On April 17, 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea—also known as the Khmer Rouge—took control of Cambodia. The regime not only stripped Cambodians of their basic human rights but also tortured, raped, and killed millions until its fall in 1979. For this week’s Poetry Tuesday, Monica Sok pays tribute to this painful history by looking at it straight in the face, lending her voice to those who suffered or passed, and exploring her role as a writer and a scion of trauma.
Today I can’t look at the ocean.
A skull’s in the wet sand,
bleach white & freshly chiseled.
It’s looking at my face.
This morning after rain I walk alone
on this beach, nameless now.
I hear not even the calm,
blue sky. I lift the shape
gently as a conch, mouthing to myself,
What did our father say
to us about holding skulls?
Respectfully, Goan Srey.
If I press my palms against its temples,
return it to the rubble,
I’m thinking of you, Bang.
Its missing gaze rotates
toward the water, a maze in sand,
some labyrinth I know
from our childhood days,
when I hear father’s voice—
Go on, Goan Srey, go on. Don’t be afraid.
The high cheek bones will smile
to you your own smile.
Don’t look away.
throw off your mosquito net
and tell me the time.
Tell me the day.
Ask my face for news of my heart.
Wolf spiders break through clouds.
Fire ants dig below the lava strip.
Bullets run in the rubber tree forest.
Bending, they paint the grass
an orange-yellow sap.
throw off your mosquito net!
Tell me the time!
Tell me the day!
My brother’s hands are pinned to rock
so he becomes a mountain.
In the mass graves across the lake
broken teeth protest
below a hundred moths, fluttering.
And the krasang holds my sister’s leaves,
so I caress the krasang
to touch her cheek.
I will float down the stream
until it ends.
Until it ends, the mines avoid me.
Tell me time is a strangling fog.
Tell me the day is an elk drinking carefully
from the crocodile’s river.
But you are safe inside your mosquito net.
Inside your mosquito net,
you are safe.
throw it off then! Throw it!
It doesn’t matter what covers you when the sky sleeps.
In the light you are a dangerous place.
No matter the time, no matter the day,
I live in the hole
of your mosquito net.
MY SON KASAUL
Late at night, before the factory
a sprig of jasmine
on the dresser looking at itself in the mirror.
Kasaul, is it your birthday tomorrow?
The window in the mirror! My son in the window,
your toothless laugh was round.
Why did I ever carry you in my krama?
In the camp a woman offered her breasts,
she wanted to keep you her own.
You lay in a hammock between palm trees.
When I blame my dry breasts,
I see you rock by yourself.
In the mirror, I comb my hair,
rub perfumed lotion on my hands.
Kasaul, I make myself drink a glass of milk
to make you strong again.
You are the jasmine. I am the window.
The jasmine in the window. Sweet. Full.