“What do truth, authenticity, and testament have to do with this poem, any poem? What is the difference between invention and revision, between imagination and falsehood?”
1. Leave Chiang Mai for Ho Chi Minh City.
2. Find a hostel in District 10, something with a nice rooftop and easy access to the street.
3. Book the single room at the top floor. It’s your first time sleeping alone in months, not surrounded by bunkbeds and the belongings of other travelers. It’s early February, 2020. The world has not yet shut down in the wake of a global pandemic. Accommodations are cheap.
4. Establish a routine: spend the morning writing, visit the market, return to the hostel for dinner and beers with the owner and his friends.
5. Before bed, smoke alone on the roof and consider whether a haphazard mix of marijuana and tobacco can ever truly replace the grand majesty of a pharmaceutical, something produced in a lab for the express purpose of making you feel at ease.
6. Watch the news: the country will be closing its airports any day now.
7. Book a flight home.
8. When the flight is cancelled, book another.
9. When your second flight is cancelled, book a third, a fourth, a fifth.
10. Finally, one holds. Fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Tokyo to Los Angeles where your parents are waiting to pick you up.
11. Move back home. This will be the longest and most indefinite stay you’ve had since you were eighteen. The air feels heavier here than you remember.
12. Fall in and out of old habits, patterns, ways of being.
13. Tell your parents about your time in the city they were born and raised in. Trace their faces for signs of recognition, both real and feigned.
14. Do not write.
15. In four months, move to a new city to be with people you love more than anything. Having lived in that love for months—only then consider writing.
16. Write a poem about your last week in Ho Chi Minh City.
17. Return to the images you remember, your view from the roof of the hostel: the street cafés, the muddy river, the market and its vendors.
18. Consider whether these images present something true about your experience, or whether they present a vaguely exotic, diasporic fantasy of the city, this very real place that raised your parents and your parents’ parents.
19. Know the poem will be a ghazal even before your couplets keep landing in the same place—faces, facing, surfacing—all these variations on the face, the aspect of a thing it presents to the world. The face is both an object of perception and a reflection of its owner’s perception. It signifies presentation, but also directionality. What does a thing face? Like you, the ghazal obsesses over what it can never truly reach. It’s a kind of homing device, always facing what it wants most, and in doing so it creates a gravitational field, pulling the language again and again to the same center. Just as the poem attempts to root itself to a word, the speaker attempts to root himself to the city by locating all the surfaces upon which he might direct his attention.
20. Face everything you can.
21. Exhaust all the apparent possibilities of the face.
22. Title the poem “Saigon.”
23. Stop writing.
24. Go to work.
25. Love your friends.
26. After a few weeks, return to “Saigon” and discover it lacks a hinge. It’s not mechanical, not exactly, but the poem is missing some connective tissue, and you’re not sure whether anything you remember will provide it.
27. Fabricate a memory. It’s the sort of thing you might put in a short story or novel draft, a narrative kick to pitch things forward. Introduce to the poem this fabricated memory about your mother attempting to smuggle bougainvillea cuttings through airport security.
28. Imagine immigration for a moment as a kind of ecological infraction.
29. Imagine it also as a simple desire to be in a new place surrounded by old things. Even transplanted, the flowers will face what they’ve always faced: the sun.
30. Consider whether you’ve made this flower-smuggling fabrication in service of the poem, or the poet. Is it just a convenience? Should anything in a poem be this convenient? What do truth, authenticity, and testament have to do with this poem, any poem? What is the difference between invention and revision, between imagination and falsehood?
31. Stick to the flower-smuggling. It feels truer than the truth, so chase it where it goes, from face to face to faces.
32. Reach what feels like the end.
33. Consider the ending conventions of the ghazal form, how the poet traditionally includes their name in the last couplet as a sort of signature. It’s something you’ve always loved about ghazals, this nod to the act of writing, an admission of the self.
34. Instead of your name, use the word name. Or rather, named. The omission of your actual name feels crucial for a moment, both an adherence to tradition and a departure. The poet’s name is less important here than the act of naming. His name was something given to him. It was used by others, then passed on to him. He is not the first. He is not the last.
35. Interrogate the choice you’ve made to title the poem with the city’s old prewar name, a name your parents still use. They believe the city will one day return to its old self, which they see as its real self. People who actually live in the city only refer to it as that: the city. I’m going back into the city on Saturday. The city is unbearably hot this time of month. Et cetera. Why this title, then? Is it a revisionist impulse, a vestige of anticommunist propaganda, a nostalgia you don’t really even hold? Or is it simply habit? Perhaps you’ve learned to call the city by its old name because it was what was given to you. Having spent a month there, living in your hostel, your sixth-floor room, were you given anything else?
36. Go for a walk in your new city.
37. Stop at a shop selling furniture and home goods. There’s a globe there in the window, sitting on a chestnut nightstand.
38. Enter the store. Examine the globe. Maneuver it so that the city you left this time last year, the city you intend to return to for the rest of your life, again and again, finally faces you.
39. Retitle the poem “Ho Chi Minh City.”
Steven Duong is a poet from San Diego, California. His poems and short fiction can be found in the American Poetry Review, AGNI, Guernica, Catapult, and other publications. He currently lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where he is pursuing an MFA in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.