The literature of any people tells more about their character than any history, of course, so Nguyen Ngoc Bich's survey of Vietnamese poetry has a particular fascination. The title of this book alone is humbling -- how many cultures claim a thousand years of high civilization? The first poem here dates from 987 and is in fact a parrying exchange of couplets between a Chinese ambassador of the Sung dynasty and a Vietnamese Buddhist priest. It marks the end of a millenium of Chinese domination. This early poetry, nevertheless, is modeled on the scholarliness and naturalistic lyricism of China. Its tranquil beauty is in sharp contrast to the popular songs represented in this anthology -- funny, bawdy, common as poor dirt farmers. With the development of chu nom (a demotic Vietnamese character script) a synthesis of the two classes was achieved and after the 15th century poetry has a distinct nationalist mood. Still, this is the least exciting section -- perhaps internal factionalism and creativity don't mix. The arrival of the French inspires a feeling of bitterness and despair among a people destined to menial work under the colonialists. But what (one waits anxiously) have we Americans contributed to Vietnamese verse? These years of incessant warfare have been ""strangely productive"" notes the editor. And it's just what you expected: a series of violent, impassioned oaths and obituaries tempered with a quieter yearning for the union of North and South. The innocence of the ideogrammatic poems seems more than just a thousand years away. A fine selection, marked always by a sensitivity quite foreign to our own rational ways.