Blackout & Nights Working as a Custodian in Seattle

Hai-Dang Phan

The sub-zero weather and cryogenic freeze

of your bedroom is your last bid at immortality.

The air conditioner produces an arctic breeze

in this remote corner of Ho Chi Minh City.


Like a sun-bather on a ocean liner,

you doze on the throne of your folding chair.

Arrayed on a tray are “Western” painkillers,

sleeping pills, and black dye for your hair. 


I sit beside you, grandson and honorary guest.

Korean soaps play on the television all day,

prepaid for your voluntary house arrest,

dubbed so you can understand what they say. 


The karaoker next door stops mid croon—

the electricity has been cut

for the regular blackout on Monday afternoons.

I fan you so you don’t melt.


Your life stretches across three wars.

Your mother was slain by bandits near the village

where you were born. You disobeyed your father,

fell in love with a poet at a young age,


the one who went north for the August Revolution.

He called on fall to block the coming spring.

This romantic version is your historical revision.

Your name means Autumn; you were married off that spring.


These are the hours you’ve come to love and fear:

when Tan Phu district suffers another power outage,

your eyes swim in their sockets, and memory stops

somewhere between temporal bone and lobe.

Nights Working as a Custodian in Seattle

by Phan Nhiên Hạo

translated from the Vietnamese by Hai-Dang Phan


There are times in your life

attacked by vacuum cleaners and rags

you flee one floor to another

all night, a lost soldier

from a throng of defeated immigrants.


Peering into countless toilets each day

by the end they become mere loudspeakers to you

babbling foul songs

of desperation and hope.


Your duty is

to wipe clean the dirty bottom of life

making all the evidence disappear before sunrise.


You drive home through clouds of steam

rising from street grates and manholes—coffee for the waking city

off to the right the ocean, you see

a white ship sinking and

nobody notices.



Những đêm làm lao công quét dọn ở Seattle

Có lúc cuộc đời bạn
bị tấn công bởi máy hút bụi và giẻ lau
chạy trốn qua những tầng lầu
suốt đêm, như người lính đơn độc
rớt ra từ đoàn di dân bại trận.

Nhìn xuống quá nhiều cầu tiêu mỗi ngày
sau cùng bạn thấy chúng như loa
lải nhải bài ca bốc mùi
về sự khốn cùng và hy vọng.

Nhiệm vụ của bạn là
chùi sạch cái đáy bẩn thỉu của đời sống
mọi sự phải được phi tang khi mặt trời lên.

Bạn lái xe về trên con đường bốc khói
từ những nắp cống — ly café cho thành phố vừa dậy
biển bên tay phải, bạn thấy một con tàu
màu trắng đang chìm và
không ai để ý.


Hai-Dang Phan
Hai-Dang Phan & Phan Nhiên Hạo

Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam and raised in Wisconsin. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Lana Turner, Barrow Street, NOÖ Journal, DIAGRAM, Everyday Genius and elsewhere. An M.F.A. candidate in poetry at the University of Florida, he currently lives in Iowa and teaches at Grinnell College.


Phan Nhiên Hạo, born in Vietnam in 1967, immigrated to the U.S. in 1991. He is the author of two poetry collections in Vietnamese, Paradise of Paper Bells (1998) and Manufacturing Poetry 99-04 (2004), and Night, Fish and Charlie Parker (2006), a selection translated into English by Linh Dinh.