Thursday, September 10, 2015

Nguyen Phan Que Mai: "The Poem I Can't Yet Name"

For my grandmother

My hands lift high a bowl of rice, the seeds harvested
in the field where my grandmother was laid to rest.
Each rice seed tastes sweet as the sound of lullaby
from the grandmother I never knew.
I imagine her soft face as they laid her down into the earth,
her clothes battered, her skin stuck to her bones;
in the great hunger of 1945, my village
was hungry for graves to bury all the dead.
Nobody could find my grandmother’s grave,
so my father tasted bitter rice for sixty-five years.

After sixty-five years, my father and I stood
in front of my grandmother’s grave.
I heard my father call “Mum,” for the first time;
the rice field behind his back trembled.


My two feet cling to the mud.
I listen in the burning incense to my grandmother’s soul spread;
uniting deep with the earth, taking root in the field,
she quietly sings lullabies, calling rice plants to blossom.

Lifting the bowl of rice in my hands, I count every seed,
each one glistening with the sweat of my relatives,
their backs bent in the rice fields,
the fragrance of my grandmother’s lullaby alive on each one.

"The Poem I Can't Yet Name" by Nguyen Phan Que Mai, translated from the Vietnamese by Nguyen Phan Que Mai and Bruce Weigl. Text as published in The Secret of Hoa Sen: Poems (BOA Editions, Lannan Translations Selection Series, 2014). © Nguyen Phan Que Mai. Reprinted by permission of the poet and BOA Editions.

Art credit: "A woman works in the rice fields in the central highlands of Vietnam, March 2014," photograph by Sebastien Bicard.

Author photograph: Don Usner (digitally altered by curator).


  1. I, too, listened to her poem "in the burning incense," I can take a moment to think about a fragrant lullaby, I'll try to sing one to my grandchildren....

  2. This is a thank you for your almost three years of placing beautiful expressions in front of an unseen audience. I want you to know that while I knew many of the poets you included, some were completely new to me and I have acquired their books to look for further jewels in their pages. My life has had a number of long-term meditations. My current wife was into gardening so for the past 18 years I have built and maintained gardens --- for food, for flowers and for visual landscaped peace of vision. My first wife was a home oriented person, for her I built a house and maintained a cozy feel for our cabin in the Arctic. When I was not married, I traveled to friends in various places and worked on whatever they needed done with the same focused, centered, steady attention. Then moved on to the next place to learn and give. Now I am old and I am dancing my way as gracefully down this final song as my life of learning and giving permit. It is never done and nothing is left undone. One of my favorite poems is by Milarepa:
    In the beginning, nothing comes.
    In the middle, nothing stays.
    In the end, nothing goes.
    Be well in your continuing travels.

    1. What a dear message! It has been a difficult decision to end this project, but part of my "dance." I wish you all the best as you continue your dance, in the spirit of Milarepa. I bow to you where our humanity meets.


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