by Ha Jin
I was told that I was a sad man.
Sadness is a fatal disease in this place
where happiness is a key to success.
If you are sad, you are doomed to fail—
you can’t please your boss,
your long face won’t attract customers,
a few sighs are enough
to let your friends down.
Yesterday afternoon I met Pham,
a Vietnamese man who was once a general.
He came to this country
after nine years’ imprisonment.
Now he works hard as a custodian
and always avoids
meeting his former soldiers here,
because every one of them
is doing better than he is.
“Sadness,” he told me,
“is a luxury for me.
I have no time for it.
If I feel sad
I won’t be able to support my family.”
His words filled me with shame,
although I learned long ago
that a busy bee feels no sorrow.
He made me realize I’m still a fortunate one
and ought to be happy and grateful
for having food in my stomach
and books to read.
I returned home humming a cheerful tune;
my wife smiled wondering
why I suddenly became lighthearted;
my son followed me, laughing and frolicking,
as I was capering on the floor.
I went to a party in my dream.
Voices and laughter were drifting in a large hall
that was full of paintings and calligraphy.
Strolling with ease
I ran into the handwriting of yours
hung in the air
piece by piece waving like wings.
Dumbfounded, I turned
and saw you sitting on a chair,
motionless, the same lean detached face,
only your blue clothes had grown darker.
Something snapped in my chest
and my tears flowed.
What’s the use of promising?
I have promised, a hundred times,
but never returned. Wherever we go
our cause is the same:
to make a living and raise children.
If a poem arises, it’s merely
an accidental blessing.
For several hours my heart ached,
but I woke up—smiling.
Ha Jin, author of the poetry collection Between Silences, won both the AGNI Fiction Prize and a Pushcart Prize for his story in AGNI 33. (1993)