“What happened to people during Pol Pot cannot be expressed in the old forms” — U Sam Oeur
Every poet speaks in two voices, at least. One is the speaking voice, the one on the telephone, the one that asks for a glass of water, the one that greets a neighbor in the morning. The other voice is the voice of his poetry.
U Sam Oeur’s collection of poetry, “Sacred Vows,” (Coffeehouse Press) was published in 1998 to considerable acclaim. He toured the US giving readings with his translator. He is a poet. What does this mean?
“I think that poets, no matter what, must be the conscience of the nation,” he said recently, speaking from his home in the US state of Minnesota. “I certainly had no intention of being an agitator—it is not my nature. I am a quiet person whose inclination is toward the pastoral and philosophical. But my poems which have a political, didactic, or polemical aspect have arisen out of what I have witnessed.”
Now 64 years old, O Sam Ouer grew up in 1940 in Svey Rieng province, and some of his poems look back to the Cambodia of his youth, evoking a lush and rural culture:
Where water glitters, palm trees
Where egrets and herons flap after
water buffalo charge each other,
grunting like giants.
In the early 1960s U Sam Oeur studied Industrial Arts in the US. According to Ken McCullough, the translator of “Sacred Vows” and U Sam Oeur’s longtime friend, a professor discovered some of his “random jottings” and told him he was an accomplished poet.
“This was news to Sam, since he had no idea what poetry was,” writes McCullough. The professor, Mary Gray, enrolled U Sam Oeur in the University of Iowa’s graduate program from creative writing, one of the most prestigious in the country, and in 1968 he received his master’s degree.
Upon returning to Cambodia, U Sam Oeur managed a cannery in Phnom Penh. In 1972 he served in the National Assembly, and two years later was part of a Cambodian delegation to the UN. He became a captain in Lon Nol’s army. In April 1975 he was in Phnom Penh, preparing to celebrate the Buddhist new Year, when the Khmer Rouge took over the city.
“I was so stupid,” he said of that party in 1975. “I thought: We had negotiated a coalition government with [then Prince Norodom] Sihanouk, so why should we fight?” As he listened to the names of his neighbors being called out by the Khmer Rouge, ordering them into the street, he retreated to his roof and swaddled himself and his family in wet mats, expecting to be burned alive. They weren’t. Instead they were herded with the rest of the city’s population to work camps.
He left the city with his 4-year-old son, his mother in-law, and his wife, who was pregnant with twins, having managed to burn his copy of his masters thesis as well as a poetry manuscript on which he had been working.
He, his son and his mother in law survived four years in labor camps. The twins did not.
I relay these facts to you in that first voice, the one you hear when you read the newspaper, the one used for press releases and the small cordialities of every day life, when, as TS Eliot put it in his famous poem, “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” we “prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”
But here are those same facts conveyed by U Sam Oeur in his poet’s voice, in a poem called “The Loss of My Twins:”
I searched for a bed, but that was
I felt so helpless. Two midwives
one squatted over her abdomen
the other reached up in my wife’s
womb and ripped the babies
The midwives choked the babies.
Cringing as if I’d entered Hell,
I took the babies in my arms
and carried them to the banks of the Mekong river
Staring at the moon I howled:
O, babies, you never had a chance to ripen into life—
only your souls look down at me now.
Dad hasn’t seen you alive at all, girls
forgive me daughters; I have to leave you here.
• • •
With the publication of Sacred Vows, U Sam Ouer has become one of Cambodia’s leading poets. It is not a crowded field. I asked him about the future of Cambodian poetry.
“There are any number of young Cambodian poets writing now, just waiting for something to propel them into another gear,” he said.
“There is, to my knowledge, no avant garde, but I know that our young people are waiting to be pushed. I think they are ready for experimentation, as long as this experimentation has some bearing on their lives.”
Many of U Sam Oeur’s poems are written within the rigid confines of traditional Cambodian poetry, though he does at times write free verse and cites Walt Whitman as an influence. But will Cambodian culture, and the traditional forms of its past, allow for poetic innovation? And has he encountered resistance to his own innovations?
“I write some of my poems in free verse. And, yes, I have encountered some resistance from other artists, not necessarily poets, schooled in our traditions,” he said. “Part of their resistance comes, I think, from what happened to our culture during Pol Pot’s regime. It was his mission to obliterate these traditional forms, and these artists feel that to have our traditional forms ‘erode’ in any way is giving up something which we cannot afford to give up.
“I don’t regard my poems as undermining or demeaning or diluting the tradition,” he said.” They are basically philosophical responses in a dialogue with the tradition. I do not wish to reject that tradition or negate the tradition, just breathe life into it.”
But to breathe life into something suggests that it is dead. Is the traditional Cambodian poem a dead form?
“Ideally, there are two kinds of poetry—there are long narrative poems which pass down to us the lessons of our past through our myths. Many of these have a basis in our religious past,” he said.
“And then there are those poems which are similar to what one finds in Indian poetry, in their bhati poems. These poems are love poems which are devotional in nature. Poets such as Kabir and Mirabai represent this tradition. God is addressed as the Beloved, but really the poems sometimes sound just as romantic and sensual as those addressed to an earthly lover. The Song of Solomon [by Walt Whitman], in the Western tradition, is a poem which originates from this same impulse.
“I know these traditional forms and can write in them, which I sometimes do, but I also feel that in many ways our traditions are what allowed us to become victims—we took things for granted, we had become hidebound and ossified. And, anyway, most of what happened to people during Pol Pot cannot be expressed in the old forms; hence, there must be more open forms to capture and preserve these things. These things were “unspeakable” but we must give voice to them—the old forms would crumble under the weight of these atrocities. The reluctance to have our traditional forms evolve at all is both a national and religious trait. But, as I have indicated, our traditions and our religion failed us.”
So what is the role of the poet in a contemporary Cambodia?
“I think of myself as a conduit of truth. What I have to say in my poems is not what I have come up with through careful analysis of Cambodian history and projection based on a vast knowledge of the machinations of political science—it is, rather, what passes through me when I sit down to write.
“For lack of a better word, I become ‘inspired’ by higher powers and just put down what is given, without consideration. It is a gift, nothing more. Some of the poems in ‘Sacred Vows’ have predicted the future, notably the collapse of the Khmer Rouge and the coming of the rudiments of democracy to Cambodia via the two most recent elections. And sometimes what I say from poem to poem is not consistent, but it is the truth. As Gandhi once said ‘I am interested in the truth, not in being consistent.’
“I guess I would have to say that a number of my poems have been prophetic, though I certainly do not consider myself a prophet. It is one of our poetic traditions to write poems which do this. Again, we don’t consider ourselves soothsayers; rather, that we give voice to what has been imparted to us from a higher authority.”
• • •
Buddha is a recurring figure in these poems. Numerous publications devoted to Buddhism reviewed Sacred Vows when it was published. A writer for the Buddhist Review noted that at the end of “The Loss of My Twins,” U Sam Ouer prays not for his twins, but to them:
Even though I bury your bodies here,
may your souls guide me and watch over your mother.
Lead us across this wilderness
and light our way to the triple Gem.
In light of lines such as this, it seems natural to inquire if U Sam Ouer believes in God.
“Yes, I believe in God. In the many manifestations of God. I believe that there is a Supreme Being, but that there are also many realms of beings above and beyond this realm in which we exist, in which some of beings are quite flawed, yet have powers to assist us, and do listen to our prayers and do protect us.”