Examine before you extract
seeds of nothing by the bank
in village air
and so on.
In the horizon, a city begins, a portable
wax poet without a patron
A rosy sun sets
on a musical Monetbach lake in your eyes—
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?
A dank barrel of sludge
A mound of words
And now the despair
You smell cigarettes on me
and guess which beer I bet
from the white foam
on my chin
fixed on this pile of a man
who hasn’t worn off yet.
I wanted more from you, you know
that I wanted from you so much more.
We’ll lie down on the beach and I’ll draw you out with a pipe.
The year 2015 marked 35 years since the first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Israel, but when Vaan Nguyen was approached by the Times of Israel to share her reflections on this history, she declined, indicating that she would agree to an interview once her book of poetry was translated into English. As her translator, this puts pressure on me to complete the task, but I respect Nguyen’s desire to direct attention to her poems rather than this history (which, in any case, has been amply documented by Duki Dror in his 2005 documentary The Journey of Vaan Nguyen).
In Nguyen’s short story “The Truffle Eye,” which gives her first poetry collection its name, “a man wakes up one morning in a city and decides to change his identity,” becoming a woman with truffle eyes. These eyes drive her male neighbors into a frenzy, forcing the woman to lock herself in her apartment. Undeterred, they bang on her door, screaming, “You’re interesting!” Later, after sleeping with one of her admirers, he asks her, “where are you from? and she answers, “I’m from here . . . from this city.”
For children of immigrants, it is never enough to answer that one is from this place, in this moment; the question always implies another origin, another place (“I mean, parents”). The very act of asking where someone is from displaces them. In answer to this, “Culture Stain” opens with the instruction to “examine before you extract,” to dig in and probe below the surface, even if “nothing” comes out. This kind of attention not only opens up creative, new relationships to place and language, but also turns the question “where are you from?” back on the person asking.