Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 10. 23rd May 1973
The Vietnamese Phrase book
One of the more curious products to come out of America because of the Vietnam war is a small paperback published by Signet Books called "Vietnamese Phrase-book". Described on the flyleaf as "invaluable whether you are working, fighting or visiting in Vietnam", the book provides many intriguing and — like most American humour — unconsciously bitterly funny insights into the endemic and glaring differences between American theory and American practice.
If one bears in mind that the book was published in 1968 — after seven years of active American involvement in Vietnam and the year of the Tet offensive — then the solemn injunctions in the introduction take on an entirely new meaning. Just think how history might have changed if every GI had followed such advice as:
"....the Vietnamese people speak more softly than Americans. If you wish to make friends and be well-regarded by the people you meet, it would be advisable to modulate your voice, so that they will not think you are shouting at them or speaking harshly".
"Do not brag of your wealth or position. The Vietnamese know that you come from a rich and powerful country."
The introduction takes care, lest the brave fighters for freedom receive any rude shocks, by concluding with this extraordinary understatement...
"The people of Vietnam are inclined to be somewhat wary of soldiers, any soldiers, which is not surprising in a country that has been at war for so many years".
Since American troops were sent to Vietnam to promote American financial interests (despite Chapter 5, which says "there are now more than half a million Allied troops in Vietnam helping this small country defend itself against Communist aggression") the section headed "Financial Matters" throws more light on American priorities as regards money. Some examples:
"Where can I change American dollars? Please give me large, large bills."
An interesting sequence is this one.
"How much do I get for one dollar? The rate is 118 piastres to the dollar. Is that the best rate?"
Last, and doubtless a tribute to the American regard for free enterprise,
"Are you a black marketeer?"
Chapter 5, "For G.I.'s", opens with the bit about Commie aggression but comes somewhat closer to reality with the admonition that "Knowledge of the... words and phrases will make you work easier ... and perhaps, your life expectancy longer".
These life-prolonging phrases include the word for every rank from private to brigadier-general, Marines, Special Forces, Popular Forces, Communist, National Liberation Front and booby trap.
The chapter goes on to say that "the following expressions will be most useful in earning the friendship of a population which most of the time is terrified at the very sight of soldiers." They are:
"Don't be afraid; Hello, kids!; I am a friend; Where are the Front people?: What is your position in the Front?; I don't understand; Are the Viet Cong still here?; I want a guide; Is it safe?; Is this a friendly village?; Where are the weapons hidden?; Where are the tunnels?; where are the booby traps? etc". One wonders how useful these phrases were at My Lai.
The chapter continues with the instruction that the following short necessary commands should be learnt by heart.
"Stop! Hands up! Stop firing! Don't shoot! Don't move! Danger! Surrender! Sit down! Throw down your weapons! Keep quiet! Hurry up! Quick or I'll shoot!"
Other deathless phrases from the American ethic are...
"I am lost. You will be rewarded. Give me food. Hide me away."
Such craven phrases do not, of course, come naturally to the American GI, so the book, ever eager to alert the square-jawed defender of democracy to manifestations of the well-known yellow Commie horde peril, counsels him to "keep you ears open for these answers".
"I am a Cell leader. I am a Company Commander. I am a political cadre. I am innocent. I am not a Communist."
Perhaps the most amazing sequence in the book is the following passage which is quoted verbatim, English only:
"You are now back from an exhausting operation. You need rest and relaxation and most of all the company of a girl-friend. Here are a few expressions you may wish to use in conversation with her.
"My name is John. What is you name? I like you very much. I like your dress. You are very pretty. Let's dance. You dance beautifully. Would you like to go to the theatre with me? Sing a Vietnamese song for me. Here is a present for you. I love you."
So simple really.
The more salacious among us may wish to know what equivalents are provided for the more usual conversation needed by foreign invading troops in relation to female relaxation such as "Jeez, those boobs! Let's fuck! How much a night? Are you clean? etc." I confess I have not the knowledge, nor the phrase-book the wit, to provide these.
A major shortcoming of the book is the lack of referents given for the frequent consequences of such casual relationships. For example, although the word for "crab" is given, there is none for that virulent form of VD known worldwide as "Saigon Rose".
The section on "Medical Help does contain such versatile phrases as "Remove your clothes. Lie down. You need an injection. It will be over very soon. Do you have some stomach pills?"
For no fathomable reason, the phrase "I sweat" is given, equally no formula is given to allow the presumably non-breathing American to utter the Vietnamese for "I cannot breathe".
Another glaring omission are referents for that other well-documented pastime of American soldiers in Vietnam, namely the indulgence in those mind-distorting chemicals America is always warning the world about — heroin, opium and marijuana.
Nevertheless, those who supported the American military presence in Vietnam can take heart. She may have lost the war, but she's still making money by selling the "Vietnamese Phrasebook" at sales in New Zealand for 30c or four for $1.
Left Hand/Right Hand Writing
Bumped into myself in street the other day Well!
Fancy meeting me!
One finds oneself all over the place!
Did someone put a mirror in the street?
After a lifelong search at last I have found myself.
I look put like me.
But am I writing with my left hand or my right?
So Dennis List, writing in his first published collection of poems. Dennis List is my alter ego, and I am his. We first met as students eight years ago, and from the start I had a very high regard for Dennis's literary potential. I have said so many times since, and critical opinion has come to agree. (The critics always come to agree with me in eight years or so, which I find off-putting, because who wants to be only Eight or Nine years ahead of the mob?)
But I was not content years ago to expect much of Dennis, I took over as much of his literary strategy and personal emotions as I could. The result of this was a burst of creativity on my part which manifested itself as Books 8 to 31½ of my epic, "The Alexandrians". This takeover was not one sided, because Dennis in his turn has also taken over much of my literary strategy and personal emotions, with a result shown in the volume under review. Dennis has done me proud.
This literary cannibalism, incest, is not uncommon on the NZ literary scene. A good example of it was the Louis Johnson-James K. Baxter complex, Baxter authoring (this is not an accusation of any malpractice) a considerable proportion of Johnson's vast corpus. And Dennis and I are not alone in this complex of ours. With us, is also J.H.E. Schroder in two volumes. Ruth Gilbert in one and a forthcoming volume, on an honorary basis, the admirable James Bertram with one volume. John Hales represents the critical side of the complex.
Dennis has written a book of epigrams Most of them were written in a few nights of sleeplessness, but others are earlier stray pieces. Books of epigrams are not fashionable. Dennis is following my own performance, in "Beyond Nonsense" and preceding volumes of mine. These are not the Coleridge-Fairburn style of epigrams, those essetially frivolous pieces who's existence is only justified by a terminal joke. No, he and I write the classical epigram, which I will here explain.
A poem cannot consist of a single word. Otherwise, what Nobel Prizes the lexicographers would win. But a poem can consist of two words. Dennis says this plainly in his opening poem.
'Take two words after each meal' is what the instructions said.
But one day I dared and took three.
I thought I should be eloquent but safe.
'These words are too weak'
I thought the next day.
My dictionary dwindles alarmingly.
So Dennis. This epigram refers to my instructions that poetry consists of writing two-word epigrams, and then combining them into larger masses. A poem of any length is just a mass of epigrams; from which it follows that a poem can never really be complete or incomplete. Hence why not write epigrams or epics? Epigrams are just bits of epics, and epics are just masses of epigrams. Homer equals Martial. I doubt if Dennis has read much of Martial or of the Greek Anthology that stands behind Martial. But I have, and by artistic empathy he shares my knowledge. So it is that his book of epigrams is intensely classical. In fact, he has succeeded in writing the most intensely classical collection of verse in NZ literature, in which just that is the hidden ambition of all our poets.
But Dennis works an interesting switch on the classical epigram by giving it a patina of nonsense. His book is the classical epigram turned into a joke, not frivolously but essentially. His epigrams are mirror-images of classical epigrams, with sense and nonsense apparently reversed: left hand right hand writing. The classical epigram has become absurd. In this he shows his all-round literary technique. In capitalist society, sense appears as nonsense and nonsense as sense. Dennis has raised this condition to an aesthetic principle, and so to social criticism. It was this literary technique that I adopted from Dennis at Book 8 in my epic, but in my case the technique operates through rhyme, that blatant assertion of the absurd interconnection. In Dennis's case, the technique operates through imaginative jux-taposition. Very often Dennis pulls it off by this means, and this is his great merit, as is everywhere recognised.
Epigram (ii) has Dennis a la Van Gogh complaining about (he clash of literary and scientific cultures. Dennis is a person with a thorough-going scientific background, from which he wilfully dropped out but cannot escape.
Epigram(iv) is another reference to alter ego relations, and (vii) is a parody of my poem "The Remembrance" in Book 22. In (xii) Dennis is stating his bloody-minded mercenary attitude to poetry. Make it worth his while or he will write the Great NZ Novel instead.
Number (xiii) is the finest of the epigrams:
Your mind is a gridiron of burning streets, your Detour Closed.
Unthinkable signs ablaze.
You're gazing so much
I can't see you.
Somebody, bring me a blind, protect me from these burning eyes.
Epigram (xxiv) is a classical piece in all respects:
Three great men are hoeing
by the great stone wall
that splits my field of vision.
I hope they do not kill
the creeper I have planted there.
Dennis is not responsible for any misprints introduced here. His own text, produced by the Amphedesma Press London, is accurate. About 120 copies of the volume came on the market in NZ. You may still find one. Otherwise, Xerox copies are available from the author or his friends. I conclude with an epigram of my own.
On Writing Epigrams
Twelve books of epigrams I wrote
To Martial's patterns.
My heart was bitter and irate.
Twelve books of epigrams I wrote,
though few the match of his I rate
Among the Muse's combatants.
But even though I cannot match all
Twelve books of epigrams he wrote
For numbers and for competence,
still the Napoleon in Niel Wright
In every epigram I write
As much as every soldier's satchell
Sees Marshalls' batons.
Twelve books of epigrams I wrote
to Martial's patterns.
* * *
John Hales reviews "Neil Wright reviews a kitset of 26 poems by Dennis List".
"Dennis List is my alter ego, and I am his"— So Niel Wright, writing in his first published review of Dennis List's published collection of poems. Of course Niel Wright is wrong. He always is. In actual fact, as everybody knows, Dennis List is my alter ego, and I am his. From the start Dennis has had a very high regard for my literary potential, in fact such a high regard that my literary potential has remained constant. I just haven't written anything.
This literary dormancy, hibernation-call it what you will —is not uncommon on the NZ literary scene. When you consider that of all the farmers, businessmen, school-teachers, and public servants that make up NZ society, the five per cent who actually release their potential into words are like the mere froth on a glass of beer, and the few who actually get published are the specks of spittle floating on the froth.
However this review is not of List's book but of Wright's review of List's book. Although few people have yet suspected it Niel Wright is my alter alter ego and I am his. We worship each other at our alters. Eight years ago I said that Niel Wright might have the potential of a good reviewer, and then again he might not. His review proves the correctness of my prediction, which shows that I am just about as avante as Wright's garde.
But I was not merely content to praise Niel, I slapped his back, he slapped Dennis's, and Dennis slapped mine. Which indicates that we are even kinkier than the Romantic Imagination.
The First Apocryphal Dream: Incest
A young boy decides
he wants to go to bed with his mother,
who has given him
that it's all right to do that.
And because the boy's mother
and father sleep in separate rooms, there's
no problem about the boy's going in
which he does one night
but in the morning they can't get separated.
the mother's vagina
has for some reason begun to expand
and started to pull the boy back inside her,
which creates a problem
because he is 10 years old.
But thank God he isn't a big boy
and the mother is able
to strap him to her body
with two of her husband's belts, tho
most of him is still outside of her
but if he hunches up in a ball
she can cover him with an old maternity dress.
Now the father is quite shocked
when he notices but the mother is very coy
and delicate and says she's been to the doctor that day
and that she's been pregnant for months.
She tells him their son
left just that morning for camp.
Now the marvelous thing
is that the father becomes very attentive again
to the mother after 10 years of ignoring her,
and begins to bring flowers and candy.
And the mother feels delicate and feminine
again, and the boy keeps moving inside her.
And then after 4 months
of being fed in the bathroom
of close quiet talks with his mother
of hearing the tenderness between his parents
even his head goes inside
and the father finally
goes away on a business trip and the mother
goes to an out-of-the-way hospital.
When the father comes back the mother
tells him about the miscarriage
but neither of them are too sad
and take great pleasure
in having their son home from camp.
From that day on
the father sleeps in the mothers bedroom,
the son takes
the bedroom his father has vacated
and begins to get interested in girls.