Poetry in a Tea Shop

by Arlene Weiner
(poem by John Balaban at end of this post)

Recently I was in a Vietnamese teashop in Burlington, Vermont. The room in back of the shop was charming. Sunshine came through windows with bright green frames. There were plants on the sills and board games and a few dozen books. From my table I saw what looked like a poetry book.

Yes, it was: Spring Essence, a book of Vietnamese poetry in three presentations: in the familiar Vietnamese typography with its many notations that make it look like a little like musical notation with its slurs and rests; in a calligraphic script (Nôm); and in an English translation by John Balaban.

John Balaban is a poet himself. http://www.johnbalaban.com/poems.html During the Viet Nam War, he was a conscientious objector, but he went to Viet Nam to volunteer among the people, and was wounded during the Tet offensive. While he was there he had learned that there was a strong tradition of singing folk poetry among the Vietnamese, and went back with a tape recorder to collect songs, later publishing these Cao Dai in the United States.

But the poems in Spring Essence aren’t Cao Dai, folk poems, but highly refined poems. “Spring Essence,” Balaban explains, is a translation of the name of a Vietnamese poet, a woman who lived in the 18th century, or possibly a legend to which a type of poem attaches. If she existed, the facts of her biography are drawn from her poems.

The poems are formal. The Vietnamese language is a tone language, with six tones, and the forms require a specific tone to occur at each syllabic place. (So it is a musical notation.) Did I think da-DUM da-DUM posed difficulties?

[Postscript: I have just found out, in the NY Times account of a concert by two Azari singers, that “balaban” is the name of an Azari musical instrument. So possibly John Balaban’s ancestry harks back to the Silk Road and he was fated to be a poet.]

[Postpostscript: There’s a thread of green, from Vermont to window frames to Spring Essence, in this post. I wrote it at the vernal equinox.]

[Facts in this entry from John Balaban’s Web site, Wikipedia article on Balaban, the preface to Spring Essence, and the publisher’s web site.]

—Arlene Weiner

Passing Through Albuquerque
by John Balaban

At dusk, by the irrigation ditch
gurgling past backyards near the highway,
locusts raise a maze of calls in cottonwoods.

A Spanish girl in a white party dress
strolls the levee by the muddy water
where her small sister plunks in stones.

Beyond a low adobe wall and a wrecked car
men are pitching horseshoes in a dusty lot.
Someone shouts as he clangs in a ringer.

Big winds buffet in ahead of a storm,
rocking the immense trees and whipping up
clouds of dust, wild leaves, and cottonwool.

In the moment when the locusts pause and the girl
presses her up-fluttering dress to her bony knees
you can hear a banjo, guitar, and fiddle

playing “The Mississippi Sawyer” inside a shack.
Moments like that, you can love this country.

From John Balaban, Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 1997).

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