“The Truffle Eye”, poetry by Vaan Nguyen

The Truffle Eye, Vaan Nguyen, Adriana X Jacobs (trans) (Zephyr Press, March 2021) The Truffle Eye, Vaan Nguyen, Adriana X Jacobs (trans) (Zephyr Press, March 2021)

A Vietnamese poet writing in Hebrew?

Well, sort of. In 1979 a small number of Vietnamese refugees arrived in Israel, whose government had granted them political asylum. Among them were Vaan Nguyen’s parents, who had fled their home country in 1975 to the Philippines (where they were denied refuge) after Nguyen’s grandfather perished under the Communists. She herself was born in 1982, and grew up in Jaffa, after her family had lived in several other Israeli cities; she has since worked as an actor, film-maker, and journalist. Nguyen visited Vietnam with her father in 2005, and a film was produced about their attempts to regain family land and property there. Her translator Adriana Jacobs, a professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at Oxford, quotes her as noting in the film, “I am here as a tourist, as an Israeli,” which perhaps sums up her views vis-à-vis her “roots”, but, given her appearance and name, she cannot easily blend in with other Israelis, and thus always has the feeling of “outsider” somewhere in her conscience and, indeed, in her poetic vision.

However, having been born in Israel and never having lived in Vietnam, she occupies a liminal space. Vietnamese was spoken at home, but otherwise it was Hebrew outside. Nguyen experienced a good deal of racism as she grew up in a country where hardly anyone looked like her, and took to hiding in her school library to avoid bullying as well as trying to erase her Vietnamese heritage. There’s no doubt that she identifies herself as an Israeli, although she has since reconciled with her origins. Direct references to Vietnam, however, are rare in this collection, and the overtly political surfaces only occasionally. Nguyen’s poems are about sexuality, everyday life, the fluidity of our life-stories, and what she calls “culture stains”:

 

When we hold each other
you’ll ask where I came from. I’ll say
I came from this rot.
Where did I come from, you’re asking,
I mean, parents?

 

 

The enigmatic title of this collection, The Truffle Eye, refers to the last piece in the book, which is in the form of a prose-poem, at the beginning of which “a man wakes up in some city and decides to change his identity.” He decides to be “a woman with hair like a poppy seed bun … A woman with truffle eyes.” It’s all a bit Kafkaesque, but at least the man gets to choose his metamorphosis. Her name is Eva, which we are told by Jacobs means “desire” (men follow her home), and truffles, regarded in the West as an expensive luxury food, here become, continues Jacobs, “Nguyen’s critique of her own reception” as an “exotic”, which of course is what a woman with truffle eyes would be. Truffles grow unpredictably, and, as Jacobs puts it, they need “years and the right conditions for the intricate subterranean network (mycelium) that makes them possible to form.” Thus they make a good metaphor for symbolising Nguyen’s own formation as a poet and an Israeli. It’s all a bit complex, but Nguyen’s poems are complex, even bordering sometimes on the opaque, and certainly never predictable.

There is vivid, unconventional, and sometimes puzzling imagery present throughout these poems; in “Where We Slept on a Bench”, for example, we find the lines

 

I am

a tiny sponge
full of safety
pins

 

or

 

I thought
We were olive oil

 

in “Why this is Great.” The trick is to find the relationships between the images, which is not always easy. Why, for example, would a sponge be full of safety pins, and how can olive oil, the only substance that can be described as “extra virgin”, a symbol of light (it was used in ancient lamps) and purity, fluid and transparent, be a metaphor for two people? Read the poems and see what you can make of them. Nguyen’s imagery leaps from the pages unexpectedly, even after a reader gets used to it, and of course, it conveys multiple levels of meaning, from archetypes to stereotypes:

 

Maybe it would help to picture this: how the head scatters
sculptural scraps over the heart
to cook up a hybrid jam!

 

The head, of course, is intellect, the heart is emotion, and put together they make a “jam”, such a loaded word; it can mean anything from a fruit mixture to a musical improvisation to being stuck in something. The imagery takes the reader all over the place in a constant preoccupation with movement—both actual and intellectual.

 

Far from staying within any particular “Israeli” context (although she does, if asked, consider herself an Israeli writer), Nguyen’s poetry travels around the world, uprooting any sense of insularity that readers might have expected. The first poem in the book, “Mekong River”, also mentions Hanoi, but this isn’t really a “Vietnamese” poem at all. There’s a reference to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and a mention of Laos, too, but these Asian tropes are used as similes and metaphors ro provoke memories or dreams that are not necessarily Asian in context:

 

Tonight I moved between three beds,
like I was sailing on the Mekong
and whispered the beauty of the Tigris and the Euphrates

 

three beds, three rivers, but it’s not really about rivers—the Mekong is a simile here (as Jacobs notes), and it’s not only present in Vietnam, but flows through many neighboring countries as well, just like the Tigris and Euphrates. Jacobs, ever-sensitive to the nuances of Nguyen’s writing, perceptively sees this as being like geographic coordinates on what she calls “Nguyen’s personal poetic map”. The “three beds”, she surmises, “are indications of the everyday migrations we make between lovers, work, school, and home.” And migration is what Nguyen does: “To the skyscrapers— / New York, New York” or “Winter in Tyrol” or “August on / the promenade of the Champs-Elysées”, from “downtown Old Pasadena,” to a “stairwell in Tel Aviv”. Each location yields different experiences, sometimes connected strikingly with casual sexual encounters: “She says:/ Kiss my clit and Salzburg is so pretty,” an interesting use of assonance, or

 

In the daylight, back in Paris
I vanished into the shadow of an empty movie theater and
wanted to fuck someone
in the Centre Pompidou,

 

hardly the thoughts of the average Israeli tourist, but perhaps those of someone who is trying to find meaning in connections, however tenuous they may be. What would she remember about Paris—the cultural delights of the Centre Pompidou or the frisson of sex with a stranger in a public place? Yet love can also be poignant or tender, as in:

 

On the bus
from Abu Dis
an old poet wonders
if his dead wife
is his last one

 

This collection was in many ways startling, as Nguyen forces readers to make connections that seem odd, and moves the narrative from city to city, country to country. Jacobs says that “reading Nguyen’s poetry can feel like you’re playing with the zoom feature on your phone camera”, and this seems like an apt simile, at least as long as one has a mobile phone. And, as she also observes, the movement of the poetry can prompt readers to examine their own peripatetic lives and their own disparate roots at the same time. “I would like to be someone else / A well-edited cultural mandate,” Nguyen writes, and Jacobs’s sensitive translations certainly bring this idea vividly to life.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.