Four Cambodian American Poems

A painting of a woman's head with an illustration of people in traditional dress instead of her face
Liza Martin, Homelessness Home (2023), oil on canvas, 11 x 13 cm

I’ve Been Border-Crossing All My Life

after Anisa Rahim’s “A Russian Hacked My Pinterest Account”


I’m not talking about the sudden packing up of things
   a pair of pants, a bag of uncooked rice, gold sewn inside belts 
   salted fish, soil from mother’s grave, a small statue of Buddha
Not having time to say goodbyes to friends, not knowing if this leaving 
  would be forever 
   it was forever 
Sitting on Lok-Yeay’s back as my family trekked through jungles,
  stepping in small rivers where if you looked to your right
   or left 
    dead bodies & torn-off limbs everywhere 
      tiny fish feeding on rotten meat 

I looked up from the darkness the night sky was turning 
  the stars were bright clear and real
    I could almost pluck them the universe
    was alive

And the silence was eternal
  the warm presence of ancestors
   how deeply comforting
    the cosmic ocean

I’m not talking about life in refugee camps
  not quite in Thailand, not quite in Cambodia
   it was the third space of nothingness
Floating from one camp to another
  home was homelessness
   home was the longing for what we left behind
    home was speaking to ghosts

I’m talking about finding a bird 
     with broken 
Looking for lizards, frogs, snakes, crickets
  anything that was alive
   imagining they were my father
I’m talking about speaking to the bird as if it were my mother 
   as I tended to wings 

I’m not talking about getting on a dinghy 
  some Thai fishermen used to take us across
   the Gulf of Thailand 
    to Indonesia, our little
    almost swallowed by giant waves

I’m talking about seeing a mermaid
  in the midst of a storm
   while everyone cried-prayed
    to Buddha for help

I saw a mermaid floating calmly
     in the terrible waves


How to Defeat Pol Pot

Call your children by their true names. 
Love. Divine. Angels. My heart.

Be gentle with them.
Speak the truth:

They were born out of love.
These divine creatures. 

Tell them the Angkor Empire stood
for six hundred years.

America is half that age.
Read to them Khmer poetry.

Show them Apsaras dancing on temple walls.
Pick up a paintbrush, play an instrument.

Let the soul sing its song.
The Khmer Rouge made angels of us all. 

We soared over killing fields
to find home on foreign shores.

Keep memories of the victims in songs and prayers,
in the spoonful of rice we feed our children.

Sing to the moon for what it witnessed.


The Mercy of Memory  

My cousin tells me about what he witnessed: 
the way they dragged his neighbor by the legs, 
how the poor man begged for mercy. 

When they didn’t stop, the neighbor looked 
up to the sky and sobbed quietly  
at the indifference of the universe.  

After the neighbor was disappeared   
there was nothing left but the hot sun. 
The sky was blue and the birds sang  

their beautiful songs over rice fields. 
The silence of that moment has  
haunted my cousin through the years.  

As for me, I have no recollections.  
No evidence of atrocities I could  
document or share in commiseration.  

I must have been four or  
five when the Khmer Rouge 
took over Kampuchea.  

I must have seen and heard things. 
I must have felt fear when carried 
in the night on my grandmother's back. 

This is the mercy of memory. 
How it opens and closes  
certain doors to sustain itself.  

Just enough light for the self to 
continue, like the memory of love  
a grandmother had for her grandson. 

The Carrying  

I am what is left after the war that orphaned a generation. 
And what is left is knowing that what remains is worth 
Carrying. The way the earth carried our tired bodies.  
How the moon kept still while we crossed jungles, 
Leaves whispered prayers and sunlight kept us 
Warm. The way Lok-Yeay carried me on her back, 
The back that carried the land and fog, the hungry mouths 
Of children and grandchildren, the withered body of her  
Husband, the grime of a widow who raised seven children 
All on her own. The way rivers carried our sorrows.  
And how my aunts carried the deaths of their youths 
Cradled to their chests like broken dolls.  
How we all carried memories of my mother.  
How my father carried himself after we had left.  
At night in the refugee camp my uncles cradled 
Hope that was as real as the belief that  
No matter what came before, a life was still a life.  
Then they turned to their corners of dirt and wept.  

Bunkong Tuon is a Cambodian American writer and poet. His work has appeared in Copper Nickel, New York Quarterly, Massachusetts Review, Lowell Review, American Journal of Poetry, Diode Poetry Journal, among others. His debut novel, Koan Khmer, is forthcoming from Curbstone Press. He is poetry editor of Cultural Daily. Tuon teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, New York.