Translated by Martha Collins and Nguyen Quang Thieu
The Women Carry River Water is the first English translation of a collection of poems by a Vietnamese writer of the post-1975 generation. Nguyen Quang Thieu is considered by many to be the most prominent northern Vietnamese poet to have emerged since the American War, which ended when he was in high school.
Whether recalling the village of his childhood or exploring the rural and urban complexities of his adult life, Thieu roots his poems in a Vietnamese tradition that honors place. His respect for the passage of time is traditional, but he moves fluidly through landscapes of past, present, and future with distinctly contemporary juxtapositions and metaphors. While direct mention of the war is limited, its effects are both felt and transcended in these sometimes sad but always strikingly beautiful poems.
Nguyen Quang Thieu is among the first contemporary Vietnamese poets to receive the accolade of an English language volume. This alone compels scholarly interest, but it is the poet’s rich, organic images of the village life he knew growing up that deserve attention.” —Choice
Seldom have Westerners been allowed a sympathetic look into this world contained by rice field, hedgerow, house, and orchard.” —John Balaban, Poet Lore
This is an important book.” —Bruce Weigl
This book is both timely and necessary for those who are interested in learning more about contemporary Vietnamese culture, literature, and poetry. The translations are perfect.” —Ngo Nhu Binh, Harvard University
The Women Carry River Water
Their toes are bony, with long black nails; They spread like chicken feet. For five, fifteen, thirty years, I've watched The women go down to the river for water. Their hair knots break in torrents Down the backs of their soft wet shirts. They grip their shoulder poles with one hand; The other holds white clouds. As the river presses against its banks to turn, The men bring fishing poles and dreams of the sea. The magic fish turn away and cry; Bobbers lie still on the surface of the water. The men, angry and sad, go far away. For five, fifteen, thirty years, I've watched The women come back from the river with water, Crowds of naked children running behind and growing up. The girls put poles on their shoulders and go to the river, The boys carry fishing poles and dreams of the sea, While the magic fish turn away and cry Because they've seen the hook in the dazed bait.
The Habit of Hunger
When I was fourteen, my sister and I Drained the blood of a duck into a bowl. Its red blood came together, in an embrace. When I let go, The duck wasn't dead. Head flopped to one side, It staggered like a drunk. From the cut at its throat Drops of bright blood dripped And caught in the white feathers Like a string of broken Glass beads. It buried its head in a basin of water, Hunting for leftover grains of rice. But the rice couldn't find its way to the stomach. It fell through the cut in the throat, Grain after grain. Then the duck made its way to the path. It looked for the pond It looked for the field It looked for the river, the sea, To catch fish, to hunt crabs. When it buried its head in the mud, Red blood spread like oil on water. Aching with cold, I went looking for the duck. With an invisible knife, I cut meat along the way.