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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
“An atmosphere for miracles” – Deep in a quiet Phnom Penh neighbourhood, a charismatic pastor leads boisterous Sunday services known for their lively music and vigorous dancing – and claims of miracle cures