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Volume 35.2
Summer 2004

 

book review:

The Cry of the Duck Egg Seller
by Steve Dolphy

 

reviewed by John Martone

The Cry of the Duck Egg Seller, by Steve Dolphy (Isleworth, Middlesex, U.K.: Ram Publications, 2004). 69 pages, 4 x 5; perfectbound. ISBN 0-9545630-1-8. $8.00 postpaid from Ram Publications, 13 Witham Rd., Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 4AJ, U.K.

 


While living four years in Vietnam, Steve Dolphy was transformed by what he calls the country’s “collectivist” culture—“where people have duties and obligations to an extended family and other groupings.” Those words evoke the difference between the traditional Vietnamese world and our own as well as any. They also point to the source of these poems’ unassuming dignity. One who has been to Vietnam will respond at once to Dolphy’s evocation of tropical land- and cityscapes, but this reviewer is especially moved by the poems’ formal discovery—the sense of relationship upon which his haiku turn. Dolphy’s haiku are not given to stark juxtapositions or all-too-obvious ironies. The work moves from second to third line with a grace that tends to remind us of deeper connection, a culturally appropriate poetic. This is a world, for instance, in which we behold old and new together:

August cinema.
a stray bird flutters
across the credits

Often a physical correspondence—similar shapes in the following case—will suggest a deeper harmony:

tomb-ruin
the soft-drink seller
unwraps a block of ice

Vietnamese tombs are often in the center of rice fields. Sensitive plant grows everywhere, and when one brushes against the leaves of one, they fold up in a way resembling hands placed together, Buddhist style. Here, it is as if the plants remind us that they are part of the process that returns death to life:

around the grave
hands and sensitive mimosa
fold together

There is also the palpable loneliness one feels as one-among-many, especially on a day off:

weekend alone
the show of hands
on the radio

Vietnamese schoolchildren, though, often devote their free time to additional lessons:

Sunday afternoon nap
the sound of chalk
tapping on a blackboard

Dolphy has written his book from life, in Hanoi (where he seems to have spent some time studying the traditional art of water puppetry), in the imperial capital Hue, where—lucky man—he married; and subsequently in the U.K. The book’s exquisite last poem shows that he brought a Vietnamese lightness of touch home with him:

rainy day
I wipe a thumbprint
from the fossil

 

 

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