Translated by Lưu Diệu Vân from “Cựu Chiến Binh, Nhà Thơ”
“Fred Woodall, war veteran, poet.” He always begins the introduction like that. The name, of course, must come first. There is no other alternative. “Poet” is purposely placed last in the self-introduction as a display of modesty. Or at least, in earlier years, Fred believed people would acknowledge that fact. Well, I am first and foremost a veteran, I had fought in the Vietnam War, and I am now a poet. Later on, Fred sadly realizes he is actually just an average poet. He does not confess this feeling to anyone, and he knows those around him will not mention it in his presence. Luckily, he does not need to be modest about the fact he is a Vietnam veteran. Since there is no need for humility in identifying himself with a group of people who were poorly treated or thought they were unfairly treated by the citizens of their own country.
During the earlier years of his return to the mainland, Fred slowly and steadily developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder– a condition so trendy and rather exclusive that it would have been unwise of him not to contract it. Fred would smoke marijuana, drink wine, and write poems, in that order. After smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol, he frequently mentioned that distant piece of land called Vietnam in his poetry. It could have been a beautiful country if there were no war, with gracious people if there were no war, he could have loved a pretty girl among them if there were no war. His poetry depicted a similar theme. One or two of his poems appeared in one or two war poetry anthologies edited by one or two of his friends. And that was all. But even this couldn’t discourage Fred. He never turned down any invitation to attend gatherings involving literature and the Vietnam War. There, he would appear, rough and unshaven, in his black lopsided beret, and his faded infantry uniform adorned with his unit insignia and an inscription “Da Nang” across the front chest pocket. There, he would find people dressed in similar attire, several among them were his friends. There, he instantly felt important; he belonged to a group of veterans who embraced literature as true artists.
At one of those gatherings, he had an opportunity to become acquainted with many poets and writers from Vietnam for the first time. Many similar events soon followed. Among them were a veteran poet, a middle-age fiction writer, and a young woman who wrote both prose and poetry. They came to the United States at the invitation of a reputable university’s center for the study of war and social consequences. The seminar attracted a sizable crowd, mostly writers and poets who were also war veterans. A few of them didn’t need to be humble, and it showed in their self-introduction. X, poet, war veteran. Y, writer, war veteran. Z, playwright, veteran… But Fred did not feel a bit uneasy. In a few minutes, he would be up on the podium. He had five minutes to speak and he promised himself (and also his friend who held an important position at the center) that he would not waste this precious moment. He was a bit nervous while awaiting his turn. More than a bit, actually.
It could have been beautiful country if there were no war, with gracious people if there were no war, I could have loved a pretty girl among them if there were no war. Fred began like that and continued to express similar feelings in the next two minutes. In the third minute, he blamed himself. With my arrival, I’d brought war, and because of that, your country was no longer a beautiful land. I’d left, leaving behind devastation and calamity. In the fourth minute, he sent his sincere apology on behalf of all war veterans and citizens of the United States to writers and poets from Vietnam for all the misfortunes he had caused in the third minute. The audience could feel the heightened emotion in his trembling voice and contorted, agonizing face, and at the very last seconds of the remaining one hundred and twenty seconds, his eyes were soaked with tears. I beg forgiveness from you, citizens of Vietnam. I ask for the honor of embracing you, heroic citizens of Vietnam. He concluded the speech like that. Fred left the podium in triumphant rounds of applause and walked toward the table where writers and poets from Vietnam were sitting. He embraced and kissed the veteran poet and immediately detected a strange odor from the old man’s body. Fred decided he wouldn’t want to hug and kiss this old man ever again. (How unfortunate! He would never know the acquired, but deeply satisfying seduction of Vietnamese tobacco.) Next, the middle-age writer, contrary to Fred’s anxiety, did not possess any peculiar smell. But the young woman turned out to be a pleasant surprise. From her petite body he took in an aroma of skin and flesh infused with a mysterious fragrance. Skin and flesh or fragrance, which scent embodied her poetry, Fred wondered.
Somehow, Fred’s speech has become a regular segment in subsequent seminars every time the Center welcomes writers and artists from that beautiful country if there were no war. Fred has become more skillful in performing his act. Now he feels less emotional comparing to the first time. He’s not even certain if he feels any emotion. But Fred’s real emotion is no longer an important factor. The significance of his presentation rests with the faraway guests. Fred can feel the mounting emotion and pride displayed on their faces. Perhaps his speech makes them feel less lost, less trivial. Perhaps it’s one of the many little things they will continue to remember for a long time. It’s Fred’s gift for 6 year old girls, besides his modest poems.
“Fred Woodall, war veteran, poet.” Fred now feels comfortable with his self-introduction. Maybe he is simply a poet with modest outputs. But there is more to life than poetry! There are many other things that he doesn’t need to be modest about, like making a speech in front of a packed audience about a land far, far away whether or not there were war that could also be exceedingly beautiful if there were no war; the calamity he brought to that land; the choked-up apology out of endless regrets; and the tears at the very last seconds of the remaining one hundred and twenty seconds. He only hopes that there would not be any old Vietnamese poet with a strange odor sitting at the table toward which he plans to head immediately after the end of his speech.