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(Selections from the published work of P.H.)
—By Paul Hertelendy
Clambering down along a brittle cliff one day
And grasping any chancey handhold point
When caught was I on sharp-protruding rocks
All bent on severing both wedding ring and finger,
Or just one of the above (and which, pray tell, were worse?).
The finger wound soon healed.
But that hooking yank had badly nicked the ring
Enshrined so close to heart since time began.
That matchless arc of gold acquired a ragged rim
That poked and cut and prodded years thereafter,
As if reminding that, besides the roses, sweets and trysts,
Marriage bonds must also weather suffering and sacrifice.
Like the ring, a marriage can endure unbreakably
Through riprap crossings, even though
Imperfect in its momentary ecstasies and symmetries.
Was Mother Nature cognizant that mountain hikes
Could turn her into instant marriage counselor?
The see-saw in the park—up-and-down, and then a shove—
Tells worlds about the standing of my love.
Just when all hopes seem dashed and we’re at lowest ebb,
The glum prognosis rises, quite ensnared in love’s sweet web.
The pre-trip parting now unveils our present stance,
If up, or leaping-falling like some frenzied native dance.
Is it folly—(mine)—to think that you will miss me,
And that, parting, you might choose to kiss me
At the airport farewell when I followed,
Saw you turn like ice begun to melt, half-mellowed,
Vacillating, then, determined, striding off much bolder,
Leaving in the air a shiver from your lovely, frosty shoulder.
I want to take my love’s soft, pliant hand in mine
And feel that precious ring of tenderness
And then to touch that cheek unblemished
While I stroke the cascades of that silky hair.
I hold you tight as if afraid you’d melt away
Till I can sense your heart that’s beating hard and fast
While pressed to mine.
This glowing moment made of Northern lights
Is made to catch and save
For all posterity
As love meets love, entwined,
And hearts in passion start to beat as one.
Sliver-thin, the crescent of the winter moon
So golden, bright, fine-hewn,
Is snarled, entangled in the branches
Black and barren of the hilltop tree.
Unless you climb there now and wrest it free,
The moon won’t trace its arc across the sky,
And strolling tongue-tied lovers by the lakeshore lee
Won’t pledge their vows. They’ll cry!
—Oakland, on seeing the moon
entangled on the Monte Vista tree.
I. HAZARDS OF DIPLOMACY
Or, Tropical Pair a’Dice
For this far-off, not-so-wealthy city, that above-par restaurant is filled
With very foreign (local) people neatly dressed for their night out,
With waiters wearing sloppy street-clothes, yet attentive to their clientele.
But it’s greasy and dilapidated, yearning for rejuvenation cures
Of paint, new tables and a good spring cleaning with a gritty cleanser.
Dismiss at once the spectre scare of illness
(Even though the bare-bones restrooms offer neither soap nor toilet paper),
Especially when invited by some locals
For whom even this emporium entails financial sacrifice.
You simply follow suit when others prudently wipe down
their bare-wood chopsticks (just recycled, soaking, from the washtub).
Salad greens—so fresh!—slide down your gullet,
sped along by lip-smack beer brewed right here in the town.
Already you forget the doctor’s mantra:
Never eat the uncooked, unpeeled food,
Because the tender US tummies aren’t used to practices ‘round here.
You watch the diced-up fish cook on the tabletop’s hot brazier,
With its red-glow embers adding to the sultry heat
And offering some added safety hazards too.
You flinch. You cook the fish too thoroughly and munch the rice and tasty veggies,
Graciously accepting portions laid into your bowl
By friendly host who uses, as per custom,
Chopsticks that himself he’s used for eating.
Don’t be squeamish! Order tea and down some welcome noodles
And head out in the night
Uncertain whether, even if some alien amoeba doesn’t fell you,
You did right.
Yes, the next day’s verdict from your unscathed system says,
You did right—this once, at least—in taking risks
To bridge the gaps of language, culture, nation,
Linking up on vital lasting levels to your newfound foreign brothers—
Links that diplomats in banquet toasts and formal wear
Can never hope to emulate.
—Year 2000, Hanoi
II.ANGELS IN HANOI
The gaunt proud cathedral with twin towers—
Heaven-soaring European monument arising from
The teeming streets of Old Hanoi—
Once hosted throngs of elegant colonialists
With chic chapeaux, arriving in their pedicabs.
The French are long departed. Today the church is badly faded,
With its rain-streaked outer shell and gloomy inner walls still unrestored.
Still, this old red church is resonating, full of newfound fire of faith.
Evening vespers draw a hundred Vietnamese devoted worshippers
To chant the sing-song prayers in their own tongue
While Gallic-captioned stained-glass windows
Bring to mind the vibrant checkered history of this land
Whose people’s bravery withstood adversity
In fierce defense against incursions by so many major powers.
These devotees have kept their steadfast faith, unshakable,
Though still surrounded by the French-made guardian angels in the windows,
Doing yeoman tasks
Without regard to alienations, without regard for bygone animosities.
III. SPATIAL SATURATION
Before facades, though crumbling, resonating former grandeur
Of the French colonialists,
Play the “Hanoi Hopscotch” game:
Attempt an epic crossing of the narrow, crowded street
That swarms with motorbikes and foot-sped bikes
And echoes with the pallid sounds of wimpy horns,
Just to reach the dress shops that are bathroom-sized
With space for half a customer or so,
Where when you straddle doorways, looking in,
You feel the beggars with their basket hats
Who poke you from the rear.
Inside, a tall French lady scrunches down in vain
Behind the wispy smoke-screen of a rack of clothes
To try on stylish Far-East blouses,
Buying many from the harried, patient state employee-clerk
Who never yet received a penny in commissions.
Comrade, that’s the Communistic practice. Something tells me though that
Neither clerk nor client’s very happy with Karl Marx right now.
IV. LASTING PEACE BREAKS OUT
Swirls of joyous crowds and purring motorbikes pour into streets in waves
Till gridlock freezes all quite solidly,
Yet never dimming their elation.
A generation back the hated enemy—
US (that’s us)—withdrew its massive forces.
Thereupon this bustling central city of Da Nang “fell”
(Or was liberated, take your pick),
To token knots of mostly women Viet Cong volunteers
arriving in a pair of trucks,
Unopposed by self-destructing army units of South Vietnam.
Now the US State Department warns us to beware disruptions,
Anti-US mobs and even terrorist attacks. We cringe in apprehension.
However reality’s a horse of other colors.
For the silver anniversary, the largest celebration in the city’s history
Explodes to mark profound transitions since those weathered trucks parked
Downtown and its volunteers declared the city to be free.
There’s exuberant rejoicing in the peace and slow-grown prosperity, blended with relief,
As bands play on and thousands march and many more observe festivities,
With military conspicuous in absentia.
Here’s a whole new world—or haven’t you perceived it yet?
Anti-U.S. sentiment was buried long ago.
The kids now greet the tourists with a grin and wave and big “Hello!”
While beaming parents look on with approval, caught up in the holiday
Intoxication of euphoria.
Even though the language barrier stays up higher than the moon,
Suddenly all we are brothers in the cordial masses
Wearing what could pass for Sunday best.
To get an offshore view we board a skiff that passes for a river ferry,
Bobbing in the swells while we are hugging raw and splintered wooden floors
And a put-put diesel’s chugging with the coughs of dying dinosaurs.
Friendly peasants try to show with signs that we were overcharged.
Why, oh why must we fight wars or launch embargoes
As preludes for such international camaraderie
Enrapturing and capturing the hearts of citizens and visitors alike?
—Anniversary Day, March 29, 2000
V. FRUITLESS GREATNESS
Looming in the isolated forests
Down the tiny roads where cars must exhale when they pass,
And across the river via humble long-boats,
There stand palaces in sweeping walled estates, grandiose,
With lakes and monuments and statuary and four-ton stele carried from afar—
The legacy of kings of old Vietnam, residing outside Hué.
These palaces so vain, so opulent
Were made for death, not life, to furnish final slumber,
Each for death-designing monarchs like Tu Doc,
The mystery man it took two hundred laborers to bury,
With colossal treasures, in a yet more secret site they’ve never found
As all two hundred workers off were sent (without their heads) to join their king
And his possessions and his Tut obsessions shortly after.
Many furnishings and valuables remaining in pavilion-palaces
Were blasted, burned or purloined
During modern wars with France, Japan, America.
History has victimized quite brutally the vanity of kings
Whose folly in a country never wealthy stands in ruins, literally,
As symbols of anachronistic arrogance that strove for greatness ‘mongst the stars.
Instead their lavish regnum ended lost in so much
Ash and dust and casings from the rifles lying rusting, silent,
While a grappling nation back at peace attempts with grit and perseverance now
To pick up all the pieces
And evaluate what history bluntly, loudly taught us.
VI. OLD BOOKS CLOSED, NEW HEARTS OPENED
In a narrow alley barely wide enough for tiny import cars
The scrunched-in home has opened arms out wide
Awaiting guests from overseas.
Total strangers just three days ago are welcomed by the family
Forgetting we were warring enemies a generation back,
When ‘Nam and Nixon and Da Nang made fearsome headlines every day.
The space is tight; the living room seats maximum of five
And doubles as garage for two essential motorbikes.
The bare-bones kitchen lacking all appliances save ’fridge
Doubles as the dining room,
With nine of us to ring a table made for six.
But this night of sweet farewells is all about good neighbors, not raw numbers.
Despite the language gap, the bear-like dad makes friends and smiles gregariously
While sunny Mom who cooked an overflow repast
Will laugh at every given chance.
Sincerity, good will turn dinner into five-star feast.
We venture several words in Vietnamese
But mispronouncing, mangle badly.
“Delicious” comes out “head”
And “10” becomes “mosquito” to the glee of youngsters,
Whose attempts at English fare a smidgeon better.
We drink some toasts in local beer
And sense the harmony and love that radiate like glowing heaters.
The well-dressed lady guest from California erupts in giddy joy
When giv’n a broad-brimmed cone-shaped hat
As worn by peasants in the rice fields under searing sun,
Knowing that the gift—so juxtaposed in character—
Flows straight out from the heart.
The night is sealed with sweetest, freshest mangoes
That I’ll savor for the months and years to come.
Homeward bound, the motorbiking family convoy revs its engines.
Clambering aboard with hats (since safety helmets are anathema to locals),
Hearts lodged firmly in our throats,
We confront the trepidation of the tight-packed city traffic of Hanoi
With a hundred near-collisions averted by some silent prayers to Buddha
Who, assert assurances, resides in millennium-old pagodas found nearby.
Able to survive (don’t ask me how), we bid farewell
And know that former adversaries, given balm of time,
Can coalesce in new formations, new associations
And, on one small pathway, help insure that
Shots and gravestones nevermore will perforate
The bonds of peoples joined in ties of true affection.