Nguyen Quang Thieu: Chapter 4 (from Slaughterhouse)

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He thinks it is the road that leads to hell.

The road runs from the city to the suburban field
Where a row of houses is dark, dim and agitated.
Where in his dream he saw a placard made of cow’s hide:

The station: Life – Death

Where every night the roar of killed cows resounds,
The sound of blood pouring into the terracotta jars
Where glittering and gentle eyes
On the severed heads of cows
Lined up on the cold floor
Like the exact sequence of numbers
Of the chief accountant in The Death Bank.
And from throats still bleeding,
The most powerful words of the world
Make warm the breaths of the brilliant, yellow field’s memory.

Night after night he walks under two tree lines.
Honor squads see him off to his death.
Honor squads welcome him to be reborn.

He is a King
Of tragedy and of the solitary,
Walking in a rally in the concert of trumpets
Of native cows,
Reverberating in the bright bleeding night,
Shaking the wooden doors,
Re-echoing ponds and lakes
Forever running to the rivers,
Rising toward the sea

Like a pitiful and proud horse,
He begins his journey

Without a parting song,
Without an oath,
Without congratulations
Or silence.

With a question sharp, and quicker than a knife
That pierces the throat of a one-year-old calf.

On that road
Every night, he walks.
Every night, he whispers:

What cow will be killed?
What cow will cry?
What cow will curse me?
Where am I going?
Can I find death tonight like the cows I killed?
Who is calling my name
Across these familiar fields?
Who is waiting for me
On the final shore of suffering?

He dreamed to get inside the cowhide,
To step forward to receive one hammer blow to his head,
Like a seed cracks its skin with an explosion of sound.
To receive the knife, piercing his throat.
Like a tree sprouts tears through the soil, to rise
For blood that departs his body
Like a dam broken,
So he could leave the heavy world behind,
Of suffering and hopelessness.

But on the field every night
The seeds of grain move nonstop,
Their roots plug deep into the dark brown soil,
Lightning cuts off the dark sky,
And dazzling green leaves
Raise sacred swords
In an oath of life’s aspirations.

On the road through the field every night,
His two moving feet – the motion of furrows.
His two rising arms – flapping bird wings,
And the enormous field connects with the horizon,
Covered by the light of a huge shadow of the seed-sowing man,
Who sows down the stars
With a resounding voice:

Bend down close to the land, look up close to the sky.
You will know all secrets of life’s song.


Nguyen Quang Thieu is one of Viet Nam’s most widely read writers, and the author of over forty books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and poetry and fiction in translation.  For over thirty years he has worked closely with Kevin Bowen at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and its Social Consequences at U-Mass. Boston on a variety of translation and cultural exchange projects, forging a new understanding between our two countries.  He is currently President of the Viet Nam Writers Association, a Ministerial position in Viet Nam, where he has devoted his energies to supporting writers in Viet Nam and to spreading Vietnamese Literature across the globe.