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November 2021

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This month’s Poet of the Month is a collaboration between two notable poets. The featured poems which were originally written in Vietnamese by Ms. Lê Phạm Lê were co-translated into English with Ms. Nancy Arbuthnot. The success of this joint undertaking can be seen in the resulting elegant English verses.

Born in Vietnam, poet Lê Phạm Lê is the author of a bilingual collection of poems, From Where The Wind Blows (translated into English with Nancy Arbuthnot); a trilingual collection, Waves Beyond Waves (with Nancy and Noriko Mizusaki); and three children books of her own: Magical Voice In The Forest, Guava Hill, Baby Sparrow Song. She lives in the Bay Area and has recently completed a play, Bequest of Wings: An American Journey, in collaboration with Nancy.

Nancy Arbuthnot collaborates with Lê Phạm Lê on English versions of her poems and other works. She has published her own books of poetry, including "Blue Rhapsodies," about growing up in a navy family, and "Postcards from the Border," about her recent experiences on the southern US border. She lives in Washington, DC where she leads art and writing workshops for children and vulnerable populations.

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(With high regard to Prof./Nom scholar Nguyen Quang Tuan)

In quest of learning, I’ve pondered poetry,
Swum in the vast ocean of knowledge.
Teaching--my passion, my vocation—
Alas, only a breeze over the river!

One rainy morning, mountain winds sobbed.
Leaves littered my high school’s grounds.
Putting away pen and chalk, I flew like an eagle
from my native land, hopeful, braving the storm. 

Dear friend, gazing up at the mountaintop, 
Will you please finish your cup of tea?
I made it with special leaf-tips, picked young,
As fresh as these lines of poetry.

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Your half-life of learning, wind-blown, gone.
Your footsteps, dust on the road.
Surrender now to the wisdom of the old.
Listen to birdsong all morning long.
Clouds sail across the sky.
Riverboats dream with the tide.
Twenty years of work—enough!
Pack your bags goodbye!

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Clouds upon clouds, white, slow—
Or a snow-flake curtain, hung in the night?
A shadow slips along the mountain wall—
Someone carrying poems under the wintry sky?

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Snowflakes swished in wild wind,
puzzling the spring visitor to Washington.
A breeze caressed the Tidal Basin.
A streetlamp whispered to the Potomac.
The full-moon shone on snow-white petals,
fragile shadows of time. The cherry tree 
Let her tresses fall, bending 
toward earth, a silent good-bye.
Next morning, the wind-blown blossoms 
of the weeping cherry, nowhere to be found.

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On the balcony at night,
Two steamy cups of tea,
Two friends reciting poetry,
Moonlight shimmering in their eyes.

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(In memory of Sharon Hutton)

Summer’s far off--so why this sound of July rain*?
Such heartache carried by this New Year’s news--
No one to read my message sent the day before.
The purple clouds this evening drift off--where?

(*“July Rain/mưa ngâu” refers to the annual reunion/good-bye tears of the two characters “Ngưu Lang” and “Chức Nữ” in a Chinese legend. It is also the time that my friend and I planned to get together; but sadly, that never happens… 

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(In Memory of Phan Thi Mai)

Your name, Mai, a yellow blossom.
Your smile--how I miss it!--
Even amid chaos sparkle-eyed. 
The risks you took for freedom, 
Waves beyond waves, your dream 
Sinking before you reached shore.
Regret following regret,
I burn incense for your soul.

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Our childhood friends, our ancient village,
the purple reeds that swayed by the bridge. . .
Đa Nhim River still flows in memory
And the lost calf moos, nghé ngọ, nghé ngọ … 

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