During its five year reign of terror in Cambodia (1975-1979), the Khmer Rouge killed between 20 and 25% of the nation's population; estimates range between 850,000 and 1.5 million citizens were killed, in an auto-genocide of surreal proportions. Some historians have argued that the destabilization wreaked by U.S. bombing in the Vietnam War is partly to blame; others demur.
What is doubtless is that many haunted survivors and refugees came to the United States in the wake of this genocidal regime, including the poet Sarith Peou, who now serves two life sentences in a Minnesota prison. In Corpse Watching, a chapbook of selected poems from Tinfish Press, Peou offers a window onto the killing fields--one that will leave the reader shaken by the ghosts that continue to visit Peou.
Beautifully handcrafted, the chapbook has an appealing 5"x8.5" wide format, in which two bullet-sized fasteners hold together the poems on the broad side, and photographs on the smaller spine side. One flips through the photographs in a flip-book style--an invariably pleasing act--only to realize (as the end of the book tells us) that this gallery of photos is of Cambodians shortly before their execution.
Peou's poems are the linguistic equivalent of those numbered and unnamed faces, caught before the moment of their deaths.
Amazingly, despite the numbing experiences survived by Peou, the poems deliver a remarkable range of tones--from the elegaic to the comic absurd, as in "A Bad Shooter":
...In the dark and drizzling rain,
I must inspect the ropes.
Before me, a flash of light:
BANG! My right arm swings backward.
"IT'S ME, MOTHERFUCKER," I scream.
Is someone urinating into the river?
No, my arm is pissing blood around
its shattered bone.
Who says a bullet doesn't hurt!
I ask my friend,
"Why did you shoot my arm?"
"Sorry," he says,
"I aimed at your chest."
In "Scars," Peou's description of the brutal labor conditions employs the language of war, in which the starved and scarred body becomes a bombed landscape:
While working, our wounds open and bleed.
Flies swarm at us like dead bodies.
One hand works the hammer;
One hand swats at flies in our wounds.
The flies suck blood and pus.
The flies lay eggs in our open sores.
Our wounds are infested with maggots.
When our wounds widen,
We call them craters:
T-28, F-111, or B-52
Based on size and depth.
My B-52 didn't heal until the Khmer Rouge fell,
When we had enough to eat.
The sense of grim humor here--to call one's festering wounds the names of bombing planes, whose "payloads" offer different sized craters--may suggest how Peou came to survive. Other poems in the collection are poems of witness, functioning as much as exercises in memory as exertions of poetry. Yet they are the first steps, for Peou, in reconstructing a life which he lost in those lost years of the 1970s. According to the introduction by Ed Bok Lee, this chapbook "represent[s] only a fraction of the author's writings," which includes an autobiography in progress. This won't be the last we hear from Peou, which is a good thing. Some thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, we're only now--through Peou--beginning to make sense of what happened.