Ho Xuan Huong (written here without the diacritical marks, so my apologies to any Vietnamese readers) was an 18th century Vietnamese poet whose works were recently translated into English by the poet John Balaban. Ho Xuan Huong was well educated, but due to family circumstances including her father’s early death, her options were limited. She was a concubine (a second wife) like her mother, a situation she deplored. But she found a voice for her frustrations through her poems, artfully crafted with double meanings and sexual innuendoes.

This was a woman who took risky attacks on the prevailing political regime and presumptive male authority. Her poetic skill and adroitly tooled metaphors have secured her a place as one of Vietnam’s most beloved poets. Reading Balaban’s translations, her poetry has the ironic distance and observational exactitude of a contemporary voice. The familiar edge of female anger and resentment, more commonly voiced in our era, is there in her work.

Francis Fitzgerald wrote, “In John Balaban’s translation, the poetry of Ho Xuan Huong—witty, caustic, and profound—should find its place in world literature. I like to imagine its author, the brilliant bad girl of eighteenth century Vietnam, throwing her erotically charged darts into the sexual hypocrisy of all ages and cultures.”

Her name, translated, means “spring essence.” Auspicious.

A few examples:

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Autumn Landscape

Drop by drop rain slaps the banana leaves.
Praise whoever sketched this desolate scene:

the lush, dark canopies of the gnarled tress,
the long river, sliding smooth and white.

I lift my wine flask, drunk with rivers and hills.
My backpack, breathing moonlight, sags with poems.

Look, and love everyone.
Whoever sees this landscape is stunned.

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On Sharing a Husband

Screw the fate that makes you share a man.
One cuddles under cotton blankets; the other’s cold.

Every now and then, well, maybe or may not.
Once or twice a month, oh, it’s like nothing.

You try to stick to it like a fly on rice
but the rice is rotten. You slave like the maid,

but without pay. If I had known how it would go
I think I would have lived alone.

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Weaving at Night

Lampwick turned up, the room glows white.
The loom moves easily all night long

as feet work and push below.
Nimbly the shuttle flies in and out,

wide or narrow, big or small, sliding in snug.
Long or short, it glides out smoothly.

Girls who do it right, let it soak
then wait a while for the blush to show.

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Spring Watching Pavilion

A gentle spring evening arrives
Airily, unclouded by worldly dust.

Three times the bell tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.

Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.
And springs of grace flow easily everywhere.

Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

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