Poetry by Carol Dine

Koan Samnang/Lucky Child
- Loung Ung, Cambodia,US

1997. Pa had a round face and warm eyes. I think of him
as King Moonlight, the Buddah in another lifetime,
so generous that he gave away his own head. The last
time I saw Pa, the day the soldiers came for him, I was seven.
He held me, kissed my forehead. I watched them blindfold
him, tie his hands behind his back. The sunset over Ro Leap
village, an angry dragon in red and gold.

Ma wailed tears that streamed over the ground. I felt my spirit leave my body;
it flew around looking for him. He was nowhere, inside me was total darkness.

Three months went by in the Ro Leap village. One morning I stood
in front of Ma, her hands red, swollen from untangling
fishing nets to gather shrimp for the soldiers. “Pa’s not
coming back,” she said, then lowered her voice. “You see
those soldiers on patrol? If we stay together we will die
together.” She rolled my food bowl and an old shirt in a
scarf, tied it around my back.

My bare feet blistered trekking for miles on the red dirt trail.
The low, sweltering sky dragged along the naked branches.
My food bowl empty, I had to eat roots and beetles.

The supervisor loomed at the work camp entrance. “Comrade
elder sister, I am Sarene,” I said, bowing my head. “I’m eight years old.”
She led me through the forest to a roaring campfire. Groups of boys
and girls sat in a circle, the flames glowing over their black pajamas.
They clapped in rhythm over and over, chanting, “Pol Pot is our savior.”
I joined them, mouthing the words. I’d never praise Pol Pot. He killed Pa,
and he’d never save me.

In the morning planting rice, I squatted in the muddy water
of the rice paddy. Fat black leeches sucked at my ankles,
my toes. “You get used to them,” said the girl beside me.

***

October, 1978. I was transferred with the older girls to a training camp.
Two days went by when Comrade Met Bong called my name.
She picked up a rifle, slipped the strap around my shoulder.
“Anyone can learn to use it,” she grinned.

In my dreams, a Khmer soldier is running after me. I stop,
raise my machete, hack his body to pieces.

December, 1978. On Christmas day, we cheer the Vietnamese
army that joins with the resistance fighters to defeat the Khmer Rouge.
The celebration, short lived. The Vietnamese occupy our country. One evil
replaces another.

1979. They called me ‘koan samnang,’ lucky child who left Cambodia
with Eldest Brother, Meng and Eldest Sister-in-Law.
Chosen by my family, the youngest, they thought I’d have the best
chance for a better life in the US. On the wooden fishing boat that rocked
the currents like a coffin, I didn’t feel lucky. I could see my ribs. I missed
Chou, my older sister, the spring rainfall in our village, the yellow rice
stalks in the field shimmering like gold.

***

June, 1980. At night, with the others in the Thai refugee camp,
we sit in an open field watching pictures flash on a makeshift screen: tall green
marble buildings with walls of glass, people bustling through
the huge streets, men and women stepping out of open cars,
music blaring.
“California,” Meng says.
“Is that where we’re going?” I pant.
“No. Our sponsors are sending us to a state called Vermont,” he says,
“probably similar to California.”

***

1992. St. Michael’s College, Burlington, VT.

“Lulu, tell me what happened to you,” my friend Cassie
asks again and again, over pizza, over coffee in our dorm.
“It’s all in the past,” I answer. I catch a glimpse in the mirror;
my hair’s curled, cut short, my eyes rounded with dark makeup
to look more Western.

Mark’s long arm reaches across the couch for me. Light headed, I move away.
I’m light-headed.
his face blurs. My body feels misty, suspended. Out of focus,
in cones of shadow, I see the Vietnamese soldier. He rips off his pants,
covers my mouth with his hand. I hear myself scream. The terrifying
sound echoes, I run into Mark’s bathroom, lock the door, cower
beside the sink. I tell him in the morning, “You need to find an
unbroken girl.”

1994. After graduation, I return to Cambodia after fifteen years away.  
Twenty members of my family wave at the arrival gate in Phnom Penh.
“You look like a Khmer soldier,” a cousin says, pointing at my dark shirt and
travel pants. Chou, older sister, holds me in her arms, weeping.

She and I walk the city streets, past tall buildings, cinemas, shopping malls.
My dark glasses cannot shield me from the children digging through
mounds of garbage, the elderly homeless sleeping in alleys,
amputees, hats in their hands, begging. Chou confirms what she’d written
in letters – our middle sister died of food poisoning in a labor camp.
Ma and the baby, taken away by the soldiers. Dizzy, I grab her and
hold on.

Before I leave Cambodia, I go to the temple in Phnom Penh.
The monk hands me lit sticks of incense. In front of the golden
Buddha, I pray to my parents’ spirits. Imagine a flock of white
pigeons carrying their souls into heaven, finally together.
Then I walk to the Mekong River, a spot where my parents
most likely stood, their arms entwined. Suddenly replaying Mark’s
soothing voice that paused my nightmares, I imagine his body,
tall, lanky, his tousled blonde hair. I picture two wedding
dresses: a sarong embroidered with sequins and golden beads;
a short dress of white polished cotton, around my neck, a gift
from my sister, a glistening strand of pearls.

This work is inspired by Loung Un’s memoirs: First They Killed My Father, Harper, 2000; and Lulu in the Sky, Harper, 2012. 

Carol Dine has published three books of poetry and a memoir, Places in the Bone (Rutgers University Press, 2005) which discusses, in prose and poetry, her bouts with breast cancer, and the redemptive power of art. Her manuscript, Resistance, is written in the voices of global women who have experienced war, terror, or abuse. For this work, Carol received a grant from the Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. She teaches writing at MassArt & Design, Boston.

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