Refrains for Piano by Tue Sy – translated by Nguyen Ba Chung & Martha Collins



I sink time in the corners of my eyes

Time reddens the sacred night

Suddenly night is a winter myth

Immense wings from endless space



Since then, I’ve returned to the numinous sphere

Blue spreads out, obscuring endless space

The night star stretches deep into the distance

Real or unreal, the afternoon’s wet with grief

In an afternoon like that, low notes hum

The notes go on, burning my fingertips

Embracing a rest, the music suddenly stops

Where are you, friend? Smoke fills the verandah



On a sharp note

The music grows heavy

Bitterness keeps imprinting

Itself on my lips

The music sinks deep

Into illusions

Heartbeats cease

Emptying time


Time stops

The sky burns

A thread of smoke

Loosens in time

Friend, you keep going

Moss thins on the threshold

Fading sunlight

Wild grass by the river



Flying, I follow a flickering flame

Shimmering in the summer desert

Half the sky tilts downward

Two red eyes by a velvet curtain

How deep the stars of Lyra

How lonely the road back



I return in the afternoon

You paint with a faded yellow

Road-dust dries the moonlight

The road fades

The moon shines alone

Did you ever wait

For sunburnt moss in the night?



Darkness spreads over the stone wall

I can’t forget your farewell eyes

Then you disappeared

Leaving anger on the crest of the wind

Where am I?

How fleeting the wings of dreams



Smoke from the teapot thins

Words keep stretching out

Worldly affairs like wild flowers

Cover my burning eyes



The princess leaves resentment in the rest

The cadence pains my fingers

I press grief more deeply into the white keys

A half-note disturbs the rhythm of exile



My burning eyes

Black keys white keys

Black and white pursue

Each other into mirage


At the end

Of the whole-rest

I leave my years

Of sorrow



The door is closed    clouds roll in the distance

Distracted, I count words    my eyes blur

My sad fingers stroke the crumbling incense

Light rain falls on a few clustered houses



In summer, cicadas return at once to the city

A grove of old trees screens bleak sunlight

White dust rolls at the end of an alley

On the keys, the scent of incense fades

The sound of cicadas ripples softly

Their summer cry will dry up the whole ocean



The Taoist sees himself in the stream

In the night, who could forget those eyes?

He hurries across rough crevices

Bird tracks wear away the stone




Oh! a string has suddenly snapped

It’s the night ghost become real

I bite the frozen tips of my fingers

The refrain settles in my eyes


Then the cadence subsides

The notes scatter    my fingers sting

Then I sense the delicate scent of laurel

After the rest, slower now, the refrain



Night falls

Shadows gather

Ice-cold music stirs

Furious heartbeats


Near the border

Tall trees turn fiercely red

Warriors old as ancient tombs

Sunlight wanes on the battlefield

Blood thickens the mist



A day is adrift at the head of the rapids

I hear the restless call of nothingness

The melody flows into my eyes

The lake is still    flickering water

The lake is still    a mass of color

Images dim    a bit of clear mist

A silent space    time falls like rain

I hear life in the pristine world performance



Dusting off my hands, I’m frightened by chaos

I follow ants down the slope of a barren peak



Breath is stopped    from deep in the sea

Immense forms    myriad colors

A sky with small stars spins in the doorframe

A moment    the Milky Way    a flare of light



A car passes by on the street

A laurel branch trembles

In the rest, the scent diffuses

The circular melody glistens



Shadow of falling grass    I’m startled

The ground shakes    demons fill the world

On the rest    a fleeting breath

Mysterious night    song without words



I follow the ants

And slip through a clump of grass

A somber shadow

A tumbling world

In a moment of silence

I hear the earth breathe



That nostalgia, yearning

Slipping through hair

A sad coil of smoke

In a circle of arms

I haven’t finished my tea

Dew is falling

On a high terrace

You sit as if

On a very high throne

The path of clouds rises

Then closes up

Wearing away the illusion

Of heavenly truth

Oh, the laurel

Blinding the eyes

Why do you keep playing

That music?

That old tune

Dejected, a little sad

Back then I loved you

Restless mountain moon



I live again in sorrow blackened with smoke

Love, in every moment of my dreams

Words, unspoken even in ancient times

Like the ocean collecting peach-flower petals

Music echoes, cheers my weary wings

For love, I’m reaching out to catch stars



Tear-stained afternoon rain

Falls on ancient tombs

Ruined shadows of legends

Stand alone


A chilly mist

My shoulders resist the laurel

Embracing a stupa

I love, throughout pure space



Born Pham Van Thuong on Feb 15, 1943 in Pakse, Laos, Tuệ Sỹ became a monk at a very early age. A well-known dissident in Vietnam, he was imprisoned for fourteen years, and remains one of the foremost scholars of Buddhism in the country. English translations of his poems by Nguyen Ba Chung and Martha Collins have appeared in Gulf Coast, Two Lines, Consequence, Salamander, AGNI, and elsewhere.

Nguyen Ba Chung is a writer, poet and translator. He is the co-translator of A Time Far Past; Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry from The Wars 1948-1993; Distant Road ‑ Selected Poems of Nguyen Duy; Six Vietnamese Poets; Zen Poems from Early Vietnam, and others. He served for many years as Research Associate at the William Joiner Institute at U.Mass.-Boston.

Martha Collins is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently Because What Else Could I Do (Pittsburgh, 2019), Night Unto Night (Milkweed, 2018) and Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016). She has also co-translated four volumes of Vietnamese poetry. She founded the creative writing program at the U.Mass.-Boston and taught at Oberlin College for ten years.