S. K. Kelen's most recent books of poems are Shimmerings (Five Islands Press, 2000), and Goddess of Mercy (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2002).
Hanoi most sensible of cities -
at night the traffic finally does stop
and a great hush of sleeping
descends: a curtain drawn
down by good spirits
and ghosts about to start work.
Not a sound for kilometres
except a cough deep in a house
a lonely bicycle bell, a word called
out from a dream, a stray bird drunk.
It's dark on the pavement
but the sky glows with smog.
Quiet all night until a rooster crows
sunrise somewhere in the rice fields
behind the rebuilt suburbs
north of the river.
The people who sleep
in the street hammocks are first up
and busy. Everyone's going to work
in an office, school, a sweatshop
or a street stall, hot days get louder
with all the talking it's as if everyone's shouting.
Slow rivers of traffic meander.
Suddenly the girls are there, dozens
then hundreds riding motor scooters
braking gently at the traffic light in Ly Thai To Street
now the traffic flows like waves on a quiet lake.
Cyclo drivers and labourers
might stop for a moment, consider
the day's hot slog is almost worth it,
to see their city's young women growing beautiful
and rich. They remember to be kind to strangers
who try to compare their less cultivated worlds.
What greater joy could there be than to see
Hanoi girls ride motor scooters,
pillion sisters sitting side saddle.
When the traffic slows they gossip
like tigresses with girls on the other scooters.
Silks and nylon made sure the war
was won by the mini-skirt allied with knee-high
leather boots or diaphanous sandals.
Hanoi girls out-glamour the Italians
they fit imitation Gucci so much better
and bring a sense of reticence to leather.
Their mobile phones ring urgently -
lightning strikes Hanoi's holy mountain
friendly rain clouds gather.
Dial an ancestor - mothers and grandmothers
were the bravest women warriors
Vietnam had seen for centuries.
They fought the invaders and lost husbands,
brothers and sons, sisters and daughters.
Everyone lost somebody
when the heartless and stupid ruled America
sent over soldiers and bombers.
The war ended, and lots of granddaughters,
lots of grandsons came into the world.
Over time the hard times got better
there was food for almost everyone.
The population skyrocketed, as they say, and
Hanoi's granddaughters grew up and dressed to kill.
Commuting on their scooters they chatter: are love poems
more romantic more sincere than a gift of flowers,
or just cheaper? there's the wicked past of a Government
Minister who used to be a Saigon pop singer -
too wicked to mention. French football stars
are heading to Vietnam to help improve the local game
ha ha it won't work - the boom in Hanoi's real estate
goes through the roof, So-and-so is starting up
a new business, the new style of Hué cooking
is not so new, those horoscopes in Sport and Culture
magazine are so vague to be nearly always right
and the interview with David Beckham
is almost the same as last month's.
To ensure good daughters have everything their mothers
and fathers missed, the sacrifices made are tougher
than to much loved ancestors -
money to buy a good scooter comes harder
than fake banknotes burnt at an altar.
Hanoi girls pull up at the traffic light
knee high boots and sheer sandals
rest on the road, mobile phones ring in
a business deal, an old apartment to renovate,
lunch at West Lake. As grandma said,
- when no bombs fall on the polity
it's fine to indulge frivolity -.
Hanoi girls are serious, study and work
their way to the top if that's where life leads.
And by magic, motor scooter and miniskirt
they make the city truly powerful.
S. K. KELEN