Introduction to Bunkong Tuon’s Featured Poetry Selection
One of the greatest joys of editing a small journal like ours is the discovery of previously-unknown-to-you poets. BK’s work came to me in a roundabout way that would have been almost unthinkable in a generation ago. He and regular contributor, Tony Gloeggler, were together at a reading in Long Beach, California. Conversationally, Tony mentioned Misfit and that there was this small press poet living in the same town where BK teaches, Schenectady, N.Y. While our little city is not a total poetry desert, it isn’t the kind of place you expect to find a long time contributor to the small press scene to be living, either. Once upon a time there were three of us here in the area: Lyn Lifshin, The Queen of the Small Presses, lived in nearby Niskayuna, Paul “White Boy” Weinman hung out in Albany, working for the State Museum of New York when he wasn’t driving Greyhound Buses into the Washington Park Lake and myself, in Schenectady. Lyn has moved on to greener pastures, Paul has succumbed to the worst kind of dementia possible and I am the last man standing, holding my own for the foreseeable future. So maybe this is really a Mecca for poets, given the active reading scene in the area, that the rest of the world hasn’t recognized yet.
Be that as it may, BK contacted me, tentatively at first, and later with a group of poems from his book manuscript, Gruel, currently awaiting publication with NYQ Press. Coincidentally, Tony also has published with the same excellent small press and has another scheduled for the near future. I selected a couple of poems for the last issue, met BK for lunch and he sent me his book manuscript to read. I was impressed by the clean narrative lines of his poems, simple, yet clear and expressive, humble and sincere but with a muted depth of emotion that portrays a deep and rich tale of immigration, survival, assimilation and continued growth. BK was born in Cambodia, forced to flee Pol Pot’s regime and was lucky enough to reach America where he discovered a whole new world. Literally. No one could have predicted, or expected, a young immigrant to become not only a gifted poet but a PHD in Comparative Literature, a scholar with a tenured position at Union, a prestigious liberal arts college in Upstate New York. Selecting the poems from Gruel was difficult, but what I have tried to do was, touch upon the salient points in time, and the personal history of the poet, to give the reader a glimpse into his world. I hope you are as excited as I am about this emerging new voice in the poetry world.
Photograph of My Mother on Her Wedding Day
In the black-and-white wedding photograph
you stand next to your husband—
confident, smiling, looking directly
into the camera, jewels glittering around your neck.
That necklace Grandmother borrowed
from the landowner whose house stood
between the fish market and noodle shops,
where the train snaked alongside the marketplace,
where is it now?
This must be before 1975, before strange cravings,
when your sister, barely a teenager then, barefoot
and tired, waded through muddy rice fields,
on thin, stilted legs, searching for eels,
and you, rib-cage thin, pale,
skin about to burst, eyes bulging,
cold, always cold, waiting for her
to bring back lizards, snakes, crickets, eels;
Before Buddhist monks chanting prayers
on our house’s veranda, and me
crying under the tamarind tree,
thinking how those monks were so rude,
bothering your sleep.
Thirty years later, my fingers trace the worn-out texture,
the duct tape wrapping the photograph’s torn corners,
and I am paralyzed.
You smile so brilliantly
that even your sisters,
who now have children of their own,
would blush at your boldness.
Mother, I am about to marry.
I wish we had a chance to talk.
I have no memory of you;
even a fragment of you angry at me, screaming
at something I did, pulling a nearby branch,
would help me imagine
what you would say to me now.
Photographs of My Mother is forthcoming in an anthology, Two Countries U.S. Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents
behind the back door
of our sponsor’s house.
My uncle, the bravest
because he spoke a little English,
My grandmother, aunts,
and I watched him
through the kitchen window.
He bent down, reached for
the whiteness of this new world,
and put some in his mouth.
He looked back at us and smiled,
“We can make snow cone with this!”
America, the miraculous, our savior,
you were the land of dreams then.
In Pol Pot’s Shadow
A man outside in his orange sarong
talking with the police then arguing
over his rights to beat and rape his wife,
ran into his home and promised the police
to butcher them with a kitchen knife.
The officers ran to their patrol cars
and radioed for backup. Minutes later,
an ambulance, and at least five patrol cars
and a helicopter surrounded the brown house.
The officers went in with their shotguns
and came out carrying the man whose arms
and legs were tied. We, his neighbors,
fellow refugees ourselves, stood under
the elm tree, in Pol Pot’s shadow.
Coming to Terms
After sleepless nights of re-reading student papers,
you’ve come to terms with assigning the final grades,
knowing full well that what you have is a glimpse,
a surface reading of a moment in someone’s life,
someone you met three hours per week, a little over
two months; you also know that the students whose grades
you’ve agonized over are home with their families,
or traveling to some tiny island in the South Pacific
or that ancient land where Moses led his people
across the Red Sea, places that you only read about,
and what they want is the final product, that letter grade,
not the process. That morning, you stumble onto campus,
eyes squinting, but for the first time in a long time, you hear
the birds chirping, a spring song of love and kindness,
and you’re feeling deep-deep joy, the old blood returning
when suddenly, a question from a corner of the office,
“Can I help you?” and before you have time, an answer
from the questioner, “If you are unhappy with your grade,
please send your complaint directly to your professor.”
The old joy leaving, you are tired and dried,
as you explain in your now heavily-accented English
that you’re simply here to submit grades.
You are thirty five, black hair, face round
like the moon; you are still mistaken for a student.
You wonder what students think when you,
unmistakably Asian, perpetually foreign,
economically uncertain, set foot in their English
classes. You know how you are feeling.
We were talking about survival
when my uncle told me this.
“When you were young,
we had nothing to eat.
Your grandmother saved for you
the thickest part of her rice gruel.
Tasting that cloudy mixture of salt,
water, and grain, you cried out,
This is better than beef curry."
All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.
Previously published in Numero Cinq
Bunkong Tuon teaches literature and writing at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, The New York Quarterly, Numéro Cinq, The Journal of War, Literature, and the Arts, among other publications. Gruel, his first full-length collection of poems, will be published by NYQ Books in late 2014. “Coming to Terms” is forthcoming in the anthology, How Higher Education Feels: Poetry that Illuminates the Experiences of Learning, Teaching and Transformation.