Inrasara: From 'the purification festival in april,' with translation from Cham/Vietnamese & note by Alec Schachner

[from Inrasara, the purification festival in april, The Culture & Literature Publishing House, Vietnam, 2015]


from Allegory of the Land

                                                Cham (Vietnam & Cambodia)


Not a few friends have scolded me for wasting time on Cham poetry

is there even a trifling scarcity of readers? Will there be anyone to


yet I want to squander my entire life on it

though there may only be around a quarter dozen people

though there may only be one person

or even if there’s not a single living soul.



One line of proverb – one verse of folk song

half a child’s lullaby – one page of ancient poetry

I search and gather

like a child seeking a tiny pebble

(pebbles that adults carelessly step past)

to build a castle for only myself to live in

a castle one day they’ll use for shelter from the rain – it’s certain!


. . . . . . .

The purification festival in April

Sunshine begins to warm the hills of April

starting earlier than many centuries past

when the ocean had yet to awake

earlier than all the memory of the elder ceremony priests.


Earlier. The sun opened its warming rays

bright astride the ka-ing dancing master’s rattan rod

rousing the baranung drums still lying dust-covered in the attic stirring

awake the crows of a pair of roosters waiting through the last

        night before their sacrificial offering.


Faster. I see the sun breaking

athwart the footsteps of the shaman hurrying down the hill

even faster. I see the sunlight spilling across

no time for the dewdrops to linger in sleep

sunshine encircling the hair of a crowd of girls headed down to the

        river to get water, the columns of trees, the flat landscape, the

        multicolored garments, the sweeping calls to return to the village

to build the ceremonial kajang

the sunlight falls catching at the folds of the old dancer’s mutham scarf

flying across 365 days coated in the impurity of this world.


The purification festival is beginning.


On this same day this same month for everlasting millennia past

the same anxieties, infatuations, this uneasy waiting

only the repetition is present

the same sacred texts, hymns of worship are unfurled.


Fire blazes red

red pomegranate flowers bought at yesterday’s market red Royal

        Poinciana flowers freshly plucked red summer sun

red garb red He

fire burned red into the labyrinthine skeins of every waiting soul

candles lit aflame many sticks alight glinting in the midday

before the door of the kajang there fire blazes red.


He sees

He raises his rod up high, high above the old centuries

He flogs two feet, two feet taciturn since the dynasty past

feet that for 365 days only know to follow the plow’s furrows

feet that yesterday danced sluggishly to the rhythms of Cei Dalim, Cei


feet hardened by acidity.


The Purification Festival is beginning

sound of the rite-master’s chants rumbling devotion the beating

        baranung booms

still not yet enough – the scriptural orisons recited

not enough for His contentment.


Our storehouse is brimming with words - words worn and dull

full of words/ still not a single phoneme to praise delight

one word strives to soar up level atop the flames’ shoulders

level atop the purification festival.


No more words to name. He roars out. The words fold their wings and

        slip away

only His roar floods the empty world


A... U... M...

He roars out

the roar echoes to a buffalo herd grazing on a faraway hill straining to


wronged ghosts forgotten for a thousand years sit up from ashes and


flocks of birds startled rise up circling hastily and returning

as if afraid of vying lost within the wellspring of joyous purgation.



He has seen

the door of the heavens open like the embrace of his wife

        of previous lifetimes open

the fleets of monsoon clouds returning like a lock of his future

        son’s hair flying back

He spreads His arms

He steps forward, treading to match the mud-drenched feet

        of yesterdays

heedless the fires crackling along with the sounds of hands clapping

        ahei crackling

heedless of the ginang drums beating urgently pursuing chasing off fear

He transforms into fire He dances with fire He is fire

clean the final time, clean numberless thousands of more times

for the world a single time cleaned. Such it is.


Swift. Swifter

smoke rises into clouds, human faces flock through clouds, hair a

        thousand strands of cloud, all space dimly pillared

        into titanic columns of rainclouds.

they are crumbling, crashing apart and about to toss down floods

        of rain.


The Purification Festival in April has ruptured. He feels

the earth fracture, sound of the eulogies

shattering the jubilation of anticipating secrets hidden deep.


Life no longer hesitates, no more wavering

swift, swifter

but slow too slow as if no possible way to be slower. He feels the

language of the hymns spill into millions of millions of cells

        living or dead

overflow and stir them awake never to let them sleep again all

the millions and millions of sprouts are stretching their shoulders

        to raise their heads.


Steps stomping more sturdily. I see – more firmly

the world fragmented and rejoined by an urgent breath

the fire at its last gasp.


He is cast out freed from the flames – his body covered with wounds

all the world wounded – only the smile untouched

            the bliss untouched

millions of millions of water drops fly down to extinguish a surviving

            spark straining to flicker one last time

extinguish misery, hopelessness on the faces. I see.


On the far side of elation

Resilience untouched they begin to take root once again.


Bis bis wok wok

once more people move

once more once more life moves.


TRANSLATOR'S NOTE. This collection represents a broad range of Inrasara’s poetic oeuvre to date, tracing his diverse journeys through storytelling, his forays into a varying array of narrative modes and transitions through lyric and narrative verse. Like all great storytellers, Inrasara pulls from a wide network of experience, weaving together the past and the present into a tapestry of the personal and collective, blending the real and the mythical. Wandering across history, literature, folklore, music, philosophy, Hinduism, Buddhism, pop culture, myth, war, peace, harvest, community, tradition, dream, language, ritual, epic and the everyday, Inrasara’s poems sing not only the song of the Cham people in modern Vietnam, but also of all human experience – of our imagining of self and of the myriad innermost emotional lives of globalization and modernity.  Deeply rooted in his readings of the Cham epics, Inrasara’s verse somehow also resonates with the flowing lines of Whitman and Hughes, a montage of human experience and insight, capturing essences both singular and universal.


Inrasara’s use of the Vietnamese language is highly complex and philosophical, and naturally impossible to translate into English to its full extent. All Cham language terms have been italicized and left in the original, with an index of notes provided at the back of this book. This collection meanders through the languages of the classic Cham and Vietnamese epics, colloquial Cham, modern Vietnamese, Sino-Vietnamese, Sanskrit, classical Chinese, Zen philosophy, folksong, physics, ecology and beyond.  Through use of linguistic elements which do not exist in English, such as bound morphemes and a complex pronoun address system, Vietnamese contains a multitude of subtleties which are essentially untranslatable. I have attempted to retain the original flow of the language wherever feasible, translating on a line-to-line basis when able and often retaining the Vietnamese order of information, to stay as true to the original narrative architecture as possible. I hope that the reader will find this bilingual edition not only a guidebook to Cham culture, tradition and daily life, but also a useful tool to engage with the depths of the modern Vietnamese language. Inrasara’s epical lingual explorations wander through lyric verse to freeform, short odes to long narratives, across the geography of native land and soul, inviting the reader into a world both known and unknown, foreign and familiar, ordinary and wondrous.