Poetry by Bunkong Tuon

Two Survivors Arguing

I don’t know what got us started on the subject.
I was sitting at the kitchen table eating
a bowl of chicken Ramen.  He was having trouble sleeping.
I began, “I lost my parents, an uncle, and a great uncle,
your father.”
I was four or so when Pot Pol covered Cambodia
with a red blanket.
He was nine.
I was too young to understand,
and he was at that age
where everything impressed on the psyche,
hibernated in the dark recesses of the mind
only to waken years later when he closes his eyes
and a light flickers and everything becomes clear as day.
“I might not remember, but I’m sure I was hungry too.
I’ve seen our refugee photos and we all look starved,
eyes sunken, cheeks hollowed, lips dry,
dust, pale and thick, settled on our bones,
as if we had just escaped the land of the dead.”
“You don’t know what it was like
to go to bed hungry each night
and not know if there was any food
the next day.”
I said, “I’m not saying you didn’t suffer.
We both tasted bitterness.  I went to school
where there was no other Asians but us. 
That messed with my mind. 
Having no parents didn’t help.
I felt estranged, an outsider. 
I hated life.  I wanted to kill myself.”
He became quiet, lost in thoughts again,
I got nervous. 
He said, “You know what death is?
It’s digging the ditches and seeing your neighbors
and friends walk by, hands tied behind their backs,
white eyes begging for help,
and then you heard the screaming.
You couldn’t go to sleep at night
because all you heard were crying, begging, pleading,
then there was silence, the kind that stilled your heart.
You kept worrying whether you would be next.”

 

Bunkong Tuon teaches literature and writing at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Quarterly, Ray’s Road Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, The Más Tequila Review, Nerve Cowboy, Toe Good Poetry, Misfit, among others. His first full-length collection, Gruel, was published by NYQ Books in 2015.