My Poetry Corner April 2021 features the poem “Cruel Radiance” from the debut poetry collection A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press, 2020) by Cambodian American poet Monica Sok. Born in 1990 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sok is the daughter of refugees. She is a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University and teaches poetry to Southeast Asian youth at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland, California.
Sok dedicates her poetry collection to her grandmother Bun Em who arrived in the USA in 1981, two years after escaping genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime with her four daughters and two sons. A master silk weaver, Bun Em’s loom, grief, joy, and perseverance infuse Sok’s real and imagined collective memory.
In “The Weaver,” Sok transforms her grandmother’s grief into nourishment for others around her. It made her happy / as she worked on silk dresses / and her hair never ran out. / Sometimes, when she was tired, / she’d tie it up / and let all the tired animals around her house / drink from her head. Her loom becomes an old friend and an ancestor she prays to in the poem “Ode to the Loom.” Her grief is re-imagined as nails falling like rain in the darkness, so that when her hair falls / not as rain does / but as nails the evening hangs on, / and her hands slip no longer / from silk but on walls in the dark / hall to her room…
As the daughter of genocide survivors, Sok grew up with familial silence. Her poems came out of silence, she told Danny Thanh Nguyen during an interview in May 2020. “I’m writing about the genocide, but I’m writing more about the inheritance of that trauma…. I had to give myself the permission to write the stories and I went into myth-making, tried to mythologize my family’s narratives.” But the narratives are not just about her family’s experience, she noted. Rather, she was working towards a collective history of all Cambodian families.
“The Woman Who Was Small, Not Because the World Expanded” describes some of her mother’s childhood memories of a village doused in fires, / so that in the pond / fish has fried, / and looking at that dead water / was a woman… There is so much tenderness in Sok’s retelling of this woman who had shrunk / so small / when the planes came, / nobody could ever find her.
As she often does throughout her narratives, Sok takes us through time and place to the present where her generation must take care of the older generation whose trauma has become invisible to the world around them. To survive, the woman had stayed as small as a spoon. Folding the woman inside a banana leaf, the persona picks her up. She slept. She slept well— / she who is my mother / sleeping off the world again, / whose person / I hold in my hand / when she wants to be held.
In the featured poem “Cruel Radiance,” the poet calls attention to her invisible trauma as a second-generation Cambodian American struggling to cope with her family’s dark history and how it has shaped her life. The poet is on the subway in New York City reading the book The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield (USA, 2010) when a girl faints and falls near her feet. The italicized lines are either quotes from Linfield’s book or Sok’s way of welding the past and present into one narrative. The poem is one continual narrative divided into ten verses of three lines each.
I take the R from 86th St to teach poetry in Manhattan. My hands sweat on Cruel Radiance. The front cover: photograph of a girl the Khmer Rouge executed, one of many children presumed counterrevolutionary enemies, as the soiled descendants of such. My chest heaves. To everyone on the train I do not say, All the sobbing inside of me, all of it you know now! But you don’t know what I am called! Aneakajun—traitor of my roots.
The girl on the front cover could’ve been her or her mother. Did their survival make them complicit with the executioners? In believing that she’s a traitor to her roots, the poet seems to consider the possibility. Though she did not share their hell, she has inherited their trauma.
Instead, I catch the N across the platform, continue reading about S-21. We were not inside those prisons: they were. Our hells almost certainly are not theirs. A white girl with a streak of blue hair falls flat on her back. Her head a bowling ball close to my foot. Her head a bowling ball that rolls on the floor. I look up from reading cozy existential atmosphere (Adorno’s words)
The girl who falls at Sok’s feet triggers reconstructed flashbacks of heads rolling in the Khmer Rouge killing fields. The violent image is unsettling. When the train comes to her stop on 8th Street, other passengers have already helped the girl to sit up. The girl is okay. The poet is not okay. She sees how the distinction between / victim and executioner becomes blurred (quote from Lindfield’s book?). She considers cancelling her poetry class. She wants to cry: My head could be a bowling ball too. / I could fall over from this too.
Unlike the girl who faints on the train, Sok’s pain of dealing with a dark history is not visible to everyone in the car. During her interview with Louis Elliot for Literary Hub in April 2020, she said: “I don’t think the poem suggests the speaker’s own execution but her own traumas as a person of color. I ask my readers to look at this experience of being seen v. not being seen. As for the question about the relationship between victim and executioner, I’m really thinking about who has power and who doesn’t. Who is witnessed? Who is overlooked?”
As violence escalates against Asian Americans across America during the pandemic, I also question the relationship between victim and executioner. In our powerlessness to return to our normal lives, victims have become executioners.
To read the complete featured poem, “Cruel Radiance,” and learn more about the work of the Cambodian American poet Monica Sok, go to my Poetry Corner April 2021.
- S-21, a former high school, was the notorious Khmer Rouge execution center from 1975 to 1979. Today, it is the location of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
- Theodor W Adorno, German philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist was the co-author of The Authoritarian Personality (1950).