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Gruel: Poems by Bunkong Tuon
Gruel: Poems by Bunkong Tuon
When I teach rhetoric to my students at Medford High School, I often begin with the idea of ethos, the credibility and integrity of a speaker that is the most powerful component of persuasion. Before I read the poems of 36 year old Cambodian immigrant Bunkong Tuon, a quick perusal of his biography, which included time spent in refugee camps, and a timely escape from the imminent Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia, was enough to imbue his voice with that ethos. I expected the collection to be haunting and tense, but while the poems in Gruel have those moments, they are also full of wistful nostalgia, and gratitude. The poems testify to his love for his maternal grandmother, who literally carried him out Cambodia, his coming of age as a bullied immigrant, and his unlikely journey to his current blessed state: a gainfully employed English professor and published poet. While Cambodia is often on the poet’s mind, it is Massachusetts (Malden, Revere, Amherst), and also California, that serve as the backdrop and scenery for his evolution as a poet and a young man – the real story in Gruel.
Tuon, who spent his formative years in Malden, languishing and bullied in the public schools, became inspired to pursue a life of literature by the work of Charles Bukowski. He writes of reading Bukowski in a public library, just after he dropped out of community college, in “How Everything Changed”:
a book filled with social misfits
and outcasts, drunks and prostitutes,
barflies, cockroaches and vomit;
at that moment, I felt my first breath.
This is logical on many levels: Bukowski’s reputation as a no-nonsense, street-tough, and world-savvy poet is well-known. Sexually unselective, an alcoholic, a horse-bettor and back-alley fighter, Buk was one version of a man’s man. Poetically, he was both a confessional poet whose work was grounded in the mundane, but his fleet and succinct free verse is also a deceptively simple read. His book of poems Burning in Water / Drowning in Flames is excellent, by any standard.
In his letters, Bukowski admitted to using that persona as such, but it’s certainly his street-fighting man, at the bar open to close, working class poet that forms much of his appeal. Bukowski famously likened a good poem to a beershit. Not exactly Wordsworth’s formula of “emotional recollected in tranquility.” Writing about sex, drinking, poverty, and the life of an artist at odds with the world appealed to Tuon, perhaps as much for its lyrical and lexile simplicity (Tuon’s English was then a work-in-progress) as its romance of danger and poverty, both things Tuon knew well. However, although he shares Bukowski’s unflinching, self-deprecating honesty, lack of pretension, and simplicity of diction, Tuon is infinitely warmer and more sensitive.
In the collection’s opener “The House of Many Voices, ” he writes of a house that contains the memories of his old life in Cambodia, and whose “sad murmurs / underneath the floorboards” are essentially memories that he feels pursued by. He tells his wife to not look over her shoulder:
or you will be snagged
by a ghost of rice paddies and water
buffalo, its heavy black hair still wet
from the mist of yesteryear, or a ghost
of the missing son, whose memory lives
in the furtive glances of uncles and aunts,
in the grandmother who refuses death.
There are many ghosts here. Listen,
I was caught by one of these ghosts
the other day, and I am telling you this
passing it on to you, not in some spirit
of generosity, but so that I can be free.
He shares the sense that we bring our memories with us, continually getting “caught” by “these ghosts,” because, although they may slip “underneath the floorboard,” for a time – years even, they are still a part of our “house,” and never leave us. The home, built on the foundation of family, as the place from which emergent identity must leave but also return to and come to terms with, is a fitting metaphor for the poems that follow in Gruel, which detail his attempt to reconcile his memories of innocence and experience, and to accept his own identity as Cambodian-American.
As a refugee and an immigrant, he experienced 1980s style bullying. He was spat on, harassed daily, and one poem even details a kid who tried to burn him with a cigarette lighter. From trying to change his name from Bunkong to Sam to fit in, he “settled for invisibility / disappeared into the whiteness / became an absence.” While these experiences are poignant, and sadly, not unique, it’s Tuon’s detailed, and even-handed treatment of his subjects that make the poems vibrant and human.
He writes of his grandfather with admiration, forced by the Khmer “to take a wife or face the executioner’s blade,” but also honestly, in “Love,” where he notes, as he details a bout of his grandfather’s GI distress, and notes “thundering farts / pee soaked the sarong/…we were tired of him then.” It’s the willingness to not doctor the experience, to leave in the unsavory detail, and the honest reaction to it that gives it truth. When he writes about a young woman who “shared his brownness” and wears a Nirvana Nevermind T-Shirt, but who “cries out in Khmer” and refuses to pay for her meal when the restaurant is out of Perrier. The poem doesn’t devolve into generalized commentary or satire. Like Bukowski, he lets his people speak for themselves; the owner says “You know, they are worse / than the real customers.” He doesn’t filter it.
He writes of being humbled at a Thai restaurant, wanting to show the waitress he can handle the authentic spiciness because “he’s Asian” and then sweating and struggling through his beef massaman curry. Later, he is full of self-loathing, “having lost (his) Khmer tongue.” It’s self-deprecating, but without the paraded character tic of a Woody Allen.
The use of food as a cultural marker and dividing line are also seen in “Living in the Hyphen,” where the poet has been ”searching for a theory of an authentic, hyphenatic, diasporic…transglobal Asian identiy” and then eats a meal with his fifteen year old cousin:
He greeted me in his perfect Bostonian accent…
(he) eats his steak with a Khmer dipping sauce
made of prahouk, lime juice, lemongrass,
grilled peppers, garlic, and Thai chilies
the other, A1 Steak sauce
from the local Stop & Shop.
“Thearith, why do you have two sauces for your steak?”
“Well, when I get bored with one sauce, I go for the other.
It’s all good, bro.”
Elsewhere, he hooks up with a racist young woman who makes an afternoon exception for him, gets hit by golf balls while riding his bike (“Bad Day”), flips the golfers the bird, and nearly crashes his car after getting engrossed in Whitman. His autobiographical poems capture adolescent and post-adolescent awkwardness, his take on what he calls the “Cambodian American Dream,” and the gritty travails of growing up poor in Revere and Malden, to the doorstep of Union College, in Schenectady, NY, where he can’t believe his luck to be gainfully employed and teaching, but is still mistaken for a student (“Coming to Terms). Though he is aware of his blessings, in “The Pavilion Dream,” he awakens his wife with nightmares where he yells out “Oh no, I forget my Khmer.” So at each step, the ghosts still try to escape the floorboards.
As he tries to carve out his new identity as a poet and professor, his family has no understanding of either, e.g. “Literary Support”:
Uncle opened my bedroom door
Found me shirtless in my bed
With Bukowski’s Septuagenarian Stew
& slammed the door
As if he had just caught me masturbating.
In “Calling Home,” his cousin wants to know when he’ll be up for a job review; his uncle hopes his book will be “at least 200 pages long.” In “Dining in Chinatown” another cousin thinks that Bunkong’s Ph.D in English also means he has medical knowledge. In a telling conversation, when Tuon’s wife objects to him writing about their life together, he suggests she write her own version. She asks “don’t you have to be famous first?” He understands both perspectives, and loves people who are locked into each.
The book’s cover is adorned with a family photo, and the poems teem with the voices of his relatives, from his grandmother (whom he addresses as “grandmother-mother” because she raised him when his mother passed, to poems written to his four-year old niece. He attributes his ignorance of the terrors of his childhood to the protection of his grandmother, and rightly so. The collection’s title comes from the poem that details her sacrifice for him:
We were talking about survival
When my uncle told me this.
“When you were young , we had nothing to eat.
Your grandmother saved for you
the thickest part of her rice gruel.
Tasting that cloudy mixture of salt,
Water, and grain, you cried out.
“This is better than beef curry.”
All my life I told myself I never knew
Suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.
William Blake talked about Organized Innocence – a state beyond the contrary vision of life as experience by a child: Innocence, which was marked by idealism and naivete, and the adult world: Experience, which was marked by sense of the world as a dangerous place, absent of magic, and bound, through work and suffering, to make a person jaded. Organized innocence suggests to me the reclamation of idealism and childhood fervors, and an acceptance of the terms of this life, in the face of cruelty, corruption, and exhaustion. This is what Bunkong seems to be heading for, as he writes about his life, while eschewing literary pretension and avoiding artifice. There’s an innocence in his nostalgia, that he was a child eating gruel but found it “better than beef curry,” and an experience to his understanding that he was telling himself he never knew “suffering under the regime,” because of his grandmother. To say that he was loved is, from his state of adult knowledge of what the genocidal Khmer Rouge did, not blind nostalgia or naïve escapism, it’s organized innocence; the reclamation of personal idealism in the often harrowing context of the world and mortality.
Well done, Bunkong Tuon.
Written by Max Heinegg – You can reach Max at firstname.lastname@example.org