Poetry and Transformation
Teresa Mei Chuc is the honored guest in this, the sixth installment of my Political Poetry series at Counterpunch.
In the previous interview, Sam Hamill spoke about his poem “True Peace.” He expressed his feelings, as a Marine in Okinawa in 1963, upon hearing that Thich Quang Dúc had immolated himself on a street in Saigon, in protest over Catholic persecution of Buddhists across Vietnam.
Teresa Mei Chuc was born in Saigon in 1976. Chuc’s father had supported the US-backed regime in South Vietnam, and was imprisoned in a re-education camp after the war while she was in her mother’s womb. Chuc, her mother and brother were granted political asylum and, after harrowing experiences as “boat people,” arrived in the United States on February 10, 1979. At age nine, Chuc met her father for the first time when he arrived in the U.S.
Chuc’s father was badly abused in the re-education camp and suffered from PTSD. He told horror stories about the Vietcong that stuck in her mind and heart. As she said in an interview with Megan Green, “The post-traumatic stress disorder that plagued my father’s psyche and heart translated into daily life and so my childhood was a matter of survival which included some of the most severe examples—a knife being thrown at me and being chased with an axe. My life was inundated with threats of punishment and violence. So, these instances were a matter of my father’s PTSD, but I didn’t understand this until I was older.”
Chuc’s first volume of poems, Red Thread, chronicles her mythic journey from traumatized child to forgiving adult. Her original ideas about her native country were derived, in part, from stories told by her family and old photographs of sad and frightened people. Chuc was shown a photograph of herself at age two on the boat, “sitting on the floor with many people, and crying; I looked so sick in the picture. This was when my mother told me the story that inspired the poem, “Immigration.”
It is October, when the winds of autumn blow strong in the Pacific.
There are over two thousand of us, sardines,
barely human and starving. We sleep on the floor and
wash ourselves with seawater. People are sick.
When someone dies from sickness, s/he is wrapped
in a blanket and tossed overboard during a Buddhist chant.
I was only two years old and cannot recollect the dying
next to me, nor can I recollect my constant coughing nor
can I recall seeing my mother’s worried countenance as she
contemplated our future, how my constant crying made
her want to jump overboard.
Chuc’s view of what Americans refer to as “the Vietnam War” was based on all-too-true stories of boat people being robbed by pirates and women being raped. Forced to sit beside an engine, her aunt, eight months pregnant, lost her child. Chuc’s imagination was filled with images of her father in a labor camp, pulling a plow “strapped/ around his shoulders, trudging/ knee-deep through rice fields.” She could vividly see how “The metal teeth of the plow/ dug into the wet earth and Father pulled/as if he were carrying the entire mountain/ of Hoang Lien Son.”
Images of war and immigration inform many of Chuc’s poems; images that, as a child, were too painful for her to confront. “I wanted to have a peaceful life,” she told Megan Green, “but this trauma would continue to haunt me into adulthood until I knew that in order for me to survive and have peace within myself, I had to face this war and explore it into the deepest, darkest corners. I deeply wanted to forgive my father, the Vietcong, and the United States, and in order to do this, I knew that I had to face my profoundest fears and pains.”
The poems in Red Thread embody the evolution of a child exploring her family’s history, and the American war in Vietnam, in order to liberate herself from the anxiety and pain she stored in her body, as well as the profound sadness in her soul.
Re-inventing oneself, however, is not for the faint of heart. Many war veterans, and their children and spouses, descend into drug addiction, depression, and even suicide rather than exhume the past, study it, and view it rationally; as Yeats would say, with “a cold eye.”
And that’s where poetry as a healing, transformative process comes into the equation, both for the poet and her reader. In his poem “Blasphemy,” which he dedicated to Sam Hamill, Martin Espada said: “Let the blasphemy be spoken: poetry can save us.”
Writing poetry indeed has enabled Teresa Mei Chuc to transcend her long-held assumptions about the war, to embrace her Asian identity and cultural heritage, and to free herself from the depressing aspects of her family history. This rebirth began in the womb. As Chuc says in “The Bomb Shelter,” the first poem in Red Thread:
When bombs are exploding outside,
It means that there are implosions.
Vibrations travel through air and liquid.
My amniotic fluid is imprinted with airplanes
dropping bombs and screams and fire.
The radical change that engenders a new understanding of the world begins at the cellular level. For Chuc, poetry was the vehicle that enabled her to overcome the embedded associations that warped her view of reality. In the poem “Cockroaches” she tells how her brother begged their mother not to sell Chuc during her mother’s post-war struggle with poverty and lack of food. As the boy explained, “There are lots of cockroaches for us to eat!”
When she returned to Vietnam 18 years later, Chuc saw the cockroaches as “large, brown shiny tanks on the wall,/ evidence of my brother’s love for me.”
While Chuc has a deep love, adoration and longing for her motherland of Vietnam, war and exile made the history of the land of her birth painful to bear and the language a reminder of violence. As she recounts in the poem “Cam On,” she “hated to hear Vietnamese.” It conjured images of “people running,/ hiding in trenches.”
All I could hear were anxious voices.
I did not see the words, I could
not hear the words.
Now, something is changing:
I want to learn to speak the language
of the country where I was born,
no longer spinning.
Cam on—thank you
How the song of the gong
is summoning me back.”
Changing one’s life and sense of identity comes slowly, but as each petal unfurls, there is beauty to be found. In “Vietnamese Globe,” Chuc discovers that “In Vietnamese, the word “to live”/ is a circle.”
It is a beautiful word—a
painting. Round as a ball
and at the summit of this living,
one wonders and pauses.
The earth is shaped like this word, circling.
In the poem, Chuc expresses how beautiful the Vietnamese language is, and how learning this new language, the language of her ancestors, is actually shaping her new-old world as she discovers it:
The earth is shaped like this word, circling.
Cycling—carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen,
A bird with a worm wiggling from its
beak will eventually become Origin.
My mouth opens wide and spherical
to sound this Vietnamese globe—
Chuc’s poems tell the story of an immigrant finding her voice, assimilating her grandmother’s cultural wisdom, while experiencing new smells, new tastes, and a new culture of science. The poems merge geometry and animism. She metaphorically tests and measures the ethereal qualities that come from entering a new world, through the irrefutable laws of physics and mathematics. Her closest personal relationships become loving, learning experiences while she smells roses, prepares food, holds her mother, grandmother, and children and feels their hearts beating. She moves to a greater human awareness in the poem “Cartesian Product”:
The set of yellow people
is the intersection of the set
of people and the set of yellow things.
So, I am seeking to find
where these two trains collide,
both leaving nowhere, heading for the
intersection at an incalculable speed.
Equipped with compassion, her eyes wide open, Chuc moves into a world of bullets, bombs, landmines, and children deformed by chemical warfare. The messages of rebels from 1000 years ago are found in mooncakes. Poems of personal awakening, of rediscovering a mother’s love, expand into the broader world of what really happened, and what’s happening now. Consider the poem “Agent Orange”:
It’s difficult to be alone, without
a mother’s touch, in a crib like a
baby except one is not.
A son taught to live with a thirst
for a mother who loves her child though
one of his legs is too short, the other too long.
He sits, arms bent and limp, but do not
avoid him; he wants to interact. His swollen eyes
and misshapen head leans back. In a dream
Mother holds him close, as if by her embrace alone,
she will somehow right the wrong.
The chemical traveled through her placenta,
to the womb where small limbs that needed
to form couldn’t, where the tiny body,
the size of a fist, no longer knew what to do.
It was named for the orange band
around each fifty-five gallon drum.
Orange as a sunrise that permeates one’s soul,
how its rays cover the sky
and the earth with a deep orange,
rising as those bodies also rise.
I can only hint at the complexity and wonder of Chuc’s poems. It’s impossible to sum them up, but they seek the underlying principles, of logic and spirit, that connect people and tell, as she says in her poem about the My Lai Massacre, “What it means to be human.”
She finds this meaning in the metaphor of crashing into a rose bush as a kid on a bike, and being pricked by the thorns. “The rose entered my bloodstream/ and eyelids scattered over me./ I guess it was then, as when Peter Parker was/ bitten by a spider and became Spiderman—when I became a poet.”
Be it the chemicals from Depleted Uranium that seep into our bloodstreams and deform our children, or the chemicals in the soil that color the hydrangeas blue, or turn a person into a poet, Teresa Mei Chuc is concerned with the essence of intimacy, the inter-connectedness of the universe. As she explains: “According to Chinese legend, an invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break. In addition, the red thread is a protection and blessing cord in Buddhist tradition. It keeps the wearer in the compassionate embrace of the bodhisattvas.”
I recently had the honor of speaking with Chuc and asking her about her poetry and poetic journey.
DV Growing up, you were largely unaware of the pain the U.S. visited upon the Vietnamese. How did learning of this affect you and your political views?
TMC The process of discovering about the American war in Vietnam: Agent Orange, napalm bombings, unexploded landmines, the Christmas bombings that destroyed my father’s birth city of Hanoi, the destruction of the rainforests, and massacres by U.S. troops, was a slow process that spanned several years, with each discovery tearing my heart to pieces. I had to find ways to deal with the hurt. For me to read the history of my birth country was incredibly difficult. I must, at times, consciously force my heart open, to stay open, and to listen through the sorrow. I wondered how I could be living in a country that gave my family and me shelter but at the same time destroyed my birth country and its people. It was incredibly difficult to come to terms with this history and to find a way to constructively deal with the emotions and pain that emerged from learning about what happened during the American war in Vietnam. I had to overcome some fear of publishing my poetry about the horrors committed by the U.S. and started to publish such poems overseas in England. I was concerned about how my writing would be received in the U.S. Later, as I presented my poems through readings in the U.S., I realized that many people in the audience did not really know about the intricacies of the war in Vietnam and its long-lasting effects, especially from the perspective of an immigrant.
On the other side, I also wrote about my father’s imprisonment by the Vietcong. Currently, in Vietnam that part of history is suppressed or taboo, the country prohibits writing/publication about the re-education camps and many of my friends in Vietnam, even those that fought for the Vietcong during the war, didn’t know what it was like in the re-education camps. In a way, I feel like I had to speak against some of the policies of both my birth country and my adopted country, but not in a way so much as to place blame but more to show the painful effects of what had happened.
Literature/poetry, I believe, brings the world closer with a deeper understanding and compassion for each other.
DV Many of your poems concern the reconciliation of opposites. These are poems of contrast and contradictions. In one poem you tell how you love your mother; she is a devout Buddhist, and yet she crushes a fly between her hands without a thought. You are able to reconcile this on a personal level. It also seems a metaphor for our political lives. Over the years you have met and formed friendships with Vietnamese who fought in the American War. Some of them are poets whom you have translated and introduced to America. Would you care to tell us a little about these Vietnamese poets and what they say in their poems, and how they feel about Americans?
TMC I think we live in an unavoidable outer and inner world of yin and yang. We have a need to understand opposing forces in the world and within ourselves and to react somehow in response and I found that the greatest response is with compassion. The Vietnamese poets I’ve met who fought in the war on the side of the Vietcong deal with such deep pain regarding the war, but they, too, want to connect and arrive at some understanding.
My particular situation forced me to not take sides, I had no choice but to see both sides and to realize that there aren’t “sides” and that we are all humans constructing these imaginary “divisions.” I think part of compassion is feeling past these “divisions” and embracing the humanness in each of us. Life is a huge learning experience and the U.S. soldiers that I have met who fought in Vietnam and in the current wars have to deal with the realization of the reality of war once they have faced it. In Buddhism, intention is very important. In war, we often learn, too late, that perhaps “good” intentions were based on lies and in the process the most terrible of acts against human lives can be committed. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Inevitably, within that multitude of contradiction lies the ability to love and be compassionate.
DV Here is your poem Photosynthesis, which you wrote for your son:
How can I convince you
that you do have chlorophyll,
that you can take the sun’s
energy and turn it into sugar?
Produce something sweet inside of you.
Take the waste people breathe out
and make it into something that
will keep you alive, that will keep
those around you alive, create oxygen.
Why do you say that this metaphor
doesn’t work, that you don’t have
the powers of a plant, that nature
didn’t intend you that way?
Look, how you twist and turn
towards the light.
DV Please talk a little about this poem and what it suggests.
TMC Growing up, I was taught to appreciate living things including trees, rocks, rivers, oceans; that every “thing” in essence was living. I was taught to see myself as not separate from the natural world but interconnected with it. It is the old adage that we have much to learn from nature and, in essence, we are a reflection of nature. In the midst of all the horrors that humans have committed throughout history, there were also so many people who make things better. I truly think that we have that ability and it begins within us on a cellular and spiritual level. The actions we take and our beliefs in our own personal lives and hearts will, I think, create an expanding wave, perhaps a wave that will somehow curve the ever-expanding wave of the consequences of war. I think that everything that we do is political on some level and affects others and the environment. Whatever pain or poison we have received, we can choose to do the same to the other or we can choose to “create oxygen” and create something that is life-giving, to break the cycle of abuse.
DV During the war, the CIA instituted its top secret Phoenix Program to identify, capture, detain and assassinate the leaders of the insurgency. In doing this, the CIA took the traditional Phung Hoang, a bird of peace and music, and turned it into an omnipotent bird of prey. Likewise, in your interview with Megan Green, you told how your father “hated the color red because it was the color of communism. He associated the color with violence, loss and deep pain, when in fact red is an important color in Chinese culture and symbolizes good luck and happiness.
Would you care to talk about any government’s ability to shape our perceptions, and the struggle people from all nations must engage in to overcome the many false assumptions we have about history, and even the meaning of words.
TMC I think that the government has great power in shaping our perception of history and the meaning of words. The American war in Vietnam is perhaps a page or two in our history books in school. It is merely glanced over and there is no in-depth account of the use of Agent Orange, napalm, landmines or massacres. Most students nowadays know very little, if anything at all, about the war in Vietnam even though the war occurred not too long ago. History, oftentimes, is written as a series of events and dates and the intimate lives of the people involved are reduced to a number and easily forgotten; however, when we show the lives of the people in history, through poetry and literature, we can gain a deeper understanding and make deeper connections. We can, then, begin to form our own understanding of history. I believe that we can’t let the victors be the only ones writing history and the conquered be erased into the whiteness of the page.
“The Vietnam War” and “the American War” were terms used by either side of the conflict and shaped the perceptions of the people and what the government wanted them to believe – just as the U.S. changed the name of the “Viet Minh,” who were backed by the U.S. during WWII to oppose Japanese forces in Vietnam, to “Viet Cong” when they fought against the U.S. during the American war in Vietnam. Naming can create an identity and it can take away an identity. Naming embodies such power.
I wrote a poem titled “Names” that was first published by Babel Fruit and republished in the anthology New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press, 2010) edited by Lowell Jaeger. When I moved to the U.S., I lost my birth name, Tue My Chuc, and along with the loss of my birth name, I lost a part of my identity.
“Names” was translated into Vietnamese by poet Ngo Tu Lap and published in Vietnam in the literary journal Van nghe Vinh. I think, in essence, we must take back what we believe to be our true names.
DV In your poem Newton’s First, Second, and Third Laws of Motion, you say:
Once a war begins, it is never really over. Families and loved ones mourn. A war’s force is present through the years, after decades, centuries. It is something that lingers in the air.
Protest is good—a war for freedom and liberty. A peaceful war like Gandhi’s.
DV This poem seems to sum up your feelings about political advocacy. What can people do? How does poetry help?
TMC War is not the answer. I think what people can do is to work on healing the wounds of past wars and raising awareness of the horrors of war and letting the stories of history be told not only by the victors. With awareness comes compassion. Poetry helps because it can reach into a person’s heart and psyche and these are places where transformation takes place. Poetry can enable someone to feel for another and connect people on levels that make each feel more human. Being human or feeling human and feeling that others are human is not such an easy thing to do, especially in a society where people are raised to hide their real emotions or where the truth is hidden in propaganda. Poetry can cut to the core; it is an act of human connection and dangerous for any government which seeks to divide.
DV Your journey of transformation has turned you into an advocate, and your interests have grown beyond Vietnam. You take an interest in Palestinian affairs. Your poem “Eternity in Gaza, Khan Younis Refugee Camp, 2001” tells of canisters falling on people. The people believe it is “More tear gas” but soon “a white cloud/ flowered above, then changed colors and emitted/ a sweet odor that made them want to breathe in/ the way one breathes in the smell of sweet tea.”
The people who are gassed endure muscles cramps, “constricting as if from the bite of a scorpion.” They have convulsions and fall into comas. “The villagers,” as you say in the poem
had never seen anything like this before. The convulsions came
like waves for an entire month and family members who sat and cried at bedside
wailed in pain almost as much as the victims who looked like rabid dogs.
Some visitors were stunned silent, their eyes inward, heads tilted to the side
as if not looking would somehow make it not be truly happening.
In a laboratory far away were beakers, scientists in white gowns and goggles,
microscopes, and gloves. At the end of the day, they went home
to their wives and wives to their husbands. The tables were set,
the dinner was ready, warm and steaming,
and the children swung their legs beneath the table.
DV Please tell us what we can do to put an end to the production and use of chemical weapons.
TMC I have always felt a deep affinity towards the Palestinians and hold them deep in my heart, perhaps because I feel their profound, unending suffering. I think raising awareness is a first step to putting an end to such weapons as nerve gases and other chemical weapons. I am heartbroken that incendiary devices are still used after Vietnam. Perhaps there is too much silence or distraction around the horrors of war. I think, a lot of the times, people don’t want to open their eyes and see what they must. They prefer to not know, because knowing is too painful and can break you.
I think some people may give up, thinking what they do won’t make a difference because the people who are in power will make policies despite the will of the people. Also, in the U.S., people are, in a way, desensitized to violence through the media. Some don’t know what is really happening around the world and what they can do about it. The change must begin within each individual facing the dragons, as Rilke says. We must first know what is happening. I think volunteering to de-mine a field of unexploded ordnance is a good place to begin. Raising awareness through poetry, music, art, etc. makes a difference in seemingly unnoticeable ways, but transformations are taking place because it is building compassion.
I wish I had an answer to how we can end these wars, murders and abuses. Perhaps, it can happen one heart at a time.
DV Thank you, Teresa, for your time and inspirational poetry.
Teresa Mei Chuc was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for “Truth is Black Rubber,” a section of poems from Red Thread. She is a graduate of the Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, and teaches literature and writing at a public school. Chuc’s poetry appears in journals including EarthSpeak Magazine, Hypothetical Review, National Poetry Review, Rattle, and Verse Daily. Her poetry also appears in the anthologies New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press, 2010) and Mo’ Joe (Beatlick Press, 2014). Email: email@example.com
Several of Chuc’s poems, as well as her translations of poems by Vietnamese poets Dau Phi Nam and Vuong Tung Cuong, will appear in the forthcoming anthology, With Our Eyes Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, 2014). For information about pre-ordering the anthology, please contact John Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please visit Doug Valentine’s Political Poetry series at http://www.douglasvalentine.com/disc.htm