To a Human Skull

Hai-Dang Phan

from the Vietnamese of Ché Lan Viên

You belonged to someone!In that dark theatre of bone,do you still recall anything?What dreams are showing?Remember the killing fields?Ten thousand heads cropped.Or those nights your soulleapt through the great fires?On quiet afternoons do yousearch for the trace elements?Would you recognize yoursoul if you bumped into it?I must be losing my mind.I just want to hold you untilyour blood stains meand infuses my sad little poems,to bite you, tear you to bits,swallow you, skull of my skull,and enjoy whatever remains.All these years blown apart.

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Hai-Dang Phan is the author of Reenactments: Poems and Translations (Sarabande, 2019). His work has been recognized by fellowships and scholarships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the American Literary Translators Association, and has appeared in The Fabulist, The Iowa Review, New England Review, The New Yorker, Poetry, Prelude, and Best American Poetry 2016. Born in Vietnam and raised in Wisconsin, he currently teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Iowa City.

“Hai-Dang Phan is a poet of fearless vision. With brutal and exquisite precision, he reveals that the effort to make art out of the real world—history, memory, and experience—often intensifies a feeling of irresolution. The brilliance of his first book Reenactments: Poems and Translations lies in a deft interrogation of mimesis and, in particular, how representing the history of war and migration for Vietnamese Americans can reify silences, erasures, and cultural dislocations. But Phan also builds a powerful stay against despair through translations that spotlight contemporary Vietnamese poetry while slyly suggesting that no language or history is isolate and every poem may very well be a translation. Such remarkable insights accumulate, and by book’s end I was struck by the immense beauty and feeling of Reenactments and had to read it again.”
— Jennifer Chang

“Phan is in such command of his versification and powers of telling, it is hard to believe that this is his first book. These beautiful poems and translations dramatize the story of an exodus, the inheritance of memories, and the legacy of war, not only through Phan’s perspective and his family’s, but also through a host of alternate voices, alternate histories. Reenactments is an extraordinary book.”
—David Ferry

“In poems that are as intense as they are lucid, Hai-Dang Phan illustrates James Baldwin’s assertion that history is not the past, it is the present. The military hardware transported on the interstate, the vexing public memorials for past and recent wars, the refugees on the TV news, and the punk band named after the Viet Cong—Phan shows the present charged by the toxic continuing of the past. Reenactments is a book of haunted, forensic reckoning. Each poem in this beautiful and bitter book may begin in the intimate stories of the personal, but its ultimate scope is the national story of the broken American self and the havoc of its imperial project.”
—Rick Barot

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