During the Vietnam war, John Balaban traveled the Vietnamese countryside alone, taping, transcribing, and translating oral folk poems known as “ca dao.” It was Balaban’s belief that his project could help end the war. The young American poet walked up to farmers, fishermen, seamstresses, and monks and said, “Sing me your favorite poem,” and they did. “Folk poetry is so much a part of everybody’s life, my request didn’t seem like such a strange proposition,” Balaban writes. The resulting collection—the first in any Western language—became a phenomenon within the American Vietnamese community, but the book slipped out of print after the original publisher folded in the ’70s. This revised, bilingual edition includes new poems and an eloquent introduction explicating poetry’s importance in Vietnamese culture.
Leaving the Village
Even when cross planks are nailed down,
bamboo bridges are shaky, unsound. Hard going.
Hard going, so push on home to tidal flats to catch crab,
to the river for fish, to our sandy patch for melons.
“Balaban’s deft translations are a beautiful and significant contribution to the West’s growing awareness of Vietnam’s splendid literary heritage.” —New York Times
“Balaban offers enough of these simple yet rich folk poems to convince this reader that it is long past time for Americans to pay more attention to the literature and culture of Vietnam—on Vietnamese terms.” —Foreword
“These poems… have an extraordinary clarity—and address the listener without artifice.” — Santa Fe New Mexican
“It is tempting to think that nothing good ever came out of the Vietnam War. Balaban’s life and work are a witness that such is not the case. Because the war carried his life away in directions he could never have dreamed of we are now joining another rich poetic history to our own. It is not clear what would have become of that history—or of him—otherwise. In a happy irony, something of Vietnam’s folk poetry may have been saved—and John Balaban’s own skills as a poet and translator brought to our attention—by it. We redeem what we may.” —Jacket
“There is harmony in these short poems—a joining of man with his environment without fear or hatred.” —Home News Tribune
“… A readable and faithful translation of Vietnamese folk poetry such as John Balaban’s is… a rare feast… Balaban has preserved the salt of the earth, while presenting it as flavors that fit the tastes of a Western audience. His superb work gives me hope that others will follow in his footsteps and roam the countryside of Vietnam with digital video cameras in hand to continue the effort that Balaban so courageously began thirty years ago.” —Michigan Quarterly Review
“These are wispy and atmospheric poems, as lightly woven as a bamboo fishtrap, made to fit a specific landscape.” —Globe and Mail
“This is a splendid contribution to the preservation of Vietnam’s literary heritage and cultural identity.” —Oklahoma Observer