ANGELINE KEK WRITES — Time — the blanket that softly but entirely enshrouds all sensations, memories, and beings. It is pointless to write about time, that’s the intellectual equivalent of shouting into an endless void. Undeniably, to be aware of one’s existence is to learn to be comfortable with time and its power over absolutely everything. In The Beginning of Water (sự bắt đầu của nước) (2021), Trần Lê Khánh knows better than to write about time. Rather, these poems explore the entwined laments and joys of being an observer of time, a participant in time, a life form fortunate enough to be aware of time.
Prefacing the bulk of the collection, award-winning poet and literary translator Bruce Weigl puts into words the spirit of Trần Lê Khánh’s writing in the grand scheme of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, which has gone through different eras of subject matter and stylistic choices throughout the years. Pre-war, poetry mainly served as “a celebration of love and intimate regard for all things in the natural world and for the poet’s relationship to that world.” During the American war, poetry centered around the causes of “heroism, the miseries of war and forced separation from family and loved ones.” Post-war, poetry continued to toast to the beauty of life, relishing in newfound peace, while still aware of the shadow of war. Currently, Vietnamese poetry has taken up a fascination with “[the metaphysicals] … and [uncovering] hidden secrets about [humanity].”
Trần Lê Khánh’s stanzas do not fit into any one of these eras. Yet, they certainly draw from the essence of these voices; different octaves vocalizing in one uniting song. Drawing from Buddhist philosophy; delving into the triangle of human, nature, and love; indulging in both the highs and hurts of being a creature of love and attachment. These poems are inklings of the spirits of Vietnamese poems past while still being entirely their own.
The Beginning of Water is a swirling concoction of bite-sized poems — tiny but mighty. While most poems in the collection never venture past four short lines, they certainly pack a powerful, lingering punch. With a wide understanding of poetic forms and a mastery of the Vietnamese language, the speaker is sparse with their words. Each unique syllable is a crucial stroke of paint in a simple yet all-encompassing painting. Each moment inscribed on the page is a fleeting snapshot, a frozen atom of time. Perhaps it is the fact that these moments shall forever be replayed in the imagination of readers that give them a timeless quality – like never-ending short films playing simultaneously in a museum.
Just as Buddhism is the most predominant religion in Vietnam, its philosophy influences and molds the landscape of this collection. While hinging heavily on themes of transmigration of souls, nirvana, the beginning of time, and detachment, these concepts are seamlessly embodied in the poems, never overbearing.
The same could be said about the collection en masse: an uninterrupted stream that is the voice of the speaker, flowing over the stanzas and embracing them like waves gliding over fish. It is the speaker’s natural focus on the dreamy, timeless aspects of life and the reflections drawn from them that moors all these poems together, despite their varied shapes and forms.
A tasteful equilibrium of sweet and tart is the foundation of this collection. While the subject matters of delicate nature, impactful love, and pure connections are sweepingly explored by the speaker, there is an affinity for bitter endings of separation, whether between a leaf and its tree, the moon and the water, the speaker and a lover, or simply the melancholy that comes with the dying of a season to make way for the next. This sharp, wounding effect is crafted masterfully using the simplicity and stillness of these poems, the fleetingness that makes the reader sit with what they have just consumed, and a sense of insignificance. As infinite and interminable as the world is, everything will be erased by time. Therefore, these poems of separation should not be considered sad, but rather poems of acceptance and understanding.
Translated works always bring up fascinating questions of similitude and dichotomy, especially with poetry. What does it mean to keep the essence of the original work? Is the goal replication, or does that only hinder the authenticity of the translated work? What about the rhythm, the flow?
In The Beginning of Water, the dreaminess of the poems is apparent in both versions, for the subject matters and the unfolding of poems are kept the same. The ebb and flow, however, vary due to the elements of the Vietnamese language itself. Vietnamese literature always takes into consideration diacritics, an element that is uncommon in the English language. While the essence of both versions is the same, there is a joy in sounding out the verses in Vietnamese; they roll off the tongue like a song and the poem is elevated with melody. Therefore, it is vital to get the diacritics right while typing up the poems, a common oversight of publications on Vietnamese works.
The poems presented in The Beginning of Water are a million tiny shards making up a softly gleaming disco ball. Although they stand perfectly well on their own, it is their interaction with each other, one contemplative stanza after another, that truly brings to life the diaphanous spirit of this collection.
Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are honest in the face of hesitation.