The Viet Arcane by Jack Hirschman

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Jack Hirschman is an institution unto himself of radical poetics. He’s dedicated his life to challenging those existing power structures of society which leave the majority disenfranchised in order to benefit a wealthy privileged minority. He works from the streets up, putting his words into action participating in an endless number of political protests, street demonstrations, poetry readings, bar arguments, and any other occasion where the opportunity presents itself to push for changing the status quo.

From his neighborhood hotel room in San Francisco’s North Beach where he’s lived for decades, his poems, paintings, and dozens upon dozens of translations from numerous languages pour forth at an astonishing pace. Currently a member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America (LRNA) his deeply committed Marxist politics have long interfered with him gaining recognition on the American poetry scene. Yet on the international front, especially in Italy, he’s rightly recognized as quite the phenomenal literary figure.

Hirschman’s latest book, The Viet Arcane, is at once both old and new. The original manuscript was completed some forty years ago but after several unsuccessful attempts to place it with a publisher Hirschman lost track of it for sixteen years. His Italian biographer only recently “found the manuscript in the archive of La Salle College in the Philadelphia area” and emailed a copy to him.

Hirschman has “reworked” the original text incorporating it into his “masterwork” The Arcanes and sought to “bring a deeper sense of rage against the imperialism that still tyrannizes the world from its center in Washington, DC.” The mammoth first volume of The Arcanes published in Italy by Multimedia Edizioni in English in 2006 represents a major culmination of his life’s work. The Viet Arcane announces he’s nowhere near finished, planning for the publication of a second collected Arcanes volume is currently underway.

The background of this particular arcane’s genesis is intertwined with several events unfolding in Hirschman’s personal life, which is one and the same with his life as a poet. In 1965 Hirschman infamously lost his job as a young professor of literature at UCLA owing to his refusal to fail any of his male students (one of which rumor has it was Jim Morrison of The Doors) as they might then be subject to military draft and sent to fight in Vietnam. He happily however had been able to retain his library privileges.

Around 1970 he discovered Haitian poet René Depestre’s Un Arc-en-ciel pour l’occident chrétien, poème, mystère vaudou (1967) on the shelf in UCLA’s library, quickly translating it into English and publishing A rainbow for the Christian West with Red Hill Press in 1972. In Hirschman’s words: “The book enacts in a series of poems an invasion by the Vodou Loas—or Haitian gods and goddesses—into the southern and most racist part of the United States.” Shortly after this he came across Maurice Durand’s Technique et pantheon des mediums vietnamiens, a sociological study of a Vietnamese Mother Goddess cult with a sect of mediums known as Len Dong, complete with photographs and poems from the ceremonial ritual.

Coming off translating Depestre’s book, Hirschman was immediately enthralled by Durand’s study: “a Vodou sect in Vietnam!” He energetically wrote The Viet Arcane, his poem-version enacting of the sect’s mediumship practice, over three months in 1972 while staying in Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles. The other night at the book’s release reading at Emerald Tablet in North Beach, Hirschman suggested the 36 sections of the poem with titles such as “Tin Quarter,” “Shoe Alley, “Lattice Road,” “Eastern Bridge,” and “Silk Lane” represent to some degree the 36 neighborhoods/districts of Saigon.

The text itself is a complex meshing together of personal and political channeling of various “mediums” erupting upon the page in searing indictment of US actions during the Vietnam War. Hirschman draws upon his study of “the people and history and language of Vietnam” with which he had taken up at commencement of the war and “the anti-war work of ‘mediums’ of media at Pacifica Radio’s KPFK station” (where via his wife at the time Ruth Epstein he had been involved with some anti-war broadcasts) alongside homage-appearances of poet and artist friends, “transferring them into the texts” their names appearing translated into Vietnamese approximations.

Many of these friends are likely to be the same ones he mentions as being “a group of hip artists and poets interested in kabbala—Wallace Berman in Topango Canyon; [David] Meltzer in San Francisco; Asa Benveniste in London; Jerome Rothenberg in San Diego, as well as poets and painters who were not Jewish, like George Herms, Dean Stockwell, and Russ Tamblyn, the latter two fine actors publicly and in their private lives excellent graphic artists.” These individuals and “the cultural workers” at KPFK are transformed by Hirschman into “mediums” embedded throughout his poem.

Hirschman also later benefitted from attending the len dong ritual at a local San Francisco temple housed in a Potrero Hill apartment. These days many of the temples have more official settings and the majority of them have relocated south to the San Jose area. In order enter an altered state of consciousness to invoke the spirits during the ritual the medium will smoke multiple cigarettes at the same time and swig vodka. Traditionally mediums were young boys but in current times women have assumed the responsibility. Hirschman adopts the perspective of the Vietnamese practitioner while also retaining his own identity as an American male poet. Not at all surprisingly this does make for a pretty wild and weird poem. But it nonetheless works well.

below the waist:
_venom and venery,
__pulver of pelt,
_fat chances,
____skinny pickens
of working righteousness
__and with black-boots
___with white soles
Ngon-Ngu-Anh and Nghe-Y-Ta
___are the exhumed bones
_____of the fighters
_for the transmigration
__of the Len-Dong,
___the skeletons
_that plant, with the vodou
____of the Viet-Kieu,
_right in the face
___of fascist fashion —,”
(“27. Raft Quarter”)

The Len Dong ritual is ideally suited for pairing with a poet. Scholar Thien Do’s Vietnamese Supernaturalism (Routledge, 2003) looks in part at Technique et pantheon des mediums vietnamiens, explaining:

For Durand, the cult is designated by the expression len dong hau bong (to mount the medium and to serve the shadow). In Vietnamese, Durand explains, the word ‘shadow’ usually means ‘spectre’, ‘phantom’. A ghost is also called hinh bong (shadow form). However, to the idea of the immateriality of the spirits, he maintains, is added that of the medium being likened to a shadow, a reflection of the spirit who falls upon her.

Do also notes that len dong means “to mount/possess the spirit.” Do’s above description helps to flesh out Hirschman’s obvious attraction for the cult’s ritual with its correspondence to many a poet’s practice. From William Faulkner’s claim “I listen to the voices” to Jack Spicer’s radio dictation of ghost chatter, there’s a wealth of metaphors in American literature describing the poet as medium. Hirschman is participating in a grand tradition, merging it with his own political and social call for radical change.

In another academic text, Possessed by the Spirits (Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2006), Karen Fjelstad’s contribution discusses the “global interest in the len dong ritual” relating that Ong Luong “a fourteenth-generation spirit medium” in Hanoi told her: “Being Vietnamese is having len dong. No matter who is here, we still len dong. Even Vietnamese from France, America, and Italy len dong—they remember Vietnam.”

Hirschman, too, remembers Vietnam. His poem is an embodiment and tribute to the people in memoriam for all they have suffered. The spirits he taps usher forth a global intermingling of protest on behalf of “all who burned / themselves, crying: / Long Live Vietnam!” (“9. Waterpipe Alley”) While US-made bombs continue fall all too readily across a broad swath of the Middle East, numerous seats in Washington, DC need to feel the righteous scorching of this poem.


Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works at Gleeson Library for the University of San Francisco. His recent books include: from Book of Kings (Bird and Beckett Books), Drops of Rain / Drops of Wine (Spuyten Duyvil) and The Duncan Era: One Reader's Cosmology (Spuyten Duyvil). More from this author →