Four Poems by Sokunthary Svay

Jungle Crossing, 1980


The fields are rife with landmines.
Legs and arms rain down like Nixon’s bombs
on the Cambodia-Vietnam border
bruising the ground with craters.
This is how they raped the land.

Our ancient enemy, the Vietnamese,
extend soldiers and appendages across our border
once more. In their exodus
gaunt Cambodians meet pirates
who strip their dignity for gold
as Thai refugee camps bed them
beside dirty soldiers and 1st world promises.

I recall the Phnom Penh of our teens
bursting like succulent juice
from pomelos ripped from their peels
spraying the boardwalk.

Remember the monsoons
when floods meant ponds      for children
good crops meant families ate         year-round
when life and living still mattered.

Music plays from an unknown distance.
Survivors gather to resume
a dance unfinished
unfurling their fingers
in gestures
once described
as lotus blossoming.




Dear Grandmother,


We peaked at Angkor Wat,
saw the red sandstone of Bantei Srei,
the citadel of women.
The ornate arches curved
into thighs and hips of women:
homage to the devata,
a fortress of deities.

My last day in Phnom Penh
you made eggs; my beloved staple
tastes impossibly delicious
beside somlau machou,
this country’s chicken soup,
and I let myself
feel for you, miss you.

Baguettes are sold by men on cyclos
in baskets strapped to their backs.
I imagine bread dough
beaten as it rises.
I try not to need you.
I want to push it down.

The lines on your skin map
my lineage like a family recipe.

It’s easier not to see your face.
To know you is to feel you,
to love and lose you
when you leave me.




When Motherhood is Suffering 


Mother. Mommy. Ma. Mai. Mak. Aba. Ima. Maman.

Start by saying her name. Call it. Cry it. Who else hears her cry? Husband gambled the rent, cheated with his family’s help. Her money goes to people who don’t respect her. The hotel guests silence her with tips or stinginess. Dirty rooms, like pigs, like savages. Bathrooms. The quiet shame of an older woman having an accident on the bed she soothes her, hushes her, tells her “Don’t worry, Mama. I clean up.” The grateful eyes that follow her movements.

Mom is tired.

“Mother, I’m cold,” said Sothea, when he died in her arms at the age of 3. I think about him everyday. Trivialities that take up space to cover silence of pain. Opinion. Disappointment. Regret. She hides behind the façade of happiness. Who is she? Remember. Dismember.






I’m watching for your cues
to know
who is older
who is younger
more ancient
whose legs
I can’t cross over
whose head
I must bow lower
when I walk past
who deserves more respect
who is a sister
who is an aunt
wearing titles that hold
entire relationships
that determine
worlds of dynamics
shift rooms and expectations
how much to widen the circle
how robust.

I’m waiting,
for you to tell me
if this woman
is your elder or junior
if I should see her
as my sister.

I’m watching as you respond
to different titles
from others.
But you are my mother.

So Mak,
tell me how to connect.

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