London Grip Poetry Review – Bunkong Tuon



Poetry review – WHAT IS LEFT: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a harrowing chapbook by Bunkong Tuon

What Is Left
Bunkong Tuon 
Jacar Press, 2024
ISBN: 978-0-936481-56-2
30 pages    $14.00

             What is left after war is the gratitude for what is left.
             My dreams are filled with ghosts looking for home.
             The dead speak to the living through my poetry.
             Each time I write, I rebuild. Retrieve what was stolen.

Thus begins the title poem of Bunkong Tuon’s stunning chapbook. What Is Left is the eloquent reflections of a child survivor of the most horrific inhumanity a person can experience.

“The Carrying” begins: ‘I am what is left after the war that orphaned a generation.’ The poem goes on to describe the burdens of history we all carry, some heavier than others. The sorrows, the memories of parents and aunts and uncles, all uprooted, fleeing, refugees. There’s also the hope they carry, understanding that ‘a life was still a life.’

Poems about survival under the grimmest conditions during the time of the Killing Fields at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are at the heart of the collection. “Gruel” tells of the self-sacrifice of the poet’s grandmother. ‘All my life I told myself I never knew / suffering under the regime, only love,’ Bunkong Tuon writes, remembering his grandmother’s attentiveness, saving the thickest part of her meager gruel for him, and in “Debt,” he writes about his father defying the Khmer Rouge, his stealing a bunch of coconuts to nourish him with each time he, the child, cried out in hunger.

Bunkong Tuon tells us in “The Mercy of Memory” that he was four or five when Khmer Rouge took over Kampuchea; and while a cousin recounts the horrific cruelty he witnessed first-hand, a memory that sears to this day, the poet’s memory is essentially the love of those who protected him, like his grandmother carrying him on her back. ‘This is the mercy of memory,’ he considers, the memory of the love his grandmother had for him.

No less is he saved by poetry, as he writes in “The Rescue.” The protagonist loses himself (finds himself) in the library, in poetry books, away from the bullies that pursue him.

            Pages flap. His entire life flies out.
            He stops at a poem that speaks

             of his wounds, and weeps.

In “On the Anniversary of My Fake Birthday,” the poet remembers his family of refugees scrambling to feed themselves. Birthday celebrations are ludicrous under these circumstances, of course. ‘Your birthday was invented to fit the refugee story.’

But years later, now living a stable life in the United States, the poet indulges his five-year-old daughter by celebrating his birthday with a cake and candles (My Little Pony candles). ‘All you ever want on this day / is to see her radiate.’ And he prays she will not ask to see her grandparents, ‘whom she believes are still alive in Cambodia.’

Several poems show us the relatives decades later, re-settled in New England. In “Fishing for Trey Platoo” they are on Cape Cod, fishing on the shore, along with Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants and others, casting for sea bass and remembering the camp in Thailand, the hunger, surreptitiously sneaking away to fish for more nourishment, how they were always running from the Thai police.

But for all the horror, it is almost a duty to persevere, to prevail. Bunkong Tuon expresses this so eloquently in “How to Defeat Pol Pot”, which begins:

             Call your children by their true names.
             Love. Divine. Angels. My heart.
             Be gentle with them.
             Speak the truth:
             They were born out of love.
             These divine creatures.
             Tell them the Angkor Empire stood 
             for six hundred years.
             America is half that age.

What Is Left ends triumphantly with “Letter to My Unborn Son” whose hopeful message of the continuity of life sums up all the hardship and hope that comes before in this riveting collection. The poet essentially tells his son of the great love that awaits him, from his mother and sister. ‘And I can tell you about beauty,’ he promises.

Bunkong Tuon lives in Schenectady, New York, with his wife and two children. He teaches at Union College there and he is the poetry editor at Cultural Daily. What Is Left includes an insightful introduction by the poet David Rigsbee.