Oyster Boy Review 19  
  Fall 2010
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From Voice to Ear: John Balaban's Ca Dao Viet Nam

Jim Cory

John Balaban's Ca Dao Viet Nam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry
  Ca Dao Viet Nam.
John Balaban, editor.
John Balaban, translator.
Copper Canyon Press, 2003.
73 pages, $15 (paperback).
ISBN: 1556591861.

In the fall of 1971, with the civil war raging, John Balaban set off into the Vietnamese countryside equipped with a tape recorder. His goal: to locate, and record, singers and speakers of the live—that is, existing—oral tradition of sung/spoken Vietnamese folk poetry called ca dao. Before leaving nine months later, Balaban had recorded more than 500 poems from 35 individuals and, with the aid of a translator, committed them to the page. Most had never been written down before.

Ca Dao Viet Nam, the resulting book from Copper Canyon Press and the first translation ca dao into any European language, distills those 500 lyrics to 48 of, presumably, the best. The poems—Balaban created a title for each—range in length from three to twenty-five lines. To imagine ca dao, think of the Negro spirituals circa 1900 or so, that is, before their elevation to the concert stage by Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. They're simple lyrics, rendered a capella, easily committed to memory. They emerge anonymously from a fund of shared wisdom and experience, and are polished to perfection as they're passed from generation to generation.

As with the spirituals, the theme of hardship often recurs. But that's where comparison ends. A wry and earthy outlook—often bittersweet—propels many of these ca dao. Yet they're also marked with a certain fatalism, a sense of resignation in the face of what can't be prevented or changed. Layered meanings, complexity, and irony characterize many. For instance, in "Arranged Marriage," the future mother-in-law's greed—she's after a big dowry—only assures that the wedded couple will be "like unmatched chopsticks, never equal." And fate plays an inordinate role, for instance, in bringing lovers together. In "Replies,"—a poem in two voices, with each voice assigned its own couplet—one speaker notes that:

Who tends the paddy repairs its dike.
Whoever has true love shall meet. But when?

In another poem, a husband trapped in an unhappy marriage opines that: "When love is not fated, love has no life."

Ca dao offers a comparatively limited range of subjects. Apart from love, there is loneliness ("The Homesick Bride," "The Outpost Soldier"), the power of meditative thought ("Clear Skies, Clear Sea"), the dangers of alcohol ("Whiskey Lovers") or those moments when the life of the individual intersects that of the people, or the state ("At the Exiled King's River Pavilion"), to name the few sampled here. But these are part of the spiritual essence of rural life, and thus allow for infinite variations on themes, much like the blues in the rural South. (About 5,000 ca dao are thought to be in use at any given time.)

Balaban supplies a fifteen-page introductory essay explaining the prosodic forms, musical structures, and social/historical context of ca dao. He also includes a considerably helpful "Notes" section at the end. Apart from the aesthetic pleasure of reading them, which is considerable, Ca Dao Viet Nam gives us a glimpse of how poetry, in the larger sense, might have evolved prior to the printing press or written notation, and reminds us—at a time of fashionable obscurantism—that its most authentic definition is the transmission of spirit from writer to reader, or speaker to ear.