Xuan Dieu and my father
Coincidence is a surprising thing and sometimes very beautiful.
I found myself wandering around the online pages of a scholar and translator of Vietnamese and French poetry; one Thomas L. Le. I was so moved by one of the poems that it inspired a small painting of a Hoi An fisherman skilfully riding the surf in his basket boat as he brought his small catch back to the girl waiting on the beach to take it to market. I wrote some lines from the poem directly onto the painting and it was quickly sold at my Hoi An Exhibition of May 2014. The poem was by Xuan Dieu but being new to Vietnam, I found it difficult to commit the name to memory.
Some months later, I found myself living on Xuan Dieu Street in Hanoi. More recently, I found myself in a specialist printing shop on Xuan Dieu Street in Ho Chi Minh City, Q5 and I thought ‘there’s that name again’. I realised that this is no ordinary poet.
I discovered that Xuan Dieu was born and died in exactly the same years as my own father (1916-1985). Both men had studied engineering at university; one in Hanoi and one in Sheffield (UK). Had my father lived, he would be 100 years old in May 2016 , which was the year of a national celebration of the life of the Vietnamese poet. So I could immediately identify with this man and compare his life with that of my own father. Xuan Dieu was coming to life in my imagination.
The poet had started writing while at university in Hanoi and over a lifetime contributed around 450 poems, short stories, diaries and essays as part of the Modern Poetry Movement which took off in the 1930s. Under the influence of western education introduced by the French, Vietnam was emerging from a highly structured Confucian, family centred culture to become more individualistic and expressive. The Modern Poetry movement gave voice to the discomforts of this transition. I expect that these poets were viewed with equal disdain as Rock ‘n Roll, Punk Rock and Hip Hop artists were by their parents’ generation. Now, of course, many of the early movers and shakers of modern music have been honoured by their governments and they will be revered by generations to come. Xuan Dieu’s poetry will live on and his words are just as poignant and relevant now as they were when written.
I don’t deserve to be the ocean blue
But I want thee to be the white beach sand
The sandy beach stretching calmly its hue
Under the crystal sun
The comely beach of yellow sand There’s times when I would fain surge in
Extending to the rows of pine As if to crush thy edges dear
Let me be the clear turquoise swells I don’t deserve to be the ocean blue
That kiss ceaseless thy yellow sand But want to be the turquoise sea
I will kiss thee again, again So when the foam comes boiling white
From here clear to eternity And wind gusts in from everywhere
The gentle kiss that often dwells To sing eternal songs by thee
The quiet kiss that has no end In endless love for thee dear true
So dreamily and quietly It’s when my billows roar passion
For eons by the roaring brine To drown thee is ceaseless love sheer
Till none of this wide world remains Insatiably I will kiss with might
Before my heat can beat calmly Cause I love so thy sand edge bare.