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.
…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
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?
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.