Ho Chi Minh is Battered by Police at a Demonstration on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Paris Commune, 1921. 1
He had been struck by a French baton before,
in Hue, thirteen years ago,
so the blow that fell now
provoked a queasy sense of recurrence.
The gendarmes who cleared
the demonstrators from the cemetery
were more disciplined than the colonial police
who battered Nguyen and the peasants at Hue.
They had been trained to limit themselves
to sharp discrete blows
to the demonstrators’ wrists and knees,
never to swing for the head or neck.
But physical pain deranges time,
and as Nguyen’s wrist blossomed into a wreath of fire
he stood again on the banks of the Perfume River
even as the gravestones and memorial sculpture
of Pere Lachaise whirled around him.
The cemetery is on high ground,
so here, fifty years before, with a few antique field pieces,
the Communards had mounted a gruesome last stand
as Regular Army troops,
commanded from Versailles,
took back the city.
And here, today, Nguyen and his French comrades
had come to make a gesture to history.
It was a battalion of the Foreign Legion
that had fought its way to the heights
and slaughtered the revolutionaries,
gutting them among the ranks of tombs,
bleeding them in the mortuary groves,
adding new dead to the old.
Legionnaires, Nguyen knew, meant countrymen
— Annamites bearing French arms —
and he considered this irony as he fled.
So great was the temporal derangement
Nguyen sustained that as he dashed among the tombs,
cradling his wrist like a broken bird,
he could not say who pursued him:
the Legionnaires of 1871,
the strongmen of 1908,
the gendarmes of today.
And what did it mean to speak of today?
All times are one time,
he came to see.
Not circle, not arrow,
time is a still point on which space
is mapped like continents on a globe
if the globe never spun.
Or a phrase of melody,
unrepeated but unending:
a theme without variations.
Such knowledge was bitter
to a revolutionary.
To reconcile it
with the struggle and the dialectic
would be the work of his next ten years.
1. This poem is based on an incident described in William J. Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh, (New York: Hyperion) 2000, p. 76.
Osip Mandelstam Interviews Ho Chi Minh, Moscow 1923 2
When Mandelstam arrived in his rooms
Nguyen was writing the imaginary minutes
from a Congress of the International
in the remote year of 1947.
That would be the year when Nguyen (then Ho)
would return from Fontainebleau humiliated,
to call for peace, and to prepare for war,
and when Mandelstam
would be ten years in the underworld
he had long tried to imagine.
Nguyen would have known Mandelstam
only as a journalist of sympathetic politics,
imagining him perhaps to be a party member.
Mandelstam would only have known Nguyen
as a student at the new University,
and as the editor of a little anti-colonial rag
called The Pariah
of the other.
Mandelstam could not have known Nguyen’s years
of cat and mouse with the French authorities,
his life of alias and alibi,
of hurried crossings under false papers.
Could not have known the coming together,
behind that serene Annamese brow,
of a synthetic politics that owed more
to Confucius than to Marx.
Nguyen, for his part, did not know his visitor was a poet.
Knew nothing of Mandelstam dreaming the Greeks
amid the Petersburg snows,
with Homer’s catalog of ships in his head,
imagining cranes, birds of passage.
And Nguyen was not equipped to get the joke
of which Mandelstam was to die laughing
at the Second River Transit Camp:
under the Tsars or the Bolsheviks,
at the culture’s heart or on its Modernist fringes,
a Jew could never be a Russian.
They spoke of The Analects,
of the punishing French levy on alcohol,
and its disruption of Annamese family life,
of Rene Maran, traitor to the struggle.
Mandelstam noted the softness of Nguyen’s voice,
the penetration of his gaze,
and the way he uttered the word “civilization”
with profound disgust.
A meeting, you could say,
of two footnotes to the life of Stalin.
Ho, whom Uncle Joe would patronize
as a moderate and a sentimental nationalist;
Mandelstam, whom he dangled twice
over the fire before letting him drop.
Or you could say here was history
making another rhyme:
Mandelstam, who wrote
there was no escaping his tyrant century,
and who did not escape.
And Ho, for whom there was no escape either,
but who came to play the tyrant,
too, before he came to rest.
2. The interview is described in William J. Duiker’s Ho Chi Minh (New York: Hyperion), 200, p. 95. It was translated into English by Clarence Brown and appeared as “An Interview with Ho Chi Minh – 1923,” Commentary, August 1967, pp. 80-81.
About the Author:
Benjamin Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College in the United States. Aside from a modest list of scholarly publications, he has placed imaginative work — poetry, fiction, and essays – with a variety of small-press journals. Some of his work can be read at www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/
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