Hai Dang Phan

Audio: Read by the author.
Swelling out of the ocean like a bad feeling,
heard before seen slouching toward Miramar
over Venice Beach, it’s the Bell Boeing V-22,
not sleek but versatile, able to launch
from Al Asad, fly to Mudaysis, perform pickup,
then return, all within the golden hour,
fast enough to outrun a difficult past,
the budgetary hurdles and crashes in R. & D.,
the $72-million price tag, flyaway,
its many modes, and we think moods;
you remember its namesake in another state,
fled from some outer dark, gliding above
the diamond, from left field to center,
where it made its home up in the stadium lights,
a crown of wooden swords for its nest,
hovering in the swampy air like forethought
as the crack of a bat sent a tiny moon
into orbit, a wave rippling through
the crowd, the lights on their tall stems
powered on, day powered down,
and you had no team, you did not know
whom to root for, home or away.
  • Hai-Dang Phan will publish his début poetry collection, “Reenactments,” in February.


Hai-Dang Phan translating Phan Nhiên Hạo from the Vietnamese

click here for the Vietnamese text
click here for the Translator’s Note
The camera pans the face
of a mountain. Artificial light launched
from the cannons of warships
anchored in the gulf of Tourane
makes bats fall from the Palace ceilings
and blood redden the river Huong.
The camera’s position is no accident.
In 1858 it aimed to civilize
this nation by the Seventh Art.
146 years later, we’re still making
serial porn.

Hai-Dang Phan is an MFA student in poetry at the University of Florida. His translations of other poems by Phan Nhiên Hạo appear or are forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, Cerise Press, and Drunken Boat.
Phan Nhiên Hạo was born in Kontum, Vietnam in 1967 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1991. He is the author of two collections of poems in Vietnamese, Thiên Đường Chuông Giấy (Paradise of Paper Bells, 1998) and Chế Tạo Thơ Ca 99-04 (Manufacturing Poetry 99-04, 2004). A full-length, bilingual collection of his poetry, entitled Night, Fish, and Charlie Parker, was translated into English by Linh Dinh (Tupelo, 2006). Translations of his poetry have also been featured in the anthology Of Vietnam Identities in Dialogue (Palgrave, 2001) and Three Vietnamese Poets (Tinfish, 2001). He lives in northern Illinois, and edits the online journal litviet.


Poems by Phan Nhiên Hạo

Meeting a Cab Driver in New York

The yellow cab runs on roads ripped open
by earthquakes and never sealed
skyscrapers jut overhead
Nguyen Van B. has lived in New York for 28 years
he’s still not fluent in English
his French is better
Robbed three times at gunpoint,
B. says: “Anything worth losing I’ve already lost,
country, youth, dreams
Back in Saigon my family had two servants
and one chauffeur
now I am the chauffeur of millions of people
In this city you catch a cab by whistling
just wave your hand I’ll run right up to you
like a yellow dog called Taxi…
…don’t worry, no need to tip me,
after all, we’re both Vietnamese.”

Sunday, May 10, 1998

Sunday morning, May 10, 1998
nothing special really
the birthday of thousands of people not me
nothing special really
some dead whales wash ashore
I open a can of sardines
fish without heads think in silence
I open my hand
the lines on my palm tell me it’s not yet time to die
I open Walt Whitman
leaves of grass still green in the middle of a haughty smile
I spread your legs open
a sad creature is born
I open the door of morning
it’s already past 10
Sunday morning nothing special really
except I’m missing 25 cents
for laundry

Greyhound, 1992

In ‘92 I crossed the country,
from Atlanta to Seattle, by bus.
I had $300 and about that much English.
Over the flat fields of the Midwest
I saw cows crowded like ants.
The air smelled like shit for miles and miles.
The locals were unfazed.
Had I lived there long enough,
I wouldn’t smell anything either
I guess.
Many black people rode the bus.
Only later did I learn it was the easiest way
for poor people to travel state to state.
They have lots of time and little money.
In the restroom of a transfer station in Denver
a white kid offered me a joint and something else.
That was also the first time I saw an Indian
not from a movie. He was too drunk
to remember what tribe he belonged to.
He didn’t carry a gun or bow,
but held a beer can–tall boy–while slumped in a corner.
I turned down the joint and something else to avoid
becoming a yellow man who exists only in a movie.
I sat beside a Hmong man–shorter than me!
This guy drank milk the whole trip.
You might have thought he was a loser
hoping for a second growth spurt.
But I know why he guzzled so much milk:
his stomach hurt.
I, too, suffered from gastritis once.
The result of years of starvation
and bitterness from growing up in a piss-poor nation.
He clutched the jugs (Made in the USA, 75 cents)
like a pair of fake breasts you toss in the trash after sucking.
Back then, I felt like an immigrant made from plastic,
resilient and resistant to all types of acids.
In 1992, the Greyhound from Atlanta to Seattle
only cost $85 for the 2,600 mi. journey.
America, you swallowed me down your great throat
cheaper than dirt.

Seattle Memory

The day rains, stops, the afternoon blazes and night comes late. Summer in Seattle, I remember Da Lat. The little afternoons tucked away into a corner of that city, where I crossed hills, sun shining like red fruit ripening, tranquil lakes. Penniless one morning I went down into the city, over footpaths of fallen petals. I lived there. Days graceful and carefree, days flickering between dream and reality. I didn’t question myself. I dozed in a wooden box that smelled of pine, and dreamt. It was my spot for dreaming. People were planting cabbage and flowers, people hungry and poor. A dream. I sensed disaster coming. I sat on distant chairs. I walked beneath sheets of rain and asked the grass on the hilltop why it grows. As a snake slithered by, I heard dinosaurs roar and volcanoes erupt. I lived in my sphere of privacy.
Now I live in this city, with its outdoor markets, soaring freeways, days of heat, nights of fog, mornings of snow. How far is Da Lat? The blue ocean lies between. I have nobody left to miss and little to say. The world is vast, see yourself spinning. Ahead, the road joins earth to heaven. On summer days, the winds from the north blow forever. My sleep is disturbed. I drive on icy roads. My writing is haphazard. I try to keep myself calm at all costs. Still, my work is meticulous. I’m a miner inside a cave that has collapsed. Everyone escaped. Not a soul knows I survive. From ages ago.

Manufacturing Poetry

On an afternoon with nothing to do
I sit manufacturing poems
out of sixteen screws, two metal plates,
and four wheels. Poems fueled
by a mix of strife, hope, love, and futility.
Enough to run from America to China
in a pitch-black tunnel bisecting the Earth’s core.
Blasting open fate
I tunnel deep.

E-mail from Nguyen Quoc Chanh

Been in Da Lat
a week already
Sai Gon was too hot
hotter than years past
I am more afraid of people every day
even the grass and trees looked a little fried.
Rained here yesterday
black clouds filled the sky
and flies coated the ground
inside a pho shop I asked someone
what’s up with all the flies
he said it’s fly season.


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