“My Mother on Her Deathbed” by Bunkong Tuon

 

This is the sixth in a series of poems from a forthcoming poetry collection about raising a biracial daughter in Contemporary America, during this polarizing time of political and cultural upheavals where sexual harassment allegations abound, where a wall, literal and figurative, threatens to keep out immigrants like the narrator, a former refugee and child survivor of the Cambodian Genocide.

 

My Mother on Her Deathbed

Withered away in pus,
knowing that she’d leave
me, her only child.
My uncle’s body crouched in
fetal position on the red
dirt of the refugee camp,
heavy boots of Thai soldiers
thundering on his head,
back and stomach.  
Grandmother weeps
at night
for all her children,
alive and dead,
for her orphaned grandson,
for all parents haunted
by helplessness.
In America
I was the new kid,
a reminder of a war
that tore families apart.  
Saliva clung
to my tear-stained cheeks
and stuck to my hair.
Stephanie  
my first crush said,
“It’s nothing personal.”
But these memories
are wiped clean.
All is forgiven.
A flower blooms
in the desert
when my daughter
hugs me.

 

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

 

More By Bunkong Tuon:

Ice Cream

Gender Danger

The Bite

Tightrope Dancer

Women’s March in Albany

 

Image Credit: Charles Aubry “Still Life Arrangement” (1864) Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

“Tightrope Dancer” By Bunkong Tuon

 

This is the fourth in a series of poems from a forthcoming poetry collection about raising a biracial daughter in Contemporary America, during this polarizing time of political and cultural upheavals where sexual harassment allegations abound, where a wall, literal and figurative, threatens to keep out immigrants like the narrator, a former refugee and child survivor of the Cambodian Genocide.

 

Tightrope Dancer

You climb the five-rung ladder
at the children’s playground.

Your mother crouches
below, holding breath.

I stand behind
counting the plastic rungs.

You kick us away,
“I’m a big girl.”

Your mother prepares
to catch your fall.

Each day we hold our breath,
cover our mouths with our hands,

close our eyes, and pray.
Of course, we want you to reach

The top, but not too fast.
And not too far from us.

 

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

 

More By Bunkong Tuon:

Ice Cream

Gender Danger

The Bite

 

Image Credit: Alice S. Kandell “A young girl swinging on a handcrafted swing, Sikkim” (1969) The Library of Congress

Gender Danger by Bunkong Tuon

 

This is the second in a series of poems from a forthcoming poetry collection about raising a biracial daughter in Contemporary America, during this polarizing time of political and cultural upheavals where sexual harassment allegations abound, where a wall, literal and figurative, threatens to keep out immigrants like the narrator, a former refugee and child survivor of the Cambodian Genocide.

 

Gender Danger

Chanda goes down
the slide, then climbs
back on it, and laughs
when I shake my head,
“No, not that way.”
She flies on the zip-line,
yells, “Look at me, Daddy.”
Inside a giant plastic globe
she screeches as I spin
her world. Then she says,
“Potty, Daddy, Potty.”
We cross the lawn,
go through a corridor,
and find ourselves in
front of the bathroom.
I move us towards
the men’s room
but Chanda yanks me
to the women’s room.
She is aware of gender
but is not ready to use
the restroom on her own.
“Daddy can’t go in there,”
I explain. She cries, “No
boysroom. No boys!”
A woman walks by.
I want to ask for help
but reason prevails.
So I pull Chanda
into the men’s room.
She’s on the toilet,
tears streaming
down her face.
Someone comes in
right after us, whistling.
Chanda looks at me,
eyes squinting, screeches.
I hold one of her hands,
pat her shuddering
shoulders, and repeat,
“It’s okay, Honey.
Daddy’s right here.”

 

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

 

More poetry by Bunkong Tuon:

Ice Cream
Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA
Snow Day
An Elegy for a Fellow Cambodian
Halloween, 1985
Dancing Fu Manchu Master
Fishing for Trey Platoo
Lies I Told About Father

 

Image Credit: “Young girl taking a Kodak picture of her doll” (1917) Library of Congress

“Ice Cream” By Bunkong Tuon

 

This is the first in a series of poems from a forthcoming poetry collection about raising a biracial daughter in Contemporary America, during this polarizing time of political and cultural upheavals where sexual harassment allegations abound, where a wall, literal and figurative, threatens to keep out immigrants like the narrator, a former refugee and child survivor of the Cambodian Genocide.

 

Ice Cream

I take Chanda
to the local mall,
where she flies
in the bounce house
with other kids,
screaming and laughing.
She climbs up
the slide and rolls
down the cushy steps.
She pirouettes
on the piano floor.
Then I take her
to the ice cream place
where we share
a cup of vanilla.
I watch her quietly
shove a spoonful
into her waiting mouth,
tasting the sweetness
on her pink tongue.
Memories of my father
flood, how he lost his wife.
When the Khmer Rouge regime
fell, Grandma was preparing to
take me with her to Thailand.
My father took me out
for ice cream one day.
He was telling me
something important.
That he would follow
Grandma and bring me home.
That he would wait
for me.
That he would always . . .
But I couldn’t hear a word
he said once the ice cream
flooded my tongue with
such sweetness.

 

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

 

More poetry by Bunkong Tuon:

Fragments
Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA
Snow Day
An Elegy for a Fellow Cambodian
Halloween, 1985
Dancing Fu Manchu Master
Fishing for Trey Platoo
Lies I Told About Father

 

Image Credit: “Miss Lisa’s ice cream sign, old Rt. 31, Perrysburg, Michigan” By John Margolies, The Library of Congress

Under the Tamarind Tree

Francisco Manuel Blanco: “Tamarindus Indica”

.

Under the Tamarind Tree

By Bunkong Tuon

.

Editor’s Note: This past week, the nation witnessed devastating images from detention centers and heard hateful rhetoric spewed about immigration. Now, more than ever, it is important to humanize immigration and emphasize empathy. It is in this spirit that we are proud to present the final post in a series of poems about the immigrant experience in America.

Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, featured Bunkong Tuon’s work on As It Ought To Be back in January of 2017. Okla was particularly concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric heating up in the country and he hoped to showcase the voices of immigrants on our site. In honor of Okla’s memory, Tuon has allowed us to feature more of his poetry about his experience as an immigrant from Cambodia in the United States. All of the poems from this series can be found linked at the end of this article.

.

Under the Tamarind Tree

The child sits on the lap
of his aunt, under the old tamarind tree
outside the family home.

The tree stands still, quiet,
indifferent. The house sways
on stilts.

Monks in saffron robes,
and nuns with shaved heads,
lips darkened with betel-nut stain,

sit chanting prayers
for the child’s mother.

Incense perfumes the hot dry air.

There emerges a strange familiar song
between the child and his aunt that day—
a distant one, melodic but harsh,
as if the strings are drawn too tight—

Each time the child hears prayers
coming from the house, he cries;
each time he cries, the aunt, a girl herself,
pinches the boy’s thigh.

.

Previous poems from Bunkong Tuon’s series on the immigrant experience in America:

Fragments

Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA

Snow Day

An Elegy for a Fellow Cambodian

Halloween, 1985

Dancing Fu Manchu Master

Fishing for Trey Platoo

Lies I Told About Father

 

.

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

“Lies I Told about Father” By Bunkong Tuon

From a Russian Anti-Alcohol Poster

.

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in a series of poems about the immigrant experience in America. Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, featured Bunkong Tuon’s work on As It Ought To Be back in January of 2017. Okla was particularly concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric heating up in America and he hoped to showcase the voices of immigrants on our site. In honor of Okla’s memory, Tuon has allowed us to feature more of his poetry about his experience as an immigrant from Cambodia in the United States.

.

Lies I Told about Father

I believed I had the power to revive you,
to sit you up in the family’s pigsty,
drunk off your ass, smiling at nothingness,
the late morning light shining on your face.
With a son’s quiet adoration, I chiseled you:
a gangster from the East, a Khmer Krom
whose blood cried out Khmer characters (not Vietnamese),
who, guided by fate, found himself in the West
and married mother for her virtue and beauty.

In these poems you drink because, well, real men
drink, curse, and sleep around (the cursing
and sleeping around, you didn’t do, of course,
because of your love and respect for Mother).
I was an aspiring writer then,
renting a tiny studio on Ocean Boulevard
in Long Beach, following in the drunken
bouts of Charles Bukowski, buying cheap wine,
imitating free verse,
waking up to the stench of sour vomit.
Of course, this life did not last long.
I can’t hold liquor, let alone women.
I have always been a reader,
safe behind words, punctuation, and sentences,
between the pages, where I can conquer
an entire nation or seduce women with my long dash—.

Now, I am engaged to a kind, generous person.
Mother would approve of her.
I am returning to you once again,
not for approval, just to talk,
son to father, but it dawns on me:
I am without you.

.

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.

 

More By Bunkong Tuon

Under the Tamarind Tree

Fishing for Trey Platoo

Dancing Fu Manchu Dancer

Our Neighborhood in Revere, MA

Fishing for Trey Platoo

“Still Life with Mackerel, Lemon and Tomato” By Vincent Van Gogh (1886)

Fishing for Trey Platoo

By Bunkong Tuon

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a series of poems about the immigrant experience in America. Our late Managing Editor, Okla Elliott, featured Bunkong Tuon’s work on As It Ought To Be back in January of 2017. Okla was particularly concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric heating up in America and he hoped to showcase the voices of immigrants on our site. In honor of Okla’s memory, Tuon has allowed us to feature more of his poetry about his experience as an immigrant from Cambodia in the United States.

.

Fishing for Trey Platoo 

You might have seen them 
fishing on the shores of the Cape Cod Canal: 

My uncle in his fisherman’s hat 
pulling in a one-foot scup, my aunt in her pajama-like 

pants walking backward up the bike path, 
snapping a line that’s got stuck between the rocks, 

my other aunt reeling in a sea bass 
her husband by her side directing. 

Bikers, joggers, teenagers and their dates, 
families with their children look curiously on. 

Or maybe you have seen them
lining up all three sides of a pier in Salem, 

their wrists jerking in a language 
that bewitches the squids below. 

They are not the only ones.
Other Cambodians and Vietnamese, once enemies, 

fish side by side on the same American pier. 
Other immigrants, Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese 

speaking languages that I can’t understand, come together 
on this spot: sacred rods in hands, beckoning the squid. 

Or maybe you have seen them
under a bridge fishing the Providence River, 

looking for trey platoo, a type of mackerel
like they used to eat in the refugee camps in Thailand. 

Sometimes, my aunts and uncles run into an old friend 
from those long ago days. They talk about the lack 

of food, of sneaking out at night to fish, and of running, 
always running, from the Thai police. 

They exchange phone numbers, share fishing secrets,
and set up a time and place where they’ll fish together again. 

When they get home, my aunts gut the fish,
clean them, fry them, and put them in boiling stew 

of galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves.
My uncles and aunts sit in a circle on the floor, 

eat, and tell stories of how this fish got away
or how one of them got caught by the Thai police. 

No matter how hard they try, they can never understand 
why my cousin and I ever bother with fishing— 

Why we catch and release food, as if it’s some sport.

.

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is the author of Gruel (2015) and And So I Was Blessed (2017), both poetry collections published by NYQ Books, and a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly  He is also an associate professor of English and Asian Studies at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.