Even those who don’t love poetry should take some time to reflect on the courageous life and works of Nguyen Chi Thien, who passed away on Tuesday at a hospital in Santa Ana, California at the age of 73.
Nguyen was first arrested by the North Vietnamese government in 1960 for refusing to pass along misinformation about the Second World War while teaching — he made clear to his students that the United States, not the Soviet Union, had forced the Japanese to surrender. The indiscretion earned him three and a half years in a government labor camp. Undeterred, Nguyen was arrested again in 1966, this time for spreading “propaganda” through his poetry. For the crime, he served another eleven years in prison, finally earning his release in 1977, two years after the end of the Vietnam War.
While such harsh treatment would likely cow most people into silence, Nguyen was unbroken. In 1979, he audaciously walked into the British embassy in Hanoi with a 400-page poetry manuscript he’d composed and memorized while in prison. He was arrested as he left the embassy, and this time forced to serve 12 years in the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
During Nguyen’s last prison term, Flowers from Hell, the poetry manuscript for which he’d sacrificed his freedom, was published in Vietnamese, English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese and Korean. It won him the International Poetry Award in 1985, while he was still imprisoned.
Reading Flowers from Hell, it’s quickly apparent why the government sought to silence Nguyen, who was bold and outspoken in his criticism. This excerpt from “If Tomorrow I Have to Die,” is one example:
Why is it that I dream only of the better facets,
That only glories of the past seep through to my poetry?
Can it be that life today
Is filled with poison in its very innards
Whereas the old society’s defects were mere pimples?
And in this excerpt from “Today, May 19th,” written in 1964 about Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh, Nguyen did not mince words:
Let the hacks with their prostituted pens
Comb his beard, pat his head, caress his arse!
…The hell with Him!
Nguyen was finally released from prison in 1991, and he eventually settled in the Little Saigon area of Los Angeles. In his poem “Every Day I Would Go,” written in 1958, Nguyen described his days before protest and imprisonment:
Every day I would go to the tea shop
At a time when it is almost deserted
I would pick a table in the innermost corner
Where I could sit by myself reading the paper and brewing
The poem ends, dejectedly, with Nguyen
…shaking my head in an attempt to shake away
The images blurred and rather melancholic
Of a meaningless life, almost thrown away.
Nguyen reportedly spent his last days in similar manner: sipping tea, reading late into the night, and even talking a little politics. But, in his last years, he could reflect on a life of extraordinary meaning that, by all accounts, he did not throw away.