A Sandal Dropped in a Swamp
It leaves a streak, a comet tensed
Like a smile stopped abruptly on stunned lips
It sinks, making its way
Through thick darkness
Through bubbles rushing up like complex plots
Among the rotten leaves are green leaves
And a panicked eel
The sandal crawls over a soldier’s uniform
Around a chair with broken legs
Beside shattered cups and bowls
Which of these bears the trace
Of sudden joy, the trace of a quarrel?
Waiting, the letters yellowed and crumbled
They still wait beside a delayed-fuse bomb
On the finger of a woman who died young
A ring still sparkles
In the depths of the black earth
The first four stanzas of Ngo Tu Lap’s poem trace the path of “a sandal dropped in a swamp.” Apparently falling through the air in the first stanza, the sandal sinks in the next three, finally joining objects that have, like the sandal, entered the swamp by human means, whether accidental or intentional (as in English, the word translated as “drop” can imply either). Syntactically, these first ten lines constitute a unit: prepositions begin six of the lines (in Vietnamese, as in English), creating a kind of catalog of the swamp’s contents and marking the trajectory of the falling sandal. The turn to questions in the fifth stanza marks a shift from description to reflection, and creates a kind of sonnet-like structure: ten lines followed by seven, like a slightly expanded Petrarchan sonnet.
But this syntactic structure is less interesting to me than the turn that occurs in the eighth line, overlaying the 10-line / 7-line structure with a 7-line / 10-line one. The first stanza uses one of several Vietnamese words or phrases that can be translated as “suddenly” (chợt, here “abruptly”), and that in some Vietnamese poems marks an epiphanic moment on which the poem centrally turns. But here the “suddenly” word appears in the first stanza, in a simile—though it may prepare us emotionally for the unexpected shifts that follow, as may the “stunned” (kinh ngạc) lips and the “panicked” (hoảng hốt) eel: how, after all, can a sandal cause such emotional turmoil?
The answer seems to come in the eighth line, with the soldier’s uniform. Ngo Tu Lap was born in Hanoi in 1962, just as the American military presence was beginning to build into what we would eventually call the Vietnam War; and while war isn’t a central presence in his poems, it haunts not only his childhood memories, but also, as in this poem, his adult awareness.
Here, the reference to the soldier at first seems almost incidental, followed as it is by domestic objects (the broken chair, the “shattered cups and bowls”), and then by a question that also hints at domesticity (“the trace of a quarrel”). But once war has entered the poem, dressed in that uniform, it won’t go away. The positioning of the “yellowed and crumbled” letters beside a “delayed-fuse bomb” of course echoes the juxtaposition of the uniform with the chair and cups, and is even more jolting—not only because there’s no graceful way to say “delayed-fuse bomb” in English, but also because the juxtaposition is much sharper, a reminder that the physical as well as emotional traces of the War linger in Vietnam.
Less directly but more poignantly, what follows suggests, obliquely, a war-time story, seen through the lens of the present. Are those war-time letters, of a soldier to a woman, or vice versa? Is the woman in the last stanza connected to the soldier? Not explicitly, but here are all of the details of many war-time Vietnamese poems, seen through the blur of both time and the swamp water.
Juxtapositions are common in Vietnamese poetry, in which a line is usually syntactically and imagistically self-contained. Although prepositions connect many of the lines in this poem, other poems present similar imagistic catalogs without much connective material (at the beginning of the seventh line of this poem, there is in fact no “and” in Vietnamese: the eel simply appears). It’s as if there are many little turns throughout such poems, rather than a single dramatic one. Here, though the last ten lines are syntactically connected, the imagistic turning from stanza to stanza creates a fragmented quality that doesn’t quite allow for a narrative—soldier, letters, woman—to emerge, even as it’s suggested.
Nor is the major turn I’ve mentioned a terribly dramatic one. It’s possible to imagine a poem in which the sandal passes by the chairs and cups first, and then—suddenly!—discovers the soldier’s uniform. That might not be a particularly effective strategy in English, either, but it’s less imaginable in Vietnamese. The drama of the “turn,” from Italian sonnets onward, reflects a western tendency to make clear distinctions between emotional states, between past and present, between outside and inside. Vietnamese culture and thought are more connective: the words for sorrow and joy are often written without an “and,” and many concepts are similarly described. War may dominate the second part of this poem, but it doesn’t have the last word. If the major turn occurs when the soldier’s uniform appears, a small and important one occurs in the last stanza where, deeper in the earth (and in consciousness perhaps), the woman’s ring “still sparkles.”
Martha Collins is the author of Day Unto Day (Milkweed, 2014), White Papers (Pittsburgh, 2012), Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), and four earlier collections of poems. She has also co-translated three volumes of Vietnamese poetry, most recently Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap (Milkweed, 2013, with the author). Pauline Delaney Professor of Creative Writing at Oberlin until 2007, she is currently editor-at-large for FIELD magazine. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“A Sandal Dropped in a Swamp” from Black Stars by Ngo Tu Lap, translated by Martha Collins and Ngo Tu Lap (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013). Copyright 2013 by Ngo Tu Lap. Reprinted with permission of Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org