Ephemeral sculpture in soil of artist's silhouette.

Editor’s Note:
This is the second installment in a three-part essay. Read Part I here.

I want to note the intriguing similarity between the Vietnamese word “nhà thơ” for poet and “nhà thờ” for church. The word “nhà” encompasses the meaning of a roof over one’s head, or a home. It’s not too surprising that after abandoning my Catholic upbringing I found a new nhà thờ for my thơ. A new religious order of yellow. 

As previously noted, I call poets from the geographical Nghệ An and the metaphorical Nghệ An the Turmeric Poets. In Vietnamese, “nghệ,” which translates to “turmeric,” also appears in terms like “nghệ thuật,” for the arts. However, the Buddhist-laden “nghệ” I highlight here is specifically “xứ nghệ” (a turmeric region) or “củ nghệ” (turmeric root vegetable). Without beating a dead horse over citrine, zircon, and spessartine, my literary roots have roots in the spice nghệ, the root nghệ, the poets from nghệ country. The English word turmeric, excitingly, has its origin in “late Middle English” (earlier as tarmaret), “akin to Medieval Latin terra merita, French terre-mérite,” meaning “deserving earth.” (Or, perhaps it’s an alteration of an Asian word.)  My ever-expanding transient work begs the obvious question: how earth deserving and deserving of earth is it? Or does my literary lineage echo the literary appetites of others, my mother per se? Or more inexcusably, the pulverized appetite/palette of a white man? 

My mother has a penchant for introducing me to luminary figures from Nghệ An, the birth home of the Vietnamese military strategist and political theorist, Hồ Chí Minh. Over the phone, on her birthday (August 22nd, which also the birthday/pub date of my book, War Is Not My Mother), she asks me: “Have you listened to Về Xứ Nghệ Cùng Anh lately?" “Turmeric An,” I say. (Side note here: if I had a daughter, I would name her “Nghệ.”) Then she says, “All the greats are molded from clay there.” 

My introduction to Hồ Xuân Hương’s works in my early twenties, after immersing myself in the verses of Rafael Alberti, Emily Dickinson, and Federico Garcia Lorca, catalyzed a pivotal shift in my poetic affinities—from one type of abstract nghệ (visual arts) to another kind of nghệ, one that has its roots in culinary, saffronic abyss. Paradoxically, it was a Caucasian man with a deep connection to Vietnamese culture, and a b in his name, who first exposed me to the verses of Hồ Xuân Hương. Nonetheless, this feminist poet from Nghệ An, this “Queen of Nôm Poetry,”  came into the world during the fallen dusk of the Lê dynasty.  While my nascent years were shaped by indigence and chest pain, Hương’s formative years were marked by significant political upheaval and societal instability, shadow-shaped by un-conciliatory instruments such as the Tây Sơn uprising and a prolonged civil feud. 

I won’t falsely claim that my cherished Hàn Mặc Tử (the literary pseudonym of Nguyễn Trọng Trí) was from Nghệ An, although it would be fitting if he were. Hàn Mặc Tử originated from Quảng Bình Province, north of Quảng Trị, and was a highly celebrated Vietnamese poet. His death parallels that of the Italian-born, French poet of Polish descent, Guillaume Apollinaire. A native of Qui Nhơn, Hàn Mặc Tử tragically passed away at the same young age as Apollinaire—28. Stricken with leprosy, his poetry often emanated from episodes of severe pain and delirium. As for me, I was lured into the lion (sư tử) lair of poetry by the three F words: foolishness, futility, and fatuity. My decade of hardship broke me.  

Another turmeric poet worthy of honorary mention, who perhaps shares this audacious, sư tử drive and impudent impulse, is the xứ nghệ poet Huy Cận

“Hồn Xuân”

Ai biết em tôi ở chốn nào?
Má tròn đương nụ, trán vừa cao.
Tiếng mùa về gọi lòng em dậy,
Lơ đãng lòng tôi chẳng kịp rào.

Soul of Spring

Who knows where my little one dwells?
With a budding round cheek, a high forehead.
The sound of the season stirs her heart awake,
My absent-minded heart can’t close its fence in time.

These first four lines aptly reflect the poet’s poised impishness, wit, and hilarity. Like Huy Cận’s palate, my family (we are a close-knit group of four siblings), too, draws on humor and playfulness to cope with suffering and trauma. As for the biological birthsoil and force behind my creative existence known to me: my father is an avid reader, while my mother possesses a keen sense for sewing and design. Their union produced me, a person wildly drawn to nghệ (thuật) and whose literary lineage has pedigrees in thơ (poetry) and đời (life).

Originally Published: November 13th, 2023
Quick Tags

Vi Khi Nao is part of the collective She Who Has No Master(s). Her books include A Bell Curve Is a Pregnant Straight Line (11:11 Press, 2021), Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018), The Old Philosopher (Nightboat Books, 2016), the story collection, A Brief Alphabet of Torture (University of Alabama...