I’m pleased to introduce Doug Anderson as this month’s guest essayist. A veteran of the Vietnam War and now peace activist, Doug has written some of the most powerful poems about the Vietnam War, many of which are included in his 1994 prize winning book The Moon Reflected Fire. I’m grateful to Doug for writing his trenchant essay “The Heart’s Emissary” so soon after returning from his trip to Hanoi this month where he and two hundred other poets and writers, including Carolyn Forché, Bruce Weigel, and Kevin Bowen, participated in an international writers conference.
Doug Anderson: THE HEART’S EMISSARY
Flashback: It is January, 2000, during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year. I’m sitting in a floating restaurant on the Danang River with Nguyen Ba Chung, Bruce Weigl, Kevin Bowen, and new friend, the poet Ngan Vinh. A few miles from here, just on the other side of the Marble Mountains and the Village of Nui Kim Son, is the former area of tactical operations of the marine battalion with which I was deployed in 1967. Vinh, my new friend, was a platoon commander with a PAVN unit that was engaged with my battalion. We were very probably shooting at each other. What do we have in common? We are poets, and men who have thought long and deeply about the horrible, mindless war begun by the Americans in the early sixties.
Through my affiliation with the Joiner Center for the Study of War and its Social Consequences, I have made many friends among my former enemies. Poetry brought us together. I was privileged to meet Pham Tien Duat, Nguyen Duy, Nguyen Duc Mao, Thu Bon, Lam Thi My Da, Bao Ninh, Hu’u Thinh and many other Vietnamese poets and writers who had fought us during the war. Duat, a fine poet with a beautiful singing voice, traveled with the PAVN along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, enduring years of American bombing, and sang to the troops. Hu’u Thinh was a tank commander who in April of 1975 led his tank company into Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, as the last Americans were leaving by helicopter from the roof of the embassy. He is a masterful poet and novelist, and now president of the Vietnam Writers Association.
I remember the conversations in the floating restaurant, some of the talk funny, much of it moving. We talked about weapons. We talked about what it was like fighting each other. I asked Vinh, “What did you think when you saw these huge Americans coming into this country?” He replied, “Easier to hit.”
Now it is February, 2019, and I am returning to Vietnam again, as a participant in an international writer’s conference and celebration of literature. Two hundred poets and writers from thirty different countries are present. I will not see Duat this time– he passed some years before, as has Thu Bon. And Lam Thi My Da is gravely ill. A note about Lam Thi My Da: she was a combat engineer deployed to build or blow up bridges as required. Later she was inserted into the south as an intelligence operative. She is a tall woman and a wonderful poet who carries the suffering of the war in her cells.
I flew over with Nguyen Ba Chung, who has just retired after many years of service to the Joiner Center. An American citizen now, he is a poet, translator and man of heart – mensch is the proper word and I wonder if there is an equivalent in Vietnamese. His grandfather, being wealthy, was killed by the Viet Minh. His father was killed by the French for being anti-colonialist. He carries within this dialectic of grief the complexities of Vietnamese history – a history that requires serious study, certainly deeper than what was known by the politicians behind the American War.
On this trip he is a translator and emissary. In the half century since the war, he’s nurtured old connections and new, and is deeply respected by both the Americans and Vietnamese. Since most of us are not fluent in Vietnamese, he is indispensable.
Master poet Bruce Weigl is on this trip as well. Weigl has learned Vietnamese and is comfortable by himself on the streets of Old Hanoi. The Vietnamese are the most social people I know. You can walk up to stranger on the street and start a conversation without any kind of sniffing ritual. Imagine doing this in New York.
It is Saturday night and Weigl, Carolyn Forché and myself are sitting at the window of a rooftop restaurant overlooking an intersection vibrant with life. In the street, a huge circle of people has gathered to watch two couples doing the tango. The circle keeps expanding: young girls sell glow-in-the-dark necklaces, vendors sell sweets, and in the courtyard of an old French building, a woman sings Chinese opera with a powerful contralto.
There were about thirty-eight million people in Vietnam during the war. Now there are ninety-million and the country is brimming with Eros, overflowing into the world with creative energy. I am happy here. I could live here. Weigl informs me he will stay on a couple of months after the conference to wander the streets, see friends, improve his Vietnamese. “I could die here,” he says. Vietnam has become a spiritual home for many Veterans. In my case, my relationship with my former enemy is something like Hegel’s master and slave. Because of the war, we were diminished in each other’s eyes. We understood each other in terms of the usual stereotypes we’d been trained to imagine: each side inhuman, monstrous, thus easier to kill. But now, hands reach out across the darkness. Not every veteran feels this way, of course. Deep bitterness remains. I am grateful to not carry it.
Today we pass through a temple into a courtyard. There are our photos, enlarged. I’m stunned at the larger than life photo of myself, and a little embarrassed. The walkway to the stage is lined with red paper lotuses. There are red balloons everywhere. Along the aisles stand young Vietnamese women holding balloons attached to gold and red banners with the names of Vietnamese poets.
When I seat myself, an older Vietnamese woman comes to me and takes my hand in hers. She is followed by her husband and daughter. They want to be photographed with me. Their warmth almost brings me to tears. Many Americans are astonished by the warmth the Vietnamese show them – after, my God, all that.
Hu’u Thinh speaks and sets the day going. Between poets are musicians and dancers, a blend of traditional and post-modern, explosions of color projected on backdrops. The Vietnamese translators navigate thirty different languages with remarkable ease. I’m sitting with Kenyan poet Christopher Okemwa. During the break we are discussing how hegemonies come and go. I’m being fatalistic about my own country. We avoid talking about Donald Trump the way people avoid talking about a relative with cancer. Okwema is a man of dignity with a fluid and relaxed intellect. He is a pleasure to talk to. I feel good about poetry. I feel good about the ability of people to make a world in spite of their politicians.
We watch from a huge tent as the poets read, the musicians play, the dancers dance. They are alternately rained on and sun-illumined. Carolyn Forché is reading now and her translator murmurs gently beside her. She will be followed by Bruce Weigl.
I think of all the moving parts to this festival. How the logistics must have been nearly impossible. And then I remember fighting the PAVN – their precision and their ability to calculate just what we would do next. Hu’u Thinh is speaking and I visualize him arriving in the streets of Saigon in his tank in April of 1975. And I remember this poem:
by Hu’u Thinh
I ask the earth: How does earth live with earth?
—We honor each other.
I ask water: How does water live with water?
—We fill each other up.
I ask the grass: How does grass live with grass?
—We weave into one another
I ask man: How does man live with man?
I ask man: How does man live with man?
I ask man: How does man live with man?
At the end of the readings, there are more speeches, and then the young women release the red balloons with their attached banners of the names of Vietnamese poets. They rise and keep rising, brightening the overcast day.
All two hundred of us are staying in the government guest house in Hanoi. We are fed generously and there is a machine that actually makes good café sua. We eat whole fish, beef, chicken dishes, water cress bok choi. It occurs to me that I’m eating healthier than at home. Larger than life characters inhabit the dinner hall. Here comes Jack Hirschman, poet, activist, teacher, and contemporary of Ferlinghetti’s. With him his partner, the poet Agneta Falk. They are full of generosity and graciousness.
I’m interviewed by a Russian journalist. One question she asked: “When you were in Vietnam during the War, did you come in contact with any Russians?” I was startled by the question and wondered what the angle of her reportage would be. The Russians were advisors in the north and suppliers of weapons. I said, “I didn’t see any Russians, but I was shot at by Kalashnakovs and shaken by Katyusha rockets.” She seemed to be satisfied. I will never see the article and don’t know why she’d ask the question or what her angle was. I can tell by the excellence of her questions that the article will be interesting. I imagine what it must be like to be a journalist in Russia, the Putin cyclops always hovering. Nota bene: the Russian poet and president of his writer’s association, had a shaved head and comported himself like Putin. This invoked giggles throughout the conference.
Our boat is gliding among the rocks in Ha Long Bay. It’s a foggy, overcast day and the old, worn mountains look like the ones in Chinese paintings: slender, starkly vertical and covered with vines. We stop at a small island and climb up to a cave. Inside the cave, there is a bright sword of sunlight coming from the top, the place the monkeys came in and out. In this cave, weapons and materiel were stored by the PAVN.
That night I read in a huge auditorium:
The man and woman, Vietnamese,
come up the hill,
carry something slung between them on a bamboo mat,
unroll it at my feet:
The child, iron gray, long dead,
flies have made him home.
his wounds are from artillery shrapnel.
The man and the woman look as if they are cast
from the same iron as their dead son,
so rooted are they in the mud.
There is nothing to say,
nothing in medical bag, nothing in my mind.
A monsoon cloud hangs above,
its belly torn open on a mountain.
My grief flows in with the Vietnamese. This mindless war should have never happened. It was made possible by the residual red threat energy left over from the McCarthy years, the military’s desire to grow, and industrialist greed. Those who did not live in this time of history have trouble believing how powerful the McCarthy fear mongering was.
I once asked the novelist Bao Ninh why he did not hate us. He said, “We had the Chinese for a thousand years, the French, the Japanese and then the French again. You are merely the most recent.”
When I visited the Ho Chin Minh Museum in Hanoi I was amused to see that the exhibit for the American War was very small. There is an installation in this exhibit of an Edsel crashing through a wall. Those who remember this disastrous car might see this as typical of American foreign policy during those years.
Now I am back in Hanoi for the final events of the festival. We are eating dinner in an upstairs ballroom of the guest house. There are more speeches, readings, dancers, singers. But the evening is becoming more and more informal. The musicians are playing American music. Jack Hirschman is up dancing with Agneta, his cane leaning against the table. The Slovenian poet is up dancing. The festival will close tonight, but I will not go home. Chung has arranged for Carolyn, Bruce and myself to visit villages to the west and north.
We meet professor Ha Van Thach and interpreter Thanh Phuc in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Ha Tinh. The hotel is seldom filled to capacity. It was built by the Chinese to house business people in the tricky, ongoing economic alliances between the two countries. Nota bene: the Chinese, after hearing that Vietnam had invited a Taiwanese poet to the festival, forbade their own poets to go. Silly, of course.
The relationship between China and Vietnam is always shifting, like the boundaries of a river island. There have been border disputes and offshore island disputes since the end of the war. In the seventies, the Chinese attempted to expand their border southward and were met with sharp resistance by battle-hardened PAVN. They retreated.
The Chinese want the offshore islands around Tonkin because of the rich oil deposits. They’ve threatened the Vietnamese fishing industry in claiming these islands. In 2017 and 2016 Chinese patrol boats attacked Vietnamese fisherman. The consequences were severe for the Chinese. One hundred of the Chinese living in Vietnam were killed in response.
But reconciliations continue. Money is stronger than politics and the Chinese want trade with Vietnam.
Our host, Professor Ha Van Thach, is a scholar who has memorized the entire Tale of Kieu, the great Vietnamese epic.
Now we are traveling north in the van. Carolyn has opted to stay in Hanoi, so Weigl, Chung and I head to Ho Chi Minh’s home village. It is carefully preserved and the two homes of his family are now museums. Vietnamese ancestor worship blends with Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Taoism. We make the same offering at Ho’s shrine as we made at the Buddhist Temple in Hanoi, and then head to the village of Dong Loi, where there is another monument to ten girls who were killed by American bombs.
I had hoped that there were at least some places in the north that had not been bombed, but Vietnam is a small country, and it seems as if there was a bomb dropped on every square meter. Seven million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, twice as much as dropped on the entirety of Europe and Asia in World War II. The stupidity of it is striking. No amount of bombing slowed the Vietnamese fighting the Americans. It’s as if a bully was having a temper tantrum, escalating his rage into a dance of total impotence.
The ten girls who died in Dong Loc ran for a cave when they heard the planes coming. A bomb hit the mouth of the cave and sealed them up. Fortunately, the concussion from the bomb killed them and they did not starve to death. As you would expect, there is a shrine where we again burned incense.
The Vietnamese have left the bomb craters, now filling with water, as well as the occasional un-exploded bomb. Phuc tells me that there is so much live unexploded ordnance in this area that the land must be swept if someone wants to build a house or building.
While we are there we are interviewed by local television. I tell them my experience in the war and my long unwinding from it for years after. I tell them about how I studied history, came to understand I’d been duped, as were the rest of us. I believe that the war should not have been fought, that we killed four million Vietnamese because of an illusion, left hundreds of thousands missing, the land poisoned, and American politics divided forever.
I recount that during World War II members of the OSS–the Office of Strategic Services- and precursor to the CIA, traveled with Ho Chi Minh in the mountains. They had made a deal with him that in return for weapons and medicine they would be allowed to travel with him so that they could radio back weather reports to American pilots flying against the Japanese. At the end of this relationship, deep bonds were formed. These members of the OSS attempted to tell American politicians that Ho was the man to unite Vietnam. But no one was listening, and thus the French came back to be defeated ignominiously at Dien Bien Phu, and then the Americans began their war which would end in misery and unbelievable destruction.
This is the story I tell over and over, and that of my sorrow. The war was the beginning of my real education. I am grieved that it cost so much to get it.
We are now headed to the village of Dong Cung, in Ha Tinh province, the burial site of the great Vietnamese eighteenth century poet Nguyen Du. Du’s Tale of Kieu is the story of a young woman who is sold into prostitution to pay her father’s debts. Her suffering becomes worse in each episode. Finally, she is freed to return home where she finds the man she was supposed to marry. She does not marry him. There is no Hollywood ending. There is no happy ever after. In the true Buddhist sense, she accepts what has happened to her peacefully, forgivingly, and without rancor. This tale, for me, is parallel to the suffering of the Vietnamese, who have been bought and sold for centuries by a sequence of colonial regimes. Finally achieving their independence, they carry no bitterness. This is the most remarkable thing to me. I can return to Vietnam and be welcomed back like an old friend. It eases my heart.
From The Tale of Kieu
A hundred years—in this life span on earth
talent and destiny are apt to feud.
You must go through a play of ebb and flow
and watch such things as make you sick at heart.
Is it so strange that losses balance gains?
Blue Heaven’s wont to strike a rose from spite.
When we return to Hanoi, Weigel and I find a pensione in Old Hanoi. In the morning go out looking for coffee and breakfast. Weigl will stay on for two months to work on his Vietnamese, see friends and imagine living there. I’m sad to leave.
In the morning I change Dong to U.S. Dollars and head to the airport. The flight back is long and stressful. There is an eight-hour layover in Doha, Qater. It is night and there is nothing to do. In the day, I might have gone to the Souk, or taken a ride out into the country to see herds of antelope. But I’m left to myself. There is an excellent breakfast bar downstairs in the lounge and I wait it out. Tomorrow is the longer leg of the trip. I play back the memory film of the conference, the country. Generations of Vietnamese are now alive who have no memory of the war, and the older Vietnamese seem to accept this with love. After all, isn’t that the way it should be? Their children growing up without fear of being bombed, shot, burned? Their minds twisted by the horror of it?
I return to Boston Logan and join the dreary line to be cleared by customs. The customs officer says, “Where are you coming from?” As if he, with my passport in his hand, does not know. “Vietnam,” I say. “What were you doing there?” he asks. “Participating in a writer’s conference,” I say. His face shows his mind working on just what a writer’s conference is. Then he hands me back my passport and I’m gone.
Note from the Editor: A number of photographs accompany and visually document this essay – so many and all so wonderful, though I tried I could not select “the best”. Instead, I urge you take a look here. I think you will be fascinated, inspired, and enlightened, as I was.