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The River

by Nguyen Quang Thieu

translated from the Vietnamese by the author and Martha Collins

We wake from our dream with no time to button our shirts,
To tie back our hair, to leave word with our families.
We run together from two distant places
Through fields of trembling grass.

Dewdrops are thrown in the air like stars;
The grass-spider, startled, runs to the end of its line.
Grasshoppers, toads are thrown in the air,
Seeds of yellow grass are thrown in the air and ring like bells.

We run from two directions and kneel on two banks;
The river’s a moving horizon between us.
The clouds are sails discolored by wind,
Unhappy sails that tear and mend themselves.

The gobies are golden keys to the door
Of the water world where our house is waiting.
No time to button our shirts, to tie back our hair—
The rattle of keys echoes, rushing along the banks.

Why don’t we keep running? Why have we stopped?
Why don’t we crawl in the river like brown turtles?
We’re perch that climbed the falls, deceived by tiny inlets;
We’re two cornflowers thrown on the floor of dusk.

We run through many fields, we run and look back.
Why not run into the river? Why do we kneel on the banks?
We turn our faces up to the sky like frogs,
Summoning not the rain, but each other’s hair.

We run through many fields, through seasons of plowing and


We run, dreaming we’re running from sky rebels.
Why do we come back to the banks of the river and cry?
And why do the ferryboats sink themselves before dawn?

We run through many fields, through seasons of wild grass;
Fresh grass-seeds roll in a pocket of your shirt.
Why don’t you pick a stem of grass to tie back your hair,
Your hair that is streaming wildly across the fields?

Oh the river gobies are skipping wildly
The turning keys are rushing, rattling, echoing,
The water world is opening its soft doors.
Why do we kneel on the banks, and apologize to the clouds?

We run through rainy seasons, through dry seasons,
Through seasons of sweet grass, and bitter grain.
No time to button our shirts, to tie back our hair—
The river is waiting for us, changing its song.


Nguyen Quang Thieu has published four books of poems in Vietnam, as well as fiction and translations. His most recent collections are The Insomnia of Fire (1992), which won the Writers’ Association National Award for poetry in 1993, and The Women Carry River Water (1995). A bilingual collection of his poems, translated with Martha Collins, will be published by the University of Massachusetts in early 1997. (1996)

Martha Collins’s second book of poems, The Arrangement of Space, will be published this fall. Her manuscript-in-progress, A History of Small Life on a Windy Planet, won the PSA’s di Castagnola Award. (1991)

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AGNI Magazine :: published at Boston University ©2008 AGNI