Phung Khac Bac

Phung Khac Bac. Illustration: Janelle Retka


The first day of peace

He returns to his house
He returns to his house
ten years after the war.

Mother greets him in the dusky dawn,
the rain greets him in the twilit sunrise.

Rain. Rain. Rain.
Rain outside
Rain in the yard,
,,,,,,,,,but also in the house.
Following mother’s words is the rain singing.

The house leaks.
The place to lie down is the length between the two posts,
width, the size of a tank.

Hanging up the hammock.
Again the hammock.
The tree follows him from the jungle to be the post here.
The swinging hammock will get wet,
but a wood borer in the post makes the accompanying sound.

In the old days,
Mother slept in a wet spot, and after ten years
she still stands in a rained-on spot.
Mother gives him the lamp and says
,,,,,,,,,,,,,Don’t let the fire go out!
Mother stacks boxes, basins, pots, pan,
The melody of rain in the leaking house plays on,
lulling the hammock.
The soldier lies still,
listening to the sound of war within him
in the first night of peace.


Not a bomb fell on mother’s house,
not a bullet penetrated its roof
only the son gone far away.
Only the heaviness of waiting dripped down,
piercing through the roof, becoming different holes big and small

Allowing sunshine and rain to
come through,
pour down.
Strands of sunlight, strands of rain, if connected can only be as long
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,as a fraction of waiting
and beads of sunshine, beads of rain if piled up can be higher than all mountains.
Ten years, a brief flash of time,
mother’s age is six, seven times that,
mother often says my life is like the sun, the rain.
My thatched roof would not have so many holes
if you, my son, have only gone to the field, to the market
and not to war.

Is it the bullets, invisible in the mind,
shot in the deep night into the young child,
that have left the scattered holes in the colour of mother’s hair?
Like beads of sunshine, of rain dropping in here,
so all will have to look and then turn quickly away.
Every night mother prays, trembling with faith, with hope of joy,
but cruelly, the roof keeps leaking.

There is no napalm, no phosphorus.
Only rain and sunshine,
distance and absence,
decaying the roof, faded as hair turning silver.

A pair of sparrows fly upward in fright,
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,dust as blinding as flying ashes.

Longing and waiting
What if: life and death

of the mother enter the son, letting him live.
The son simply returns,
the small lane, the village house, becoming heaven’s gate,
,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,becoming a palace in the eyes of the mother greeting him.
Early morning,
slanting sunlight,
he lies on his back,
the roof has eyes, watching him
The soldier
Startled for the first time.

Dust particles joyfully dancing,
Roads brightening like the sun,
and each person is a glittering fleck of dust.
Mother still goes into the house and down to the kitchen alone,
her victory is him
her happiness is him.
His sadness is not in the war.

Strands of sunlight piercing the house
becoming arrows
becoming bullets,
shooting through him without cover.
He must
accept everything.
He did not receive a bullet yesterday,
but today he accepts the holes.
Returning home without his gun,
weapons now
are his two hands.

Mother calls out:
,,,,,,,,,,,time to eat, son.
Peace is in the crab soup, spinach, pickled eggplants
the smell of hay.


The leaning houses

In that city,
there are houses leaning, refusing to fall.
Three-storey houses
are telling stories about the war.

Those houses are like remains
being buried in mid air.
Eye sockets — windows
mouths — decaying doors
iron skeletons, gaunt and solitary.

A pair of bird wings burst from an eye socket
A rat wanders around a mouth,
the house becomes nature.
Only the leaning frame
converses with the world of man.

If the house stands straight,
eyelids open
mouths moving,
the house would be mute.

Before the grave of my younger brother

After seven hundred days, again, I come to find you.
Both times we met,
both times you were not there.
I only saw words engraved on the white tombstone
your voice dissolving into the wind through the pines.

The last time I came in early morning,
this time I come at dusk.
Both times at the eighth hour.
That was the very hour you had chosen to come and depart from this life.
The number eight is a circle twisting in on itself
like a person turning to look back.
This posture makes me wonder
why you chose to find even death by yourself?

I walk among the graves to reach one grave
The night is dark like eyes half closed
Cold remnants of fire flickering about
Fireflies illuminating immobile words,
none is grimacing.
I look among faces of strangers
to find a familiar word, a name

The tombstones do not have faces, mouths
have legs no hands
They stand still in spite of the light from torches, lamps, fireflies.
Joss-sticks with sharp, burned out tips
Light from fireflies cannot rekindle the fragrance.
I walk between the fairness of the underground
and the lack of justice above.
A mass of graves, small and big, long and short, pains the eyes.
Below death is similar,
but also different in ways of dissolution.
There is no absolution.
Old or young,
…….it is still death.
Although different in what is called time,
we all exist, and end.
is that life’s clarity and truth?

To come to you I must stand or sit
the graves are low but my knees are too high.
I keep thinking, how odd people are
There is little difference between life and death.
The dead turn sacred,
………………the living must desire.
In that realm if it is possible to speak,
One day you will talk to me as before
when we would sit having a drink together

It is nothing.
Life and death are the same,
This world also has such sorrows.
I thought once here, there would be no more slavery
not realizing that the new burden would be heavier.
I am looking for a new existence without sadness,
to die again and see whether life is renewed.
You must live slowly
…………………………don’t rush
There are many more times we will have to die.

Translator’s note

Phung Khac Bac was not a well-known writer during his lifetime. Born in the northern Vietnamese province of Ha Tay in 1944, he volunteered for the army in 1966. After more than a decade as a soldier, he became a civilian and worked in the office of the Writer’s Association of Vietnam until his death in 1990. After his death, friends and family were surprised to find that he left behind a substantial amount of writing: both prose and poetry.

Colleagues compiled and published a book of his poems in 1992 entitled A Green Dot (Mot Cham Xanh). Many of his poems reflect the painful adjustments to life after the war, the losses endured by those who left for the war and those who stayed behind, and the ironies of a post-war society under a socialist state. Such an honest accounting would not have been possible in Vietnam in the earlier years after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, when the state was still insistent on a narrative of heroic victory. By the time Phung Khac Bac died, however, Vietnam had adopted the doi moi, or ‘renovation’ policy that would bring market-oriented reforms and a much more open approach to regional and international relations. Less well known perhaps is the intellectual flowering of this period, with a push among many writers, poets, playwrights and artists to go beyond the rigid socialist norms in the arts to explore the difficult, complicated and conflicting legacies of the war and by extension, the socialist state.

I remember reading these poems when they were first published. Their ruminative, matter-of-fact tone was revelatory; all around, deep sorrow and losses were being carried by many, in ways unseen, yet ever-present, and perhaps inescapable. To be alive after the war was a miracle to be savoured in the most ordinary of moments, but it was also a great burden to bear. The sense of dislocation was deep, as if the poet was wandering through a surreal landscape conversing with the dead, while observing the living. We don’t often get this interior perspective from north Vietnam, and reading these poems again years later, I hear the poet’s quietly insistent deliberation of how to live a life, even if no answer could be offered.

Translated by Kim N.B. Ninh

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