THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 8 NUMBER 2
Poet TAN DA,
and the ‘little girl’
who dared to challenge him
by VU DINH DINH
VU DINH DINH was born and grew up in Vietnam. Pursuing higher education he came to the US in 1956 and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Chicago, and University of Hawaii where he obtained his Ph.D. He was recipient of an East-West Center Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, and a National Science Foundation Honorable Mention Award, and having served as Senior Heath Planner with the Houston Department of Health and Human Services, taught at the college level, and had scientific research works published in international journals.
The name Tản Đà is dear to Vietnamese as Robert Lee Frost is to Americans. His real name is Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu. He was born in 1888, four years after the Nguyễn Royal House signed the Patenôtre Treaty to hand over the reign of government to France. His birthplace is Khê Thượng, a village at the foothill of Tản Viên (Mt. Tản) overlooking Đà River, thus his pen name Tản Đà predicting a life fully attached to the land, the people, and the language of Vietnam. His mother, prior to becoming the third wife of a judge, was a traditional songstress practicing the profession in an ill-reputed district in the capital. His father died when he was three years old. He was then raised and educated by his eldest stepbrother, who was province director of education. He owed much of his literary training to his talented brother-in- law, a highly respected province chief.
Although well-versed in Hán Việt, he never passed the regional exams, which screened students hopeful for a mandarinal career. He learned how to read and write present-day Vietnamese by himself. It is not known whether anybody taught him French or not. Anyhow, he was allowed to sit in the entrance exam for the French translator school but failed to pass the oral test.
This is how the poet describes himself:
(The Almighty gave birth to a fellow named Tản Đà.
He has a country but no home.
He travels far and wide half of his life.
He has lots of friends, but is seldom home with his wife.
With a bag of poems he visits all three regions,
Befriending mountains and waters, frolicking with
winds and the moon.)
“Trời sinh ra bác Tản Đà ,
Quê hương thờ có, cửa nhà thời không..
Nửa đời Nam, Bắc, Tây, Đông,
Bạn bè xum họp, vợ chồng biệt ly.
Túi thơ đeo khắp ba Kỳ
Lạ chi rừng biển, thiếu ǵ gió trăng.”
To the illiterate mass, Tản Đà is a fortune-teller, an alcoholic, an eccentric, a confucianist, a patriot, and a teacher of the national language (chữ quốc ngữ). To his contemporaries, he is a dreamer. The journalist-scholar Phạm Quỳnh remarked that “his life does not match his dream, so he dreams to make it up ” (thân không bằng mộng , nên mộng cho cam thân). The eclogue chronicler Nguyễn Văn Ngọc characterized him as a poetic craftman whose style is difficult to imitate. He is a journalist, an essayist, a playwright, and above all a great poet. Xuân Diệu said that “Tản Đà’s poems are verses that have spirits ” (những câu thơ có thần). Some even see Tan Da as the nation’s bard, a title normally reserved for Nguyễn Du. Below are two poems that show the quality of his poetic skill and his characteric eccentricity.
(Reproduction from Ngày Nay, January 28, 1939)
Peach petals were sprinkled along the Paradise path
As clear creeks and golden orioles all came to bid farewell!
Half a year of blissful life in Paradise,
One step of miserable existence on Earth,
Olden vow and little love were just that and no more!
Stones are cut, mosses turn brown,
Water runs deep, flowers float around,
And cranes fly high,
Disappearing into the blueish sky!
Now Heaven and Earth are again forever separated,
The grotto gate,
The mountain top,
The beaten path,
Reminiscences of a thousand years of
A moon-washed celestial stroll.
Lá đào rơi rắc lối thiên thai
Suối tiễn, oanh đưa những ngậm ngùi
Nửa năm tiên cảnh,
Một bước trần ai,
Ước cũ, duyên thừa có thế thôi!
Đá ṃn, rêu nhạt,,
Nước chảy, huê trôi,
Cái hạc bay lên vút tận trời!
Trời đất từ đây xa cách măi,
Đường lối cũ,
Ngàn năm thơ thẩn bóng trăng chơi .”
Everybody likes this poem, which is an excerpt from his play Paradise. However, as an author complained, nobody is good enough to tell why it is so beautiful. The poem was put into music by the popular Vietnamese composer Phạm Duy and the famed Chinese sculptor Đới Ngạn Quân had it engraved on a piece of ivory no larger than a grain of rice. Shortly before Tả Đà died, he composed another lovely poem:
Wanting to be “Cuội” *
How gloom is the autumn night, dear Sister Moon!
I am again so bored with this earthly world.
Has there been anyone sitting in your royal palace yet?
If not, pick me up by your banyan branch.
We can be friends ; don’t feel sorry for yourself .
We can play with the winds and frolic with the clouds.
And then every year, on the fifteenth day of August
You and I will just recline,
Laughing at what’s going on down there.
*“Cuội” is the Vietnamese slang for a chronic liar .You may like to read up on Vietnamese folklore to find out how “Cuội ” got onto the moon.
Muốn làm thằng Cuội
Đêm thu buồn lắm chị Hằng ơi,
Trần thế em nay chán nữa rồi.
Cung quế đă ai ngồi đó chửa?
Cành đa xin chị nhắc lên chơi.
Có bầu, có bạn, can chi tủi,
Cùng gió, cùng mây, thế mới vui..
Rồi cứ mỗi năm rằm tháng Tám,
Tựa nhau trông xuống thế gian cười.”
Tản Đà passed away in Hà Nội on May 7, 1939. He was 51 years old. While searching for materials for my book Selected Vietnamese Poetry I learned a valuable lesson, which has since served me as guiding light for the kind of work I am doing, i.e., if you spend time reading poetry and if you are willing to listen to people talking about poetry, you will be rewarded with pleasant surprises. In my book you will find several poems which are beautiful, but whose authors you probably have never heard of simply because they are not professional poets who submit works regularly for publicat-ion. These unknown authors are ordinary people, who want to jot down in memorable words fleeting moments of their lives and normally kept them in private. In many instances seeing the value of their works I literally had to beg them to share their poems with poetry lovers. The poem by the “Little Girl” who dared to challenge Tản Đà because of his pessimistic point of view expressed in “Wanting to Be Cuoi “ is another case in point.
The “Little Girl” is still here with us at the young age of ninety-two. Her name is Nguyễn Thị
Chung*. For her published works she used the name Người Sông Nhuệ (Person from Nhuệ River). Except for a slight slur in her speech caused by a stroke, her mental ability is unimpaired. Her eyes are probably sharper than mine. Her voice is strong. Her memory is excellent as she still can relate details of events that happened more than half of a century ago. The poem I got from her was dictated to me from memory. She is a long-time friend of mine. I used to practice Tai-ji with her son-in-law and her daughter. Yet, at no time during our friendship did she ever hint to me that she was a writer or a poet, until recently when I talked to her about how Tản Đà wanted to escape to the moon. In a casual manner and unassumingly, she said that she used to bring sticks (đóm) for him to light his water pipe and prepare tea to treat him. Tản Đà often came to visit her eldest brother. He called her amiably “con bé con ” (the little girl ).She was 11 years old then. She recalls that Tản Đà was slender in built and his face was long instead of square like the Chinese letter “điền” that Vietnamese like to see of a man. That was more than eighty years ago. Time did not seem to go that fast. As our conversation went on, she told me that she had concern for Tản Đà when she read his poem “Wanting to be Cuội.” He sounded sad and she learned that he was not in good health. About two years after the publication of his poem the poet died. Although Người Sông Nhuệ was not a poet when Tản Đà was alive and despite the fact that women in Vietnam in the old days were not allowed to go to school, she imitated Tản Đà’s poem to express her optimistic viewpoint of life. Also, she did not appreciate the irreverence Tản Đà had shown to Sister Moon when he asked her to pick him up with the banyan branch. Her objection stems from an ungallant verse that Chiêu Hổ (this name has become a sobriquet for a drunkard.) answered the famed poetess Hồ Xuân Hương :“I offer you both the banyan branch and its bulb.” (Cho cả cành đa lẫn củ đa).
NgườI Sông Nhuệ sent her poem under the name of “Con Bé Con” as Tản Đà used to call her, to Phong Hóa Magazine (Social Mores) only to receive a note from Khái Hưng, one of the leaders of Tự Lực Văn Đoàn Literary League, saying how dare “The Little Girl ” is to answer the poem of brother Hiếu. Hiếu is the first name of Tản Đà. Below is the poem that was submitted more than sixty years ago, but, as far as its author knows, did not go to press. We need to keep in mind that, unlike nowadays, at that time only poems by known authors were printed unless they were exceptional and their style conformed strictly to Tang poetry standard.
How wonderful is the autumn night, dear Sister Moon.
The earth has now fully awakened.
Do you have anyone to guard your palace yet?
We, earthlings invite you to come.
Lunar Angel mix with Earthly Folk, don’t feel sad ;
We will joyfully climb mountains and swim in waters.
Then, on the fifteenth day of August,
Angel and Earthly Folk will joint hands to celebrate festivities.
Đêm thu thú lắm chị Hằng ơi .
Trần thế ngày nay đă tỉnh rồi.
Cung quế đă ai ngồi đó chửa?
Trần gian mời chị hăy xuống chơi.
Có Tiên có Tục, can chi tủi;
Cùng nước cùng non thế mới vui.
Rồi cứ mỗi nmă rằm tháng Tám,
Người Tiên kẻ Tục sánh vai cười.”
Người Sông Nhuệ continues to write poetry and prose for overseas journals. For one reason or another many of her works have not been published. Although I have not had full access to her thick files of articles and poems to have a good understanding of her philosophy of life, what I do know about her is that she is not afraid to speak her mind. She has survived all odds and credits it to her positive attitude toward life. It is my understanding that her latest poem about the beauty of the Mid-Autumn Festival was broadcast over the local Vietnamese radio in Houston.
Author’s note: * “The Little Girl” or Mrs. Nguyễn Quang Đôn, whose maiden name is Nguyễn Thị Chung, passed away on March 13, 2006 in Houston, Texas. She was survived by her two daughters and a son who are now living in the United States. She was cremated according to Buddhist rites.
VU DINH DINH
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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