Thursday, May 19, 2011

Seven Days in Vietnam - Extemporaneous Poetry

Dr Abe V Rotor

Ho Chi Minh University at your portals,
An emissary of peace and friendship I come.
Tell me how you have attained peace,
And now, progress.
Is it the hammer and the scythe enshrined?
Enshrined in books and laboratories, in the field?
Enshrined in the heart and soul?

Repression, back home we call your system;
For we would rather march down the street
Or pray on our own,
Or plant a flagpole at every bend, each color
A nation, we call united and free.
This is university we know, we own,
Maybe, maybe -
It is not really so, after all.

Roar a thousand bikes
Roar a thousand souls
Freed from the muted silence,
Now north and south are one.

If for any reason the trees have grown high,
Higher than buildings, e'en higher than the eye;
It was war, each tree a flag pole,
It was war, each tree a proud soul.

If for any reason the trees are bare and shrunk,
Their tops pruned, red flags nailed on the trunk,
It is peacetime, two scores after the battle cry,
It is peacetime, and people just pass them by.

I greeted, she greeted,
She flashed a smile,
I asked, "Where am I?"
She looked at my skin fair,
I looked at her eyes narrow,
We nodded

Western connotes invasion
Yesterday and now
On TV, on the streets;
It is aculturation
Like wild wind seeking every nook
Blowing through the pages of a book.

Twelve - by chance or design:
Apostles all in a new land
Peering into a curtain partly open
Looking for the Phoenix of Vietnam.

When old and new melt like alloy,
Its temper is sharper and keener
Against the invaders; it shines in the night,
Toils in the day, rising over the chime,
And the people look back
To look up for a star,
A lone star once up high.

Why can't the Vietnamese speak English?
The GI spoke a different language
Never music to the Vietnamese ear,
He spoke with the gun, barked at passersby,
Through years he spoke loud day and night
In distant thunders, in fires
Raging in the forest and the sea;
He sopoke of heroes of another land,
Of gods cruel, foreign, unknown;
Yet the Vietnamese well know -
For who can't know blood in any tongue?
Grief, sorrow, pain - words not spoken,
They just spill, they just throb.

The Mekong River, oh, it's like our Pasig:
Full of boats and ships and monsoon silt
Leading to the sea and carrying
Now and then red tints of distant past
To tell the world a lesson in humanity.
The Mekong River, oh, it's like our Pasig;
They run out to sea to meet the world.

Motorbikes, wave after wave,
Roar on the streets
In deafening sound.
Where have all the silence gone?
I looked at the rider.
He is young.
She is young.

Buildings are rising everywhere;
Booms toil day and night,
Waking babies and the angels,
The spirits of old, the dead in their graves.
Where is the hammer and the scythe?

Barges on the Mekong lie still
Berthed along huge vessels
As booms load Vietnam's bounty,
Emissary of peace and unity.

Minh Tam, you are my home
Away from home,
For a week, you make it timeless,
A room you make for a hall,
An honor to a foreign soul.

I open my window on the third floor,
A tree greets me, its branches stir,
Birdsong sweetly I hear.

The sun weaves through its crown,
Quivers with the morning breeze,
I breathe the air in peace.

But beyond smog rises into a veil,
Below bikes roar, perhaps a thousand,
Towers and chimneys stand.

I close my window, switch on the aircon,
Draw back the curtain, the tree is gone,
Birds, bikes, chimneys - all gone.

How can I compose a Vietnamese song?
I ask Beethoven for Nature sound,
Bach for genius in organization,
Chopin for dexterity of fingers,
And Schubert for feeling that lingers.

But I must pass through the Cu Chi Tunnel,
And fly over the delta and trace
The Mekong meandering to the sea,
And relive the country's history.
To compose a Vietnamese song.

Progress, what is progress, if we may ask?
The World Bank may tell us of gains forecast;
The scientist, a discovery in a flask;
In Vietnam, sweet revenge of a hateful past.

Cu Chi tunnel, the resistance cover,
Copied from the termites sans dome,
And the early Christian catacomb -
Daedalus and Wright, please move over.

Only subtrerraneans can make such burrow
Where a colony can live for years,
Cu Chi tunnel a copy of this ingenuity,
And shall last with pride and memory.

Simple tools the Cu Chi people use
To hunt animals for food and game,
Against invaders they use the same
To defend their land from abuse.

Against weapon of mass destruction,
Indigenous technology on their part,
The Cu Chis re-tooled their native art,
The art to repel invasion.

All's quiet now, the Cu Chis did win,
Sounds of guns in the sky and below
Are no more, save the bamboo
Creaking with the passing wind.

A cathedral - but where is its door?
A barred gate, heavy lock at the rear,
Forbidden view not even the eyes can tour,
Footsteps only radar could hear.

That was before, the war is over now.
I knocked at the door. A kindly nun
let me in and showed me all around
Through the stained glass I saw the sun.

In the crypt I dared not treat,
My shoes dusty, I was in slack,
Yet dared I to ask from the dead,
And martyrs the courage I lack.

Bones and ashes of the holy ones
Remind us than even they
Pass this world but once.

Between two guards I pass,

Walk the aisle to the altar
To hear the holy mass;
I hear the heavy doors close
How deep is my faith?
I did not look behind.

I was going out, I heard a whisper.
I looked behind the heavy door.
John the Baptist baptizing Christ,
A painting bearing stains of war,
Imprimatur of a holy image.

I can't be an equal to this noble fighter,
He has more of suffering and pain and will.
I may have more from books and the pen,
Yet deserve only a chronicler to him.

At the museum the tanks, they are now silent.
Prison cells are ruins, they're mute as Lent,
And the living are busy, they just pass by,
Yet pause and sigh, even for a while.

I saw the French Guillotine in the museum,
The Huey Copter, the Howitzer'
I saw bamboo spikes and crude knives,
Side by side under muted whisper.
I saw the hammer and scythe
Sans worker and farmer.

Museum - repository of the past
Of answers often asked.
It is alive, it breathes of history
Reliving people's memory.
A Guardian, a chonicler it is
Yet never sets the mind at ease;
It digs into the distant past
And builds wisdom to forecast.

"Books, sir, buy books," a boy called,

Stopping me on my track
To the War Remnant Museum.
"No. no," my words are cold.

Back in time, the inhumanity of war
Unfolded beyond my relief:
Barbaric, groteque, pathetic -
At the end, stands the Red Star.

It is a star like David's indeed,
Goliath met his fate once more,
His sword broken, his armor rusted,
Another lesson of man's greed.

"Books, sir, buy books," he called back,
On leaving the sacred compound.
I read - in Iraq and Afghanistan,
It is the same that mankind lack.

Sister Marie paused,
I too, paused and looked up.
She pointed at an old building
And told stories of war.
As I listened, a bird was singing
Up in a nearby tree
Feeding her brood
And healing
A painful memory.

Saint Joseph, the Carpenter, stood on a hill
With Child Jesus lending a hand.
I, with a camera, stood still,
Waited for the cloud to unveil the sun.

A rainbow appeared behind the hill,
As the cloud burst into shower.
I, with a camera, stood still,
awed by a mysterious power.

Saint Paul, the Apostle in Vietnam -
You hold a book with your left hand,
A sword with your right.
I wonder why your book is open
and your sword out of its scabbard.
Where were you during the war?

Is is time you close the book
and lay your sword down.

What is civilization?
Ask the United Nations,
Ask the Vatican,
Ask the Conquitadores
Ask the Colonizers
Ask the white historians.


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