Bitter Potion & Other Poems

by Mai Văn Phấn

English translation by Lê Đình Nhất-Lang
Edited by Susan Blanshard

Bitter Potion

(for Ngọc Trâm)

The fever is burning you on its pyre
I become ash too
The bitter potion cannot wait any more
Holding your hand
I pour
My grief into the empty bowl…

O’ daughter! As the mist falls
My hardship arches across the cold night
And for those frail flowers
To give off scent requires bitter roots.
Sweat becomes callused hands
Spring pours into the medicine bowl
My old age weeps with mute tears
While truth bursts out for no reason.
I wonder what you are eating in your dream
I put the bowl on the window
When you grow up to my age now
At the bottom of the bowl
there may still be a storm.

On the Way Up to the Pagoda

As I climb up the slope to the pagoda gate
Your face suddenly appears as Kwan Yin

Carrying a brown sac
Long neck, slack robe, white ring…
Many halos

Under a clear bright sky
In my mind’s eye, I bend down low

My body is empty
I know only the dry knocking of a rattle
… Om Mani Padme Hum

Winds rise among thorny bushes along the road
I hear the clamour of wild animals running deep in the forest
And the cracking of branches breaking.

From Our Home

You gather things according to their seasons
a bunch of grapefruit flowers for autumn
plums for spring

We are the pulse of air, deep abyss, breasts of soil
we choose warm places to set our furniture
uncluttered places to put our tables and chairs

We drop our worries at the dinner table
with chopsticks we pick vegetables from the field afar
the fish bites on the bait inside our clay pot

We love the footprints near the rice stubble
deep wells, streams and rivers, ponds and puddles

Don’t sit in the room too long
go out into the field, out to the river bank
where leaves grow green and fish wriggle

Bite on fresh pineapple or sweet orange segment
and let juice drop on brown soil.

Release Your Grasp


You dream of a boat
Floating in it
You can see to the bottom
Imagine I am coming near

A light beam from an asteroid
A canopy of tall trees, stars
Break apart when the boat steers

I imagine myself
Holding your hand
Tucking your blanket
Fondling each lock of your hair

You can rest assured
For the boat has been tightly fastened to shore
When currents flow

Here’s a row of bollards
Tight ropes
Taut muscles
Robust arms
I hold my breath
Firmly and fully

You still dream of guarding the boat
And of waking up to pour moonlight into dawn.


You can’t sleep under a shaking canopy
A twig has just fallen onto the sheet-metal roof
The sound of a broken fruit rolling on the old tiled floor

The raging wind breaks any water surface
A path stretches out to grasp this skirt of forest

Your eyes open into the deep night as the furnace glows bright
Swelling with the aromas of grilled corn and glutinous rice
The sound of boiling water in your memory
Reverberates until nearly morning

Trying to lie flat next to the bed’s edge
You hold your breath waiting for a quiet moment
Embracing an invisible dove
You wait until the earth becomes peaceful
And release your grasp for it to dawn.


Flowers glisten in the rain
When you miss me
Leaves grow dark green

When you call me under the rosewood* tree
You have been crying
Because the rain water is too clear
The tree’s canopy lays under too vast a sky
This year’s blooming season is so different

A know a dragonfly
On its flight keeps
Images of flowers in its eyes

In this peaceful morning
The tree stub has turned the other way

And numb in the rain
And calves are snow-white.


Swimming only ten meters from shore
I am afraid of drowning
And getting lost deep inside the ocean

The blue waves this afternoon are furious
Flashing their blades of water high
Wild in their menacing beauty

I want to send many wishes
And my desire for freedom
Into the weather forecasts void

I sit on a sandy beach
Filled with happiness
As I watch the purple flowers from afar
Bow down
Trembling in the wind.


A narrow stream of light on that paved road is an infinitely deep doorway leading to our past lives.
In a previous life you and I were a pair of water snakes slithering through grass into a lake, swimming together side by side. The tides that swept the foothills, left  their mark  through a thousand years. Two raging dinosaurs in a hot desert. A pair of eagles mating while free-falling in the air. Two braided trees amidst a storm. Thunder and lightning struck and collapsed a summit and left a sunset burn…
Here comes the chariot of autumn. The grinding sounds of chain wheels on windy tree tops. Torrents of tiers of leaves falling.
My chest jolts as if trying to withhold an explosive shell, a drop of water, a flower bud on that paved road alight.

* A valuable wood tree, with clusters of white flowers blooming in March and April in Hanoi

Grass Cutting in the Temple Garden

A sharp blade is hurled sideways
Close to the grass stubs

Souls still stuck
To the grass
Stretch their arms

Piled up grass
Will be served as cattle food
Or dried

Any souls not allowed to fly
Are held by a circle of hard-heartedness
The pain of slaughtering
Lingers in the strong smell of grass milk.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email