"[My relationships were] like I was in these movies where the script was only half-written. When I’d get to the end of this half-script, the other actors wanted me to ad lib. But I had never gotten the hang of that. That’s why these movies were always box-office failures. Six of them in the past twenty years. I always blew the lines." ~ from my horrible first novel "Learn How To Pretend." (unpublished)(obviously)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Translation of Mrs. Cam: The Embodiment of the Vietnamese Emigré within John Balaban’s Poem


In his poem, “For Mrs. Cam, Whose Name Means ‘Printed Silk,’” John Balaban uses the character of Mrs. Cam to portray the cultural struggles of the Vietnamese immigrant; a person walking in two worlds. The poet draws comparisons between old and new values using symbols such as poems, poets, pearls, and printed silk. As both an epigraph and an interpretive touchstone, Balaban’s use of the Ho Chi Minh poem, “On Reading the Anthology of The Ten Thousand Poets,” describes a New Vietnamese people and culture that have grown beyond Uncle Ho’s revolution. Within these lines, Mrs. Cam becomes not just Uncle Ho’s poem and poet – writing her future with a strong self-determination – but the very embodiment of the post-war Vietnamese people. That Balaban, an outspoken opponent of the war and a conscientious objector, favorably uses a quote from Ho Chi Minh is tantamount to treason in the eyes of some Vietnam vets, and even in the eyes of many Vietnamese themselves. Using the Ho poem to point to the new Vietnamese immigrants is rather brash, but it creates what is perhaps a more realistic representation, not just of who these people are, but of the guilt-by-association portrait many Americans painted. Many soldiers who fought in Vietnam did not draw a distinction between the North and South Vietnamese. They had seen and heard the tales of women and children who walked up to G.I.s to beg candy or gum, only to detonate a hidden grenade. “They” were all the enemy. To these soldiers, “a slope was a slope,” every Vietnamese a potential “Charlie.”
The Ho Chi Minh poem may be broken into two distinct statements. The first two lines refer to the poems of the ancients that lauded the things of nature; the almost wispy ethereal images of “clouds, wind, moon, snow,” and the more corporeal “flowers, rivers, [and] crags” (ll 1-2). The second half of his poem, far from having a natural feel, is filled with martial and revolutionary imagery of “strong tempered steel” (l 3) and poet warriors leading the charge. Informed by these themes, Balaban draws parallels in his character of Mrs. Cam, employing the two poetic statements to set up the dichotomy between the old and new Vietnams.
Mrs. Cam’s name, as the title asserts, means “painted silk.”  Inasmuch as Balaban begins his poem with the line “in Vietnam, poets brushed on printed silk” (l 1), title character is plainly representative of this medium. A simplistic statement perhaps, but Balaban is well-known for his translations of the ca dao, a traditional Vietnamese sung poem. In a sense, with this poem, he is translating Mrs. Cam into English, and this is implicit in the title. She is the poem: It is written on – or perhaps even, in – her. Ho’s poem calls not for new poets, but for the old poets to learn a new poem. Mrs. Cam a product of the new Vietnam, displays the old-style poetry that is ingrained in her soul as she “marvel[s] at curls broken bare in crushed shells, at the sheen and cracks of laved, salted wood” (ll 13-14).
 Silk is porous and the paint of the poet would have clung to it, pervading the fabric. Ho mentions “the ancients [who] loved those poems with natural feel” (l 1), and the silk is certainly natural. More than that, though, silk is strong. It is said, perhaps fallaciously, that a silk thread has a higher tensile strength than steel. At one time it was even believed that silk was impervious to bullets. The poet offers us an early glimpse of the dichotomous nature of Mrs. Cam as soft yet strong. She bears the beauty of a poem printed on a fabric that is stronger than – or encased in – steel, the fate of these old poems in modern times.
There is no mention of a Mr. Cam. Presumably Mrs. Cam is a war widow. At the very least, she escaped with her children after the fall of Saigon while her husband stayed behind[1]. Again we see a strength and resilience of character that is called for in order to make a new life. Returning to the idea of a beautiful poem painted on silk, we see that Mrs. Cam truly possesses the quality of grace under pressure.
Mrs. Cam, while being a poem herself, is also part of “the Anthology of Ten Thousand Poets” alluded to by the inclusion of the Ho Chi Minh poem. Each person is allegorically writing a poem, but the anthology creates the whole, creates this thing that is the Vietnamese people. As she considers the worn and broken detritus washed up on the California beach, she is reminded of this, and of her “life, lost friends / and pieces of poems which make [her] whole” (ll 17-18).  
More than being the poem on printed silk, Mrs. Cam is the poet. Ho says the poet must “lead the charge” (l 4).  In an article for American Her country has been devastated and she makes a stand – leads the charge, so to speak – and leaves for a new land. Ironically she is leaving to occupy the land of Vietnam’s occupiers. Ho’s poem says that the poems of old were written on silk, but that the new poems will be written with steel upon the very world itself. Mrs. Cam is creating this type of poem, written on the American culture as she adapts and integrates.  She sees the world – even her new one – in poetic terms. She walks the beach, viewing the natural world with the eyes of the poet. She observes those things that, like her people, have been worn down by the constant pummeling of the surf. These are things that the ancients would have loved as subject matter for their poems.
As it is necessary for her new neighbors to understand her, Mrs. Cam must learn to translate herself into English. More to the point, she must translate herself into an American. She has a job operating a key-punch machine; what was, at the time the poem takes place, a relatively high-tech career. This American-style 9-to-5 job leaves her with a foot in two worlds. Balaban jumps back and forth from stanzas that reflect nature, to stanzas reflecting the suffering of a war-torn people. This jump echoes the ambivalent feelings that Mrs. Cam must have towards the worlds she lives in – or has to choose between. The ocean separates her from her old life, and it is here, at the ocean’s edge where she chooses to reflect on this separation. 
Despite its quality of separation, the ocean also provides a connection to her old home. “The wide Pacific flares in sunset,” the poet writes. “Somewhere over there was once your home” (ll 22-23). She stares longingly in the direction of her old home, yet it is on the beach of her new home, that she finds the answers to the feelings inside her. Vietnam, both the physical country and much of the culture it represents, are beyond her grasp now. She must learn to build a new life. That the Pacific is mentioned as being “in sunset” is more than a meteorological statement, it declares the waning of the ancient Asian cultures. Mrs. Cam’s beloved Hue, once the capital and home to feudal lords, is now overtaken by the outside world.
As she looks west across the Pacific at her former home, she thinks of how it all happened. How, like the genesis of a pearl, her new life was precipitated by “a grain, a grit” (l 28) in the form of the war.  “Nicely like a pearl is a poem” (l 25), Mrs. Cam muses. The diction in this stanza hints at the broken English of a new immigrant, while retaining the elegance of the rest of the poem. Like the oyster, she is creating a new pearl, a new poem, a new Vietnamese people and culture through her self-determination and overcoming of obstacles. Too, the poem tells us that this pearl-inducing grain “irritates the mantle of thought / and coats itself in lacquers of the mind” (ll 29-30). Here it is shown that Mrs. Cam also represents former supporters of the regime. That “mantle of thought” was her indoctrination and the irritation comes from seeing that the “running dog” enemy was not so bad as once thought. We are told that she “raise[s her] kids in Southern California” (l 10). It is implied that these children were not born in America yet they probably have adapted to this new country better than their mother. That they are referred to as “kids,” rather than the more proper sounding “children,” shows one more little way that she is adapting to this new land. A little of the formality of Hue is lost – a little of the So-Cal casualness creeps in. That Balaban chooses Southern California is in itself telling. Southern California is the center of American pop culture, with Hollywood, Disneyland, and the surf at Malibu, all within easy driving distance. Its sound is that of a crashing of cultures and with its blend of Asian cultures – the Japanese and the Chinese – that came before, these new Vietnamese have found the ideal place to write their new poems, to become their beautiful pearls.
In writing of Vietnam and its people, Balaban does not put pen to paper as the poet-statesman, too old to fight or flee, expressing disdain for th military-industrial complex. Nor does he write from the perspective of an eighteen year old draftee; a stoned Boonie-Rat “humping a pig” through the bush, frantically shooting at “Charlie” in the hope of staying alive one more day. Instead, his prose is colored and formed by having lived among the people themselves. He has read the poetry that is the Vietnamese people, and has memorized its stanzas until they are like his own. Whether Uncle Ho or the ancients would have loved this Mrs. Cam is not for us to know. Nonetheless, Balaban points to the affirmative as Mrs. Cam makes herself into a poem.  Steel encased and painted on ancient printed silk, but at the same time, indelibly written on the consciousness of America.

Works Cited

Balaban, John. email, November 18, 2006 1:13 AM 2006.




[1] In personal communication with the author of this paper, John Balaban revealed that Mrs.Cam is a real person. She escaped Vietnam shortly after the fall of Saigon with her husband and two daughters. She still lives in California with her family and is a bank executive. Balaban also notes that, in 1971-72,  Mrs. Cam and her husband helped him collect the ca dao sung-poetry, the translation of which has become his major work, Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong.  John Balaban, email, November 18, 2006 1:13 AM 2006.

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