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These 5 Vietnamese Poems Pay Homage to the Complexities of Local Fruits

Fruit and poetry: the two things I love most.

Growing older can be an infinite series of disillusionments; the childhood thrill of potential and novelty perpetually slipping from the facades around us to reveal worn and tawdry familiarity. Disappointments abound. Remaining curious, one of our most vital states of being, becomes increasingly difficult. 

The two best antidotes I know to this spiritual malaise are poetry and fruit. In the same way a great poem elicits a response of “huh, I’ve never thought about that” or “wow, I’ve never thought about it that way,” a new fruit carries with it the promise of a new texture, flavor or smell; something that can call into question everything I know about my senses, and by extension, the world and my place within it. A new poem, like a new fruit, cannot be imagined, it can only be experienced.

Saigoneer introduced our monthly chapter schedule for a variety of reasons, including challenging our writers to explore seemingly common topics in new ways. When #FruitChapter arrived on the calendar, I decided it was a good opportunity to examine it through the lens of poetry. How have Vietnamese poets encountered, described and interacted with fruit?

What follows are five poems written by Vietnamese poets, most in Vietnamese first and then translated into English, with fruit as a central theme, image or subject. It is not a definitive list of the best fruit poems, but I selected them because they made me think or feel, the primary purpose of poetry. Poems rarely have any singular meaning, and their joy rests in discovering what emotions and ruminations they can coax out of the reader. I hope reading the poems below and encountering my comments delineating what I was thinking about when reading them helps you appreciate poetry or fruit or both in a slightly altered way.

1. ‘The Custard Apple’s Eyes’ by Nguyễn Duy | Translated by Kevin Bowen and Nguyễn Bá Chung

We call on each other to visit the grasslands in the high hills,
A harsh wind shakes a sea of custard apple leaves.

Custard apples, please open your eyes,
See how the moon casts down its empty shadows.

With the trees in the garden, drink deep the moon’s hollow wine,
They too share the night’s sadness.

Let’s close our eyes, love, the custard apple’s eyes,
Our only witness.

To be human in the modern world means to be separate from nature. We’ve constructed lifestyles that insulate us from the natural world. We sit in air-conditioned rooms, surrounded by fabricated materials that resemble nothing that grows from the soil, falls from the sky or sways in the current. What we eat is increasingly the same: lunch is a bag of processed chips, cup of flash-fried noodles, and a carbonated soda filled with caffeine and artificial sweeteners. Fruit remains an exception. When we eat fruit we are returned to our ancient heritages, the distant ancestors who dwelled in trees and migrated in tune with seasonal ripenings. Nguyễn Duy’s poem invites us back into that experience with the first line: “We call on each other to visit the grasslands in the high hills.” 

We often think that our emotions are uniquely human. This poem questions that. Nguyễn Duy is a master of metaphor as evidenced by the shadows cast by the moon that he understands as “hollow wine.” Custard apples, once they’ve opened their eyes, can share in this “sadness.” In his dreamy world, humans and plants share physical traits (eyes) as well as emotions (sadness). One could interpret this as fruits becoming human in the poem, but maybe it is humans that become fruit and the sadness we feel is one belonging originally to custard apples. Perhaps we do not spend enough time in our day reflecting on how our experiences, trivial and grand, are akin to those of fruit.

The final stanza in the poem takes a thrilling turn. By addressing a beloved, Nguyễn Duy is explaining that the surreal embrace of an existence that blurs the interior psychology of humans with custard apples is to be shared with another human. We all want to experience pleasure with other people; it is partly why we go to concerts and enjoy visiting galleries with loved ones. Such moments bring people closer together in the same way a shared secret tightens bonds between friends, family and lovers. The pleasures derived by recognizing kinship with fruit are no different. In the final line the custard apples become “witness” and an achingly beautiful moment is savored together.

2. ‘Durian Flesh’ by Khải Đơn

Threads of durian scent tangle my hair
a void fills in where it used to be the fruit garden I slept
my years of infancy. I was not drawn
to the hallucination of fluorescent
light; suicidal moths, but here
I am, getting lost in a square
box sweatshop, wishing
to grow mayfly wings, seeking high
moments beaming flash into my chest –
That braveness [or] desperation carves meaning
out of the starving water; I carve myself
off the groves of hungered soil, dragging
to the surface of wealthiness, almost non-
existent in my father’s durian garden
He dug and planted seedlings until we
had the first durian young soft skin
we sunk our teeth in the sweetest bite
of Mekong heaven. O, Heaven
dried up and peeled its skin on the scorched
field blistering my palms. Now I stand
under the excruciating lights; flapping
my exhausted moth wings
Memories of
home flutters
flutt-flut-er- er
-er -e

‘Durian Flesh’ is included in Khải Đơn’s magnificent debut book of English-language poetry, Drowning Dragon Slips by Burning Plain, and in the blog post accompanying this particular piece she notes: “The poem is my longing for the scent of durian on the land that is losing its spirit for extreme climate conditions.” This note, along with the surrounding context of a book concerned with the many socio-economic and environmental problems facing the Mekong Delta helps inform one’s reading of it. 

The fluorescent “excruciating lights” are pitted against the speaker and her “exhausted moth wings,” as she longs for “the sweetest bite / of Mekong heaven.” The durian is both her carefree youth and also a contributor to the “starving water” and “hungered soil” that fills the region as we rush to grow more crops and plant the most commercially viable trees. I appreciate this poem for the complexity such a realization ushers in: fruit can simultaneously be a cause of joy via its place in bucolic memories and its proximity to nature (see: Nguyễn Duy’s poem) and also its undoing via the rush to transform the land into farms and orchards which upsets river systems and flood plains, to say nothing of the carbon-spewing energy required by greenhouses and expansive distribution networks. 

Perhaps, the most powerful part of reading ‘Durian Flesh’ is recognizing that the changes we are witnessing in regards to unsustainable farming and land development were set in motion centuries ago. The durian we enjoy today has already undergone significant human manipulation. While not as extreme as fruits such as apples or strawberries, durian have been selectively bred to meet our human desires. We may long for the days when fruit was not produced with poisonous chemicals and in greenhouses that ruin the planet, but we do not long for their original, wild ancestors that were bland, seed-filled and temperamental. So in a way we are complicit. And yet, it’s all beyond our control. As the poem notes: “I was not drawn /  to the hallucination of fluorescent / light; suicidal moths, but here / I am, getting lost in a square / box sweatshop, wishing.”

3. ‘Jackfruit’ by Hồ Xuân Hương | Translated by Marilyn Chin

My body is like a jackfruit swinging on a tree
My skin is rough, my pulp is thick
Dear prince, if you want me pierce me upon your stick
Don't squeeze, I'll ooze and stain your hands

One of the most famous poems from Vietnam, these four lines remind me of the sheer power and necessity of poetry. Most readers will know of Hồ Xuân Hương. Debates exist as to who she actually was and if she even was a singular person and not simply a name given credit for a variety of poems shared orally in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But the agreed upon myth is that she was an educated concubine who subverted conservative Confucian society with witty poems that put forth feminist ideas and ridiculed patriarchy via metaphors and bawdy similies. 

This poem that not so subtly compares the female body to a ripe fruit, boldly relishing in carnal desire, is amongst Hồ Xuân Hương’s most well-known. Written during an era of chastity when female sexual pleasure was not discussed openly, the strength drawn from such lustful feelings was a subversive, liberating call for women to take agency. And therein lies the power of poetry: to do and say what is unacceptable in other realms. A poet needs no tools or collaborators to craft their messages and, in part, because of verse’s propensity for compactness, they can share them with greater freedom than just about any other genre. Were it not for poetry, how could Hồ Xuân Hương have shared this idea?

As much as we like to talk about works of writing, music and painting as enduring classics, very little remains relevant and appreciated for long after the generation that popularized it. But here we are in 2024, thinking about a 200-year-old poem. And in the years since I first read this poem, nearly every time I see a jackfruit, I think of it, and by extension, feminine strength and independence. To assign an enduring, completely alternate meaning to an object in the minds of people living two centuries later is utterly remarkable. That’s poetry.

4. ‘Chôm Chôm’ by Teresa Mei Chuc

A striking similarity
between certain landmines
and this reddish-yellow-green fruit.

Its name meaning “messy hair.”
Its spikes so long, they curl like fingernails.

If only everything this shape could be
as sweet inside as this chôm chôm.

Its white flesh reminiscent of longan
and lychee. The taste of rivers perfuming

the mouth as jasmine flowers perfume the air.
Its heavenly nectar. If a fruit could speak

of love, it would be the chôm chôm.

Few elements of poetry thrill me like a good metaphor and fruits provide some of the best fodder for them, as seen in this poem by Teresa Mei Chuc. We can imagine their hairs and immediately picture the curling of fingernails kept long to denote class. But my favorite metaphor is more subtle, skilled and playful. When Teresa describes the “taste of rivers perfuming,” we witness what may be a sly allusion to the Perfume River before the stunning simile that explains how flavors diffuse across our taste buds the way that scents drift in the air. It’s true! Rambutans fill our mouths with their sweet essence the very same way that flower aromas fill our noses. 

What elevates this poem from a simply pleasant look at a fruit is the way that Teresa doubles down on this juxtaposition of the wondrous and the grotesque via the comparison of rambutan and “certain landmines.” From the very first stanza, the poem is laden with war, death, and misery while simultaneously examining the buoyant charms of rambutan. She presents a world that contains both great sorrow and small pleasures, ultimately settling on a hope for love, as exemplified by the chôm chôm, suggesting we can cling to fruits in the darkest hours to provide comfort. 

Another reason for selecting this poem is that it allows me to comment on the theme of fruit in poetry written by members of the diaspora. I’ve noticed Vietnam’s fruits appear often in the works of diaspora individuals like Teresa as well as Hoa Nguyen, Bao-Long Chu, and many others. This makes sense: even in our hyper-connected world, tropical fruits remain difficult to transport and few things conjure memory as effectively as smell and taste. So, if literature tells us anything, it's that fruit plays an essential role in keeping Vietnamese abroad connected to their heritage and concepts of identity as well as representing feelings of foreignness when in lands never seen by their ancestors, which understandably enters the text.

5. ‘An Apple’ by Huy Hùng | Translated by Trần Vũ Liên Tâm

He finishes his breakfast and
immediately washes his hands
holds the small knife peeling the apple’s
skin in circling rotation, circling
rotation around around which
he feels like peeling each skin of
the earth in circular rotation,
around, cirrcular rotation,
around, then suddenly from
outside emerges a wind storm
[which] beats the whole window … while
he’s still in the progress of peeling
a long skin …

One might consider this a trivial poem on first read that does little besides describe a common domestic act. Sure, its sonic rhythms built upon repetition, particularly in the Vietnamese version, are satisfying and the images are constructed with admirably spartan precision, but so what? I like it because the simple scene allows one to come to numerous conclusions. For me, it touches on how the private lives we lead and the joys we savor exist unaffected by the cruel and unrelenting world beyond us. Terrible wind storms beat the windows, but we can remain safe and comfortable within ourselves, consumed by the small bliss of peeling fruit. In a time of barbaric wars (when was there a time without war?), each and everyone of us must seek occasional pleasure. 

The previous poems focus on fruits understood as quintessentially Vietnamese, or at least strongly associated with Vietnam, while this poem by little-known poet Huy Hùng concerns itself with the apple, perhaps the most global of fruits. Originating in Central Asia and heavily developed in North America and China, they are available almost everywhere; just walk into your closest Co.op Mart or 7-Eleven. I appreciate what thinking about the universality of fruit can remind us about poetry. While we can take delight in identifying subjects and themes unique to Vietnamese poetry, we must not lose sight of the truth that many poems could have been written by anyone, anywhere. Just as it can reveal our uniquenesses, art can reveal our commonalities. There are no restrictions on who can write and read poems just as there are no requirements for who can enjoy fruit. I find this theme mirrored in the poem in which the character “feels like peeling each skin of / the earth in circular rotation, / around, circular rotation.” 

‘An Apple’ allows me to reflect once more on the similarities between fruit and poems. Encountering them shares many similarities: they require some work to get at the flesh; they represent a small blessing dependent on a degree of luck and fortune, and they are best savored slowly and earnestly. I think this poem’s description of peeling an apple would fit just as well for preparing to read a poem. So, I invite you to wash your hands, pick up a poem and, with a small knife, approach it:  “in circling rotation, circling / rotation around around.”

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