I am haunted by the knowledge that America went to war against Vietnam without having read its poets and heard its music. Long after the American War (as the Vietnamese call that war) was over, I hear Vietnamese people say, “If the Americans had known our stories, they would not have fought us.” It is a terrible irony that war makes us finally curious about a people and their culture. With such baggage and burden, I come to Green Rice by Lam Thi My Da.
It breaks my heart to read the poem in which she speaks from an American soldier’s point of view. The poet empathizes with the enemy:
At the end of the road I fell down
When a bullet struck my blood-filled chest
If you look under the wolf’s skin
You’ll find the red heart of an innocent deer
Equally painful are the poems about women and children suffering in war. To a girl roadbuilder who waved a torch to draw fire on herself and saved the soldiers traveling on the road:
My soul is lit by your life
And my friends, who never saw you —
Each has a different image of your face
A caretaker of children becomes the mother of thirty orphans:
Then suddenly one afternoon
My heart is pierced
The mothers do not return
Green Rice is a selection from five books of Lam Thi My Da’s poetry. As the years go by, the images of war recede. Green rice grows, apple trees grow, first love blooms, children are born. Women grow old, and the poet marvels.
Oh woman, life is not like this
Why do you foolishly bury yourself?
If you look up at the distant sky you’ll see
Spring trembling all over, anxiously trembling
I am grateful to the poet for guiding me to hard-won age and spring, and forgiveness.
Reviewed by Maxine Hong Kingston