New Year Couplet
On the thirtieth night, we seal the sky and soil against demons,
then unlatch the first morning, let every woman gather spring in her arms.
I swell like a late summer jackfruit.
My skin roughens, the pulp of my body so thick.
I wait to be speared and wanted.
If squeezed, I’ll leave my colour on your hands.
Notes on this poem
Hồ Xuân Hương was a Vietnamese poet born in the late eighteenth century, surviving into the early nineteenth century. Little can be confirmed about her life, but there are many popular stories about her. One anecdote illustrates her sense of humour; upon falling over, it is said that she threw off her embarrassment, claiming: ‘Dang tay vói thử trời cao thấp; xoạc cẳng đo xem đất vắn dài.’ In English: ‘I stretch my arms to learn the height of the sky; I spread my legs to measure the earth.’ This is an example of ‘xuất khẩu thành thơ’ – poetry composed spontaneously from speech.
Written against the backdrop of a society largely dominated by men, Hồ’s work provides a defiantly honest and unsanitised female perspective. She offers bold portrayals of desire, women’s bodies, power relations, and the stifling nature of tradition through deceptively basic images. Her poems seize on the latent power and beauty of everyday activities and objects – such as domestic chores and food – often imbuing these with subtle sensual undertones or more daring and humorous innuendo. In this way, Hồ builds a quiet but persistent sense of collective female insurgence and solidarity.
As a poet with Vietnamese heritage, I’m interested in the history of Vietnam as told by women; therefore, Hồ’s close attention to women’s spaces and inner lives drew me to her work. Fittingly, these English-language adaptations are the result of many conversations with my extraordinary mother, who provided the bridge translations and explained the idioms.
Notes: ‘Xì xòm’ are onomatopoeic words evoking the sound of water being bailed.
‘Moon and wind’ refers to a love affair.
– Natalie Linh Bolderston