is brought back down to its biological base. The inability of the political to incorporate the fecal becomes synecdochical for the inability of the individual to incorporate himself into any greater collective consciousness.

Poet Phan Nhiên Hạo (left) and translator Hai-Dang Phan.

Indeed, one way to describe Phan Nhiên Hạo’s poetry is to show how it seems to lurch between the obscene and the contemplative. Phan lingers on quiet and unassuming scenes until they become horrific, such as when he demands that his reader holds the mental image of a poor child in Saigon who needs to pee in a poem titled “An Exercise Against Abstraction.” Or, as Phan considers the fish at the bottom of a well, the poem suddenly turns to the memory of his uncle in reeducation camp. Conversely, Phan also dwells upon shocking and obscene images until his subjects are humanized. In the poem “Regarding the Spiritual and Social Situation of Vietnam Today (Observations that are current but abstract and highly general, typical of the deep, sensitive, and brave soul of poets),” Phan does exactly the opposite: he looks directly at a poor and filthy population, “cooking maggot corpses” or “chewing dog meat,” until he both pities and admires them for their perseverance. When Phan imagines how Nelson Mandela must have masturbated in prison, Phan’s attitude is not disgust, but empathy:

Such matters are natural and have nothing to do with respect
We’re all prisoners of some sort

This relationship between the obscene and the contemplative—as between that which repels thought and that which invites thought—also informs Phan’s beliefs about proper memory. The obscene can only be abstractly contemplated, while never being truly known. In “9/11 – Hue Massacre,” Phan remembers being at a bar in Saigon when learning of 9/11, and how his thoughts somehow slipped towards the Hue Massacre, revealing his detachment from the reality of both events. Yet, paradoxically, the obscene is also something which resists thought, and reveals itself only through the embodied experience:

These deaths were more useless than fertilizer.
Maybe such a story seems unbelievable
for your analytical mind.
Yet for us, the people who hatched from eggs,
all things are just legends,
including fresh blood.

Phan dramatizes how, for the Vietnamese “who hatched from eggs,” these various atrocities are simply elided into the long national history of bloodshed on a legendary scale. There is no need to reflect upon that which one has daily lived through.

Phan is a poet in exile, and it is this existence, finally, which is explored through the dialectic of the obscene and the contemplative. His distance from Vietnam liberates him from Vietnamese state censorship and enables him to contemplate the horrors of its history; yet, his distance also separates him, rendering Vietnam “obscene” in its literal meaning of being “off stage.” In his poem, “Summer Radio,” Phan portrays the exile as cut off from the realities of Vietnamese society and of his own memory. The radio only circulates “crazy stories coming from the East” which reinforce assumptions about Asian savagery, and urges listeners to “switch to the Reconciliation Program” which is only an alibi for the neoliberal interests which would seek to capitalize upon the restoration of US-Vietnamese market relations. The radio’s announcement represents the fantasy that the exile can free himself of the weight of history, and by extension, of his melancholy state of exile:

This is the Voice of Solitude
broadcasting to you live
from America in the middle of a cornfield
on the channel of exile with no regrets.

Phan’s task is to maintain the exile’s solitude, as painful as it might be, in order to continue producing the counter-memories which resist and critique these monolithic US and Vietnamese discourses. His translator Hai-Dang Phan states,

For the past thirty years, the poet Phan Nhiên Hạo has been living and writing in exile with no regrets, off-center, in the shadows of no man’s land, mostly invisible and unknown, undomesticated, and free. I will be his translator and collaborator—and his witness.

Paper Bells
by Phan Nhiên Hạo
translated by Hai-Dang Phan
Song Cave, $17.95

Contributor’s Bio

Sydney To is an English PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, with research interests in Asian American literature, transpacific Vietnamese literature, critical refugee studies, and biopolitics. His work has appeared in Asian American Literature: An Encyclopedia for Studies and Asian Review of Books.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here