ANGELINE KEK WRITTEN – Time – the blanket that gently but completely envelops all sensations, memories and beings. There is no point in writing about time, it is the intellectual equivalent of screaming in an endless void. Undeniably, being aware of your existence means learning to be comfortable with time and its power over absolutely everything. In The beginning of water (2021), Trần Lê Khánh knows better than write about the weather. Rather, these poems explore the interwoven lamentations and joys of being a time watcher, a time participant, a life form lucky enough to be time conscious.
Prefacing the main part of the collection, award-winning poet and literary translator Bruce weigl puts into words the spirit of Trần Lê Khánh’s writing in the grand scheme of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, which has crossed different eras of subjects and stylistic choices over the years. Pre-war poetry served primarily as a “celebration of love and intimate respect for all things in the natural world and the poet’s relationship to this world.” During the American War, poetry focused on the causes of “heroism, the miseries of war, and the forced separation of family and loved ones.” After the war, poetry continued to toast the beauty of life, savoring a newfound peace, while still being aware of the shadow of war. Currently, Vietnamese poetry has become fascinated by “[the metaphysicals] … and [uncovering] secrets hidden on [humanity]. “
The stanzas of Trần Lê Khánh do not correspond to any of these periods. Yet they certainly tap into the essence of those voices; different octaves vocalizing in a united song. Drawing of Buddhist philosophy; dive into the triangle of human, nature and love; indulge in both the ups and downs of being a creature of love and attachment. These poems are allusions to the spirits of past Vietnamese poems while being entirely theirs.
The beginning of the water is a swirling concoction of bite-sized poems – tiny but powerful. While most of the poems in the collection never venture beyond four short lines, they certainly pack a powerful and lingering punch. Endowed with a broad understanding of poetic forms and a mastery of the Vietnamese language, the speaker lacks words. Every single syllable is a crucial paint stroke in a simple yet comprehensive painting. Each moment written on the page is a fleeting snapshot, an atom of frozen time. Perhaps it is the fact that these moments are replayed forever in the imagination of readers that gives them a timeless quality – like endless short films played simultaneously in a museum.
Just as Buddhism is the most predominant religion in Vietnam, its philosophy influences and shapes the landscape of this collection. While relying heavily on the themes of transmigration of souls, nirvana, the beginning of time and detachment, these concepts are perfectly integrated into the poems, never dominant.
The same could be said of the mass collection: an uninterrupted flow which is the speaker’s voice, flowing over the stanzas and embracing them like waves sliding over fish. It is the speaker’s natural focus on the dreamlike and timeless aspects of life and the reflections that flow from it that ties all of these poems together, despite their varying shapes and forms.
A good balance between sweet and tangy is the basis of this collection. While the topics of delicate nature, hard-hitting love, and pure connections are widely explored by the speaker, there is an affinity for the bitter ends of parting, be it between a leaf and its tree, the moon, and water, the speaker and a lover. , or simply the melancholy that accompanies the end of one season to make way for the next. This cutting and hurtful effect is masterfully crafted using the simplicity and stillness of these poems, the fleetingness that compels the reader to sit down with what they just consumed and a sense of insignificance. As endless and endless as the world is, everything will be erased by time. Therefore, these separation poems should not be seen as sad, but rather as poems of acceptance and understanding.
The translated works always raise fascinating questions of similarity and dichotomy, especially with poetry. What does it mean to preserve the essence of the original work? Is the goal replication, or does this only hinder the authenticity of the translated work? And the rhythm, the flow?
In The beginning of water, the reverie of the poems is apparent in both versions, as the subjects and unfolding of the poems are kept the same. The ebb and flow, however, vary due to elements of the Vietnamese language itself. Vietnamese literature always takes into consideration diacritics, an item that is rare in the English language. While the essence of both versions is the same, there is a joy in probing the verses in Vietnamese; they roll over the tongue like a song and the poem is enhanced with melody. Therefore, it is essential to properly grasp the diacritics when entering poems, a common oversight of publications on Vietnamese works.
The poems presented in The beginning of the water are a million tiny shards that make up a softly glowing disco ball. While they stand perfectly on their own, it is their interaction with each other, one contemplative stanza after another, that truly brings the diaphanous spirit of this collection to life.
Angeline Kek is a literary critic and editor for Asia Media International. Recently graduated from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and honest writing in the face of hesitation.