You go away an albino garden snake
and come home the color of gecko.
The air smell, the lake of legs,
this ether of vocabulary—
what is familiar in darkness different somehow,
even the familiar pattern of blemish and scar.
Tonight lightning comes without thunder,
tomorrow an almost blue sky
full of mountain’s breath, heat,
soiled chom chom, vendors of the motor bikes,
a click of guitar accompanied by insect and frog,
and one dark cloud melting until it too
blemishes the almost blue sky,
the almost always blue sky, even at night,
not blue black, but almost blue black,
the moon an icicle folding into shadow and sweat.
When the wind lifts the flower
of mang cau and braids the bamboo,
there is something you must learn to do,
the dust of day an imprint
on all of the clothes you wear.
TSTmpj: You surely have spent time in this city. What would you like to add, if anything, about its inhabitants, beyond "this ether of vocabulary" and "the familiar pattern of blemish and scar"?
Michael H. Brownstein: Hà Nội, the way it is spelled in Việt Nam, was a heavily polluted and dirty city with the most gracious and fantastic people I have ever met—and this is not hyperbole. I only wish I had gone years earlier.
Though there was piles of litter just about everywhere, and the American-have-to-have-a-wipe or those who need to constantly wash their hands might have found it difficult to navigate, I found myself in open markets sampling some of the best fruit I have ever eaten—chom choms, for example, and mang cau. (Imagine a large juicy peach—only better.) I was with my son almost the entire time and we ate in alleyways and on sidewalks and in markets. (I learned the smaller the chair, the cheaper the food and the larger the chair—well, that’s where members of the Communist Party ate.)
We ended up at the Hà Nội University of Agriculture where my son was enrolled as their first American student and we moved into a guesthouse for ten dollars a night. He was researching medicinal plants and they asked me if I would teach English, It was my pleasure—the university students were serious students with not only a zest for learning, but a real need to learn.
Because we were Americans, our university hosts thought we would be choosey about where we ate (so we ate where the Communist party members ate), but soon we explored everywhere and finally found a street where the students ate—grand meals for seventy-five cents—and we enjoyed every minute.
I stayed for a month, got used to the air, watched how everyone swept the streets into large piles of litter for the street cleaners to pick up (and we helped), loved the food and the people, and made too many friends. Teaching English was a blessing for me. Every morning when the loud speakers would wake everyone up at 5 AM, I would stand on the balcony and thank everyone and everything for giving me the opportunity to visit this nation.
As for my students, I convinced an American publisher to produce a book of my students’ poetry—many writing poetry for the very first time and they did it in English.
Here’s a link: http://theeyeoftheneedlevietnam.blogspot.com/.
Back home, I miss the freshness of their meat (when you ordered chicken, they went out back and killed one for you), the delicate taste of their fruits and vegetables—never anything GMO, the friendships I made and the discoveries that transformed me into someone better.
As you can see, I was smittened by this nation and I can go on and on and on…
TSTmpj: Is writing about Asia a continuing preoccupation for you, and if so, why?
Michael H. Brownstein: Unfortunately, I discovered that when we left Việt Nam during what the Vietnamese call the American War (because they really do not understand why we were fighting them) we never cleaned up our Agent Orange mess and now I have a website dedicated to helping the Agent Orange victims—four generations and still going downhill: http://projectagentorange.com/.
I’m actually in contact with a number of professors and other Vietnamese to try to assist the victims of this terrible environmental disaster and we are researching remedies to help the people live better.
I also found new pathways within my muse and I have written quite a bit of poetry with a Vietnamese theme—including getting a few of my poems translated into Vietnamese.
TSTmpj: What do you see as the future of Việt Nam?
Michael H. Brownstein: I hope my country will do the right thing and help the Vietnamese clean up Agent Orange. Việt Nam has huge financial constraints and I’m hopeful we will fund them in this most important endeavor. I also hope we can begin importing their fruit—chom choms especially. I also look forward to making connections with Việt Nam, strengthening it economically. Việt Nam has a very hard working population—hard working in the schools, in the community and in the workforce. In my opinion, the seeds are already planted—I feel Việt Nam will do very well in the next decade or two—and best of all it will do well as a peaceful nation. (My students consisted of a generation who knew nothing of war.) Lastly, I hope stoplights become a part of the nation’s culture. (Crossing the street in Hà Nội was like playing a video game.)
Michael H. Brownstein recently published I Was a Teacher Once (Ten Page Press) and editor First Poems from Việt Nam.