Nhien Tat Nguyen, a well-known Vietnamese poet whose melancholic verse became popular with the community because they intertwined religion with romantic love, died this week of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. He was 40.
A monk at a Buddhist temple in Garden Grove found Nguyen dead in his car Monday, an empty bottle of sleeping pills nearby. Also found in the car was a copy of one of his published poems, “Tam Chung” (Of One Mind).
Nguyen wrote poetry since he was 11, said those familiar with his work. Even as a youth, his childlike verses already spoke of inner sufferings, pangs of loneliness and turning to God in search of peace.
“What was unusual about his work is that he didn’t know it was sacrilegious to evoke religious connotation in romantic writings,” according to the beliefs of most Vietnamese Christians, said Pham Duy, a composer who discovered Nguyen when he was 20 and who set six of his poems to song.
“The poetry is like the man who wrote it: innocent, childlike, gloomy,” said Duy. Yet “it appealed to many people. All of the songs are popular with the younger people.”
Among the ones recorded into music are love songs such as “Vi Toi La Linh Muc” (Because I’m a Priest), “Tha La Giot Mua” (I’d Rather Be a Raindrop), and “Em Hien Nhu Ma So” (She’s as Gentle as a Nun)..
Before Nguyen, “no one had written in such a way before--combining nature with God and love,” said Yen Do, editor of Nguoi Viet, a Vietnamese-language daily newspaper in Westminster. “He broke the barrier.”
When Nguyen and his wife, Minh Thuy, left Vietnam by boat in 1981, several of his poems had already been published. Friends said he had suffered from melancholia for years and while the quality of self-loss made his poetry popular, it also undermined his family life.
Although Nguyen’s work was lauded and admired, he was far from being commercially successful. After supporting the family for years, Thuy Nguyen left her husband in 1988, taking their two sons with her.
In the tightknit Vietnamese literary and entertainment community, Nguyen’s personal problems were well-known. Since his wife left him, Nguyen had spent his days living out of his car or wandering from one acquaintance’s home to another.
The last few months he spent his days at Nguoi Viet, where he often cried fearfully, ducking from shadows he said were stalking him, said Do.
“He was paranoid; he talked about suicide,” Do said. “And he would smile a sad smile whenever he talked about killing himself.”