In Darkness I Throw Open the Door: Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap, tr. by Martha Collins and Ngo Tu Lap

Jaqueline Kolosov
| Reviews

Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap, translated from the Vietnamese by Martha Collins and Ngo Tu Lap (Milkweed Editions, 2013).


Ngo Tu Lap, who has published over twenty books, among them book-length translations from the Russian and the French, was born in Hanoi in 1962 on the verge of what we know as the Vietnam War. His family was soon evacuated to Vinh Phu, where he grew up, about sixty miles away from Hanoi. Later, he went on to study abroad in Russia, Paris, and the United States. Black Stars is the Vietnamese writer’s first book-length work to be published in English, and the Vietnamese is reproduced on the left. This enables the reader to seek out the original and begin to understand, at least visually, the kinds of translation choices made by fellow poet and translator Martha Collins, with Lap’s assistance. Together, they selected poems from Lap’s second and third books, as well as newer poems. “[The poems in Black Stars] follow not only the chronology of the books,” Collins writes in the introduction, “but also the poet as he progresses from being a young man reflecting on his village childhood, to a more mature traveler absorbing and reflecting on contemporary life, to a seasoned ‘Man with Big Eyes’ who has seen a great deal, and who can help us see…” Here, we experience the estrangement and exile the war produced in Lap, the tension between grief and homecoming (the impossibility of his homecoming); this is what lends the collection so much of its power.

In reading Black Stars, I am reminded of Jane Hirshfield’s vision of translation as a leap of faith: “It becomes possible,” she writes in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, “only if we trust that poetry lives in its words and beyond them, and that at least some version of this ur-poem can cross the abyss between one verbal body and another.” Hirshfield’s words are particularly appropriate to reading Black Stars which is, at its heart, about the relationship of memory and time, loss and recovery. To hold onto such necessary, fundamentally life-giving yet non-tangible entities requires nothing less than faith. And trust in mystery or darkness. Darkness, which in the Vietnamese is “bóng tói,” is an enabler of memory and therefore a friend, as in this poem that bears its name:

…I still choose you, darkness, as my companion


With you, the snails of childhood crawl out again...


Darkness is mine, darkness is everyone’s

In darkness there are no borders

In darkness I throw open the door

And head toward the end of the delta

The end of silence, where sorrow reigns...


Simultaneously, darkness and specifically the color black, are, like the speaker, empathic to suffering:


Like eyes in a decomposing skull

Black wells

Look into the earth

Black wells filled with silence


Beneath the acacia tree

Cai flowers withered long ago

Onion stalks have yellowed

Cannas have gone wild


Rainwater keeps falling

Into the empty well


Black wells filled with silence—

Who knows where

The old faces are buried?

(“Empty Well”)


Throughout Black Stars, Lap and Collins have chosen words that are beguilingly clear. This is a language that in its clarity seems at odds with the mysteries and the past violence which it strives to contain or at least surround; or perhaps simplicity is one of the only ways for one to begin to broach the inexplicable. In “Empty Well,” as in so many of the poems, a few words—in this case the names of plants—invest the poem with an element of foreignness, a gesture that strives to preserve the otherness of Lap’s origins. The other element that instills a foreign or strange (as in estranging) feel is the element of the surreal, as in “The Man with Big Eyes,” one of the newer poems from section three:


When his eyes are closed, his dreams begin

When they’re open

They themselves are the biggest dream

A sad dream

The color of stormy skies...


Lap reflects upon his estrangement from home with a perspective increasingly distanced by time. The wounded country of his childhood now exists only in memory. Take, for example, “The Midlands” from section one:


I lie on your back, you lie in my memory

Rains have carried my childhood away

But I’m still waiting:

Afternoon after afternoon

My mother returns, passing over the hill like a great cloud


I lie on your back, oh vast generosity

Your quiet selfless patience pierces my heart

The sound of bombs is gone now

But down in the valley your tears still glisten...


Red midlands, I see you in black night

And I understand betrayal


I’ve been searching for you through countless stars

Now my door will never be closed again


Here, as elsewhere in the collection, the landscape is a body, a female body that has been violated, and although “she” has recovered, she (and the speaker) remembers.

While Black Stars will be read as a portrait of the violations the Vietnamese experienced during the war and continue to endure nearly half a century later, it is simultaneously a collection that speaks of the inevitable losses that come with being born into time and onto an earth that is continually wounded with violence:


Many months have passed, drenched in sweat

But I have returned

To boldly place on the table

Two hands, two five-pointed stars


Stories of war and shipwreck don’t entice me

When I close my eyes, two stars fly into the darkness


To fly is to see how lofty the sky is, how wide the sea...


On guns and plows, millions of diligent stars

Are flying in silence

Black stars, black stars


One life might have drifted away

But one has returned...

(from “Black Stars”)


The strength of this translation and of its arrangement is the way the collection speaks both to one man’s experience—a Vietnamese man born on the eve of an atrocious war that continues to haunt his country—and to the experience of being human and therefore continually subject to loss, a cycle that begins with birth and the fall into time. A line as deceptively simple as “Stories of war and shipwreck don’t entice me” enlarges the collection as a whole precisely because it opens up Black Stars to the realm of myth and to the tradition of story, initially an oral tradition meant to be recited, again and again, in order to not only remember the necessary stories but to keep them and therefore the soul of the individual and the culture alive and breathing.



Jacqueline Kolosov’s third poetry collection is Memory of Blue (Salmon, February 2014). She writes fiction and nonfiction as well as poetry and has recently published work in The Southern Review, Fifth Wednesday, and Bellevue Literary Review. She is co-editing Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Investigation of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, forthcoming from Rose Metal in Fall 2015. Jacqueline is on the creative writing faculty at Texas Tech.

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