Thơ xuân đất khách

translated and annotated

Dr. Đàm Trung Pháp
Professor Emeritus
Texas Woman’s University


“Thơ xuân đất khách”

Thanh Nam


One of the most cherished literati in pre-1975 Saigon was the writer and poet Thanh Nam (1931-1985), who along with Nguyên Sa was the driving force behind the magazine “Hiện Đại” [1]. This popular author of more than twenty novels was also noted for his exquisite poetry. He was admired by people in every walk of life, including  famous singers, and top-rank writers and poets. People loved Thanh Nam because of his intellectual probity – he wrote about life as he had actually lived it. Thus, his prose and his poetry were all about real life. “Thanh Nam’s real soul penetrates his literary works,” noted Bình Nguyên Lộc [2]. “The style is the man himself. This saying fits Thanh Nam perfectly,” declared Mai Thảo [3]. Although his first novel was published in Saigon in 1957, Thanh Nam had started writing with his colleagues Ngọc Giao, Nguyễn Minh Lang, and Thy Thy Tông Ngọc in Hanoi in the early 1950s. In 1952, he moved to Saigon and flourished in the literary circle there until the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

If we needed just one publication to introduce Thanh Nam, that would be his 1983 poetic collection “Đất khách” (“In exile”); and if we needed to read just one poem typical of him, that would be his “Thơ xuân đất khách” (“Vernal poetry written in exile”).

Thanh Nam penned “Thơ xuân đất khách” in Seattle on February 18, 1977, which was also the first day of the Lunar Year of the Snake (Đinh Tỵ). This first day of the lunar year is a most solemn time, during which the Vietnamese honor their ancestors, visit relatives and friends, wear their nicest clothes, and rejoice. The entire poem is translated into English below, along with annotations and references.

Tờ lịch đầu năm rớt hững hờ

Mới hay năm tháng đã thay mùa

Ra đi từ thuở làm ly khách

Sầu xứ hai xuân chẳng đợi chờ

Trôi giạt từ Đông sang cõi Bắc

Hành trình trơ một gánh ưu tư

Quê người nghĩ xót thân lưu lạc

Đất lạ đâu ngờ buổi viễn du


The calendar leaf marking the new year coolly dropped

Reminding me that seasons had changed

Since the day I left as an expatriate

Two springs of homesickness had willy-nilly gone by

Drifting from the East to the North [4]

The trip was a glaring load of sorrows

In a foreign land, expatriation gnawed at me

In an unfamiliar environment, I wondered about my journey

A writer in exile who could not write was like a defeated warrior lying on a battlefield, who heard the imaginary sound of bugles commemorating his past dreams. That was Thanh Nam’s plight, awake or asleep. His sense of humiliation was poignant:

Thức ngủ một mình trong tủi nhục

Dặm dài chân mỏi bước bơ vơ

Giống như người lính vừa thua trận

Nằm giữa sa trường nát gió mưa

Khép mắt cố quên đời chiến sĩ

Làm thân cây cỏ gục ven bờ

Chợt nghe từ đáy hồn thương tích

Vẳng tiếng kèn truy điệu mộng xưa


Awake or asleep it was me alone in humiliation

The miles were long, my feet tired, my steps forsaken

Like a soldier who had just been defeated

I lay on the battlefield, shattered by wind and rain

Eyes closed I tried to forget about my warrior life

To become a vegetable slumped on a riverbank

Suddenly from the bottom of my wounded soul

I heard bugles commemorating dreams of yesteryear


The pain felt by expatriates is acute. A year for others is twelve months, but for Vietnamese refugees it is just April, the fateful month in which South Vietnam was overrun by North Vietnam. The calamity caused broken hearts and tangled minds:

Ới hỡi quê hương bè bạn cũ

Những ai còn mất giữa sa mù

Mất nhau từ buổi tàn xuân đó

Không một tin nhà, một cánh thư

Biền biệt thời gian mòn mỏi đợi

Rối bời tâm sự tuyết đan tơ

Một năm người có mười hai tháng

Ta trọn năm dài Một Tháng Tư!


Alas, home country and old friends

What was your fate amidst this calamity

We lost one another that late spring

No tidings from home, not even a letter

Pining in an endless wait for your news

My tangled mind is like snow flurries

People have twelve months a year

For me, the whole long year is just one April!

Experiencing the pains of culture shock [5], the displaced poet feared that he would have to spend the rest of his life on foreign soil, as a worthless person:

Chấp nhận hai đời trong một kiếp

Đành cho giông bão phũ phàng đưa

Đầu thai lần nữa trên trần thế

Kéo nốt trăm năm kiếp sống nhờ

Đổi ngược họ tên cha mẹ đặt

Tập làm con trẻ nói ngu ngơ

Vùi sâu dĩ vãng vào tro bụi

Thân phận không bằng đứa mãng phu


Accepting two lives for one birth

I am enduring the whims of a brutal tempest

Reincarnated in this world

I will have to finish off this parasitic life

Reversing the order of family and first names

Imitating infants that babble puerile speech

Burying the past deep into the dust

My condition is less than that of a villain

What justified all these daunting changes? Freedom, of course! Nevertheless, the poet recalled with bitterness the forced demise of the South:

Canh bạc chưa chơi mà hết vốn

Cờ còn nước đánh phải đành thua

Muốn rơi nước mắt khi tàn mộng

Nghĩ đắt vô cùng giá Tự Do!


The card game has not started, yet my money is lost

The chess game still has moves for me, but I must give it up

I want to shed tears when dreams fade

Fathomlessly high is the price of Freedom!

Thanh Nam spoke for all Vietnamese refugees at that time, just two years after the first wave of this historic diaspora, as he ended the poem with a lonesome note:

Bằng hữu qua đây dăm bảy kẻ

Đứa nuôi cừu hận, đứa phong ba

Đứa nằm yên phận vui êm ấm

Đứa nhục nhằn lê kiếp sống thừa

Mây nước có phen còn hội ngộ

Thâm tình viễn xứ lại như xa

Xuân này đón tuổi gần năm chục

Đối bóng mình ta say với ta


Among friends who made it to this country

Some are nursing grudge, others have not given up

Yet some are leading a complacent life

Or enduring a humiliating superfluous existence

While clouds and water have a chance to meet again

Our dear friends in exile are still afar

This spring I welcome my approaching fifth decade

By getting inebriated all by myself


[1] Thanh Nam was the pen name of Trần Đại Việt, who was born on August 26, 1931 in Nam Định, North Vietnam. He died on June 2, 1985 in Seattle. Among his major works are Hồng Ngọc (1953), “Người nữ danh ca” (1953), Giấc ngủ cô đơn (1963), Buồn ga nhỏ (1963), Còn một đêm nay (1963), Bầy ngựa hoang (1965), Giòng lệ thơ ngây (1965), Những phố không đèn (1965), Mấy mùa thương đau (1968), Đất khách (1983). Nguyên Sa and Thanh Nam’s Hiện Đại magazine was founded in 1960 in Saigon. In 1965 Thanh Nam became managing editor of Tuần Báo Nghệ Thuật.

[2] Bình Nguyên Lộc (1966). Một tác giả viết về một tác giả: Thanh Nam dưới mắt Bình Nguyên Lộc. Tuần Báo Nghệ Thuật issue 36 dated June 18, 1966.

[3] Thanh Nam dưới mắt trời Tây Bắc. In Mai Thảo (1985), Chân Dung. Westminster, CA: Văn Khoa.

[4] Thanh Nam and family were first resettled in New Jersey in October 1975. They later moved to Seattle; thus, they were “drifting from the East to the North.”

[5] How political refugees cope with a new life in America has been observed by social scientists. According to them, it is a painful and complex psychological process that consists of four phases: (1) euphoria, the time during which the displaced people feel extremely glad that they have somehow received a new lease on life; (2) culture shock; (3) stability; and (4) acculturation. Euphoria is only short-lived and may not mean much, but culture shock could last a long time and make their new lives miserable. Its duration depends on the individuals: the older they are, the longer their culture shock will last; and perhaps suffering the most during this trying time would be the sentimental artist whose heart bleeds easily.