“Crouch low, stay hidden, because you’ve been eating stolen rice”

The latest part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry – this month: Cambodia

Nathan A. Thompson
January 12, 2015
“Crouch low, stay hidden, because you’ve been eating stolen rice”

The latest part of a Southeast Asia Globe series that shines a light on the region’s finest poetry – this month: Cambodia

Compiled by Nathan A. Thompson  Illustration by Natalie Phillips

Orphaned by the Khmer Rouge, Peauladd Huy fled her native Cambodia for the US in 1980. “Rice Field” describes that dark time. It is about a child hiding because they’ve “been eating stolen rice”. The use of the second person throughout the poem drags the reader into the horror, and using violent verbs alongside pastoral descriptions creates tension in the first half of the piece. Nature is “churning”, “erupting” and “tearing”. This jarring effect causes descriptions of “whispering” grass to become tinged with paranoia. The second half of the poem manifests this fear. The final two stanzas can be divided between organic descriptions of bodies “like wriggling eels” and the “cracked” bones that feature in the last stanza. By the end, it dawns on us that the field is full of bodies, fresh and dry – a realisation that is driven home by the triple repetition of “hooves” that are “shattering a brain”.

Illustration: Natalie Phillips
Illustration: Natalie Phillips

Leaving behind the shadows of the Khmer Rouge, our second poem presents the light and beauty of Cambodia. First published by the Nou Hach Literary Journal, “P’chum Bun” is inspired by Japanese Zuihitsu poetry – a contemplative form of literature in which the poet creates a collage of images and sounds around a theme. In Cambodia, P’chum Bun is ‘ancestor’s day’, which marks the end of Buddhist Lent. In this poem the narrator is walking to the pagoda, presumably to attend this religious festival. There seems to be little difference between the characters of the poem and their environment – the morning is “fresh with the sound of my family”. This synesthetic description appears to locate the narrator’s family within the sensation of freshness, but is she referring to her temporal family or her ancestors? The synesthesia continues, occurring in the phrase “smooth with nature”. For the narrator, nature is not something abstract, but a source of “wisdom everywhere”. 


“Rice Field” 

by Peauladd Huy

If you made yourself disappear

deep in the green rice field, it’s not hard to imagine

you can hear the grain churning

milky sap into each solid seed,

the grassy blades whispering, giving in to the winds

and weights of the dragonflies, bending


farther from the sun.  Hidden from eyesight,

on the dirt division between the rice fields, sunning frogs

belly-plop into the water, erupting

like raindrops tearing up the face of the pond.

The snails uncap their suction-

cupped mouths, letting go

as ankle-deep water rushes up,


ripple after ripple.  You tell yourself to hold still.

Crouch low, stay hidden

because you’ve been eating stolen rice.


Bodies fall

in a sudden tackle, wrapped up like wriggling eels

tearing through mud.  Slip, slap, up the muddy water; limbs writhing,

pinned down.  Three against one

holding one helpless

child too shaken to come out.  Too stunned,

too mesmerised by the struggle.


Afterward, your ears drum

the beating like a herd of hooves

stampeding out a snake.  Crack,

crack, crunch, crunch like brittle twigs,

like hooves on bones,

like hooves shattering a brain, then you know

you’ll never see a rice field without feeling fragile

bone cracked lifeless

somewhere amid the emerald vastness.


“P’chum Bun”

by Soam Davine

On the way to the pagoda I saw broken roads, old cows, and farmers.

The morning was green, black, blue – my heart was here and there.

I remember the view and the bright sun shining in the countryside.

My mother used to tell me – step by step – 

I was hot and thirsty under in the sun, yet fresh with the voice of laughing,

fresh with the sound of my family and birds.

The rock mountain and trees said hello to me.

I touched a leaf, smooth with moisture, smooth with nature.

I put my toes put into the cold waterfall—    wonderful from the high mountain.

On the road back, smiling faces with all my family members, I saw a lot of sellers along the road

in the night time.

—Wisdom everywhere for who wants to gain it from the nature around you.


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