9781556591488Ho Xuan Huong was an eighteenth century Vietnamese poet. By profession she was a ‘second wife’ – something more formal than a concubine, but less than a first wife. Apparently, she was the second wife of two men (one of who, based on her poetry, she loved very much; another, based on her poetry, she despised).

The poetry is very beautiful and you see the Chinese influences (she was important by virtue of having been an early adopter of writing in Vietnamese, sort of like a Southeast Asian Dante; most poets before, had written in Chinese characters; but it’s not surprising that it still reads, to me at least, like English translations from the Chinese).

In the English translation, she is very earthy. By ‘earthy’ I mean that she writes beautifully of the natural world (though I wouldn’t call it pastoral or bucolic) and that her poems are often incredibly filthy. It’s like reading Anais Nin (some day, I’ll have to write about reading Nin in Delaware).

Three-Mountain Pass

A cliff face. Another. And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:

the cavern’s red door, the ridge’s narrow cleft,
the black knoll bearded with little mosses?

A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
showering a willow’s leaves with glistening drops.

Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
and shaky in the knees, to mount once more?


That is one of the more erotic poems, that stays on the clean side of dirty (some of the poems have a Taming of the Shrew ‘tongue in tail’ quality or a Twelfth Night style ‘Cs Us ‘n Ts and the P comes out thusly’ affect).

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