by U Sam Oeur
This is a pretty hard read so far, given its subject matter of surviving the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. My basis for comparison is Sarith Peou’s Corpse Watching (Tinfish Press), and his unabashed depictions of horror from beginning to end with little to no reprieve. In U Sam Oeur, this horror just kind of sneaks up on you and then you are fully in it.
I have just finished the poem about the birth of the poetic speaker’s twins, the violation of his wife while while giving birth, the murder of his newborn twins. He begins it relatively gently; there is his helplessness as the poetic speaker, the father, is resigned to the fact that there is no one around to aid in the birth so that he must do it. Then, when the “two midwives” appear out of nowhere, we breathe a sigh of relief for him. Then we realize they are not midwives, and the acts they are committing upon the wife to hasten the birth are a violation, that is, one of the “midwives” reaches up and into her womb and rips the babies out. So this is where I currently am. Hard read.
This text is distinct from Peou as Oeur’s original poems are written in Khmer, and then translated as a collaborative effort between himself and his Iowa colleague Ken McCullough. As well (in terms of how this differs from Peou), bear in mind Oeur is a formally trained poet, i.e. MFA’ed in Iowa, which may likely account for his nuance. In the intro, McCullough discusses translating both rigorously faithful to the text, and then translating to capture the spirit of the poem/its meaning and message. He also discusses that Oeur writes in (or is inspired by) traditional Khmer poetic form, which is apparent in the original. So these two modes of translation I think yield maybe uneven results. I definitely get the sense with the opening poems, which seem to be steeped in Cambodian mythology, that something seems to be lacking in the English.
I am halfway through this and I hope to finish this very soon.
PS: I picked up this book after reading Mark Nowak’s post, “I Hear America Singing,” at the Poetry Foundation blog. I haven’t yet gotten to Oeur’s America poems, but am so interested in another thing McCullough writes in the intro, about Oeur translating Whitman into Khmer, opening that access of American poetry to another population of readers, and actively staking a claim on American poetry, as an Asian American refugee, immigrant, and worker. As I’ve commented on Nowak’s post, I wish more Asian American poets were interested in the activism of staking claims on American poetry, really asserting here-ness, rather than ignoring it is an issue, our claims to here. And I do believe this staking a claim to here through writing is a form of activism.