Oct 132013

descriptionThis photo was taken in the 1980s with my grandmother and her grandchildren. I’m the tallest one. —BK

Bunkong TuonPhoto by Carol McCord

Bunkong Tuon’s grandmother carried him out of Cambodia on jungle trails on her back. In California, he was a lost kid, a dropout working in a donut shop, too bereft to find a footing in the West. One day he pulled a book off a library shelf and it changed him. The book and the author became this fatherless exiled orphan’s new father. You can read about this in his wonderful essay “On Fathers, Losses, and Other Influences,” published on NC  in February.

This time we have a handful of BK’s poems about his grandmother. They will break your heart.

They will break your heart, not through design but because BK knows how to pare his poems down to their emotional core; he knows how to get out of his own way. Like his poetic father, Charles Bukowski, he is a master of sentiment without being sentimental. BK writes: “My tongue has been cut / to fit the meter of another world,” which is a nod to his refugee roots, his loss of his native Khmer language. But here it is almost a conceit, for his heart speaks English all the same, and his poems are a remarkable testament to the power of one woman’s love and determination and the author’s own redeeming spirit.

All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.


My collection of poems, Under the Tamarind Tree, is a story of leaving Cambodia, living in refugee camps, and growing up in the United States, exploring both the history and culture of Cambodia and the early experience of a refugee in America. I write about Cambodia’s rice paddies, water buffaloes, early memories of my mother and father, life in the refugee camp on Thailand-Cambodia border; I also write about growing up as a refugee in Revere and Malden, MA, in the early 80s, collecting bottles and cans, getting into fights after school, feeling culturally alienated, discovering the work of Charles Bukowski in a Long Beach public library, teaching at a small liberal arts college in the East Coast; in short, the emergence of a hyphenated Khmer-American identity.



Dead Tongue

We are each other’s
springboard to another world.

I search for mother in you,
and you see your daughter in me.

I never knew how to thank you.
The words don’t sound right.

My tongue has been cut
to fit the meter of another world.

The words bounce off walls,
deflated, a dead poem.



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.


Calling Home

My cousin left me this message:
“Grandmother fell in the bathroom
and hit her head against the sink.
There’s a small gash over her right eye.”

I call home, and my uncle answers.
“No need to worry.  You can’t talk to her.
She’s sleeping now.  How’s work?
When will you be up for that review?”


 Pic for Grandma poems 2This picture (of grandmother and me) was taken in 2004 at Wat Phnom, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Breakfast with Grandmother

Her maroon beanie, a Christmas gift
from one of her grandchildren,
rests snugly on her shaved head,
a stained bib around her neck.
The pills, crushed in a spoon,
sprinkle the murky gruel.
The water must be heated
to the right temperature, somewhere
between hot and not warm enough.
She cries each time one of us leaves
and is surprised when we return.

I sit at the table trying
not to stare at the cut near her temple,
watching her eat her breakfast,
to let her know that I am here
for her
when suddenly she screams in pain.

Afterward, she sobs quietly,
starring into the gruel
of Jasmine rice, chicken broth,
and now, tear and mucus.


Dining in Chinatown

My twenty-eight year-old cousin says,
before putting a piece of sesame beef into his mouth,
“She can’t be lonely.  She has everyone by her side,
her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
He pours chili oil over black and pepper squid,
and continues, “Whatever she needs, we get for her.
Food, medicine.  She has Elder Uncle who sleeps
in her room to make sure all her needs are met.
Unlike some of her friends whose children
are all over the States, she’s lucky to have us around.”

I watch, fascinated by his ability to take in all that food.
Maybe he’s making up for all that lost time
in the refugee camp.  “And that damaged nerve of hers,
her pain stops whenever you’re around.  It’s psychosomatic,
or something like that.  I don’t know.  You’re the Ph.D.”



On the couch she watches
her great-grandchildren chase
each other down the hallway.

Commanded by the eldest,
they are Power Rangers battling
some evil robot.

A smile flickers.
Memory lit, before it disappears
into darkness again.


Early October, My Cousin’s Four-Year-Old Daughter’s Birthday

Our house booms with noise—four generations under one roof. My grandmother, uncles and aunts, me and my cousins, and their children. Grilled chicken, steak, fried rice; hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad. Soda pop and beer. The kids are chasing each other in the hallway that connects the living room to the kitchen. I sit with the adults around the dining room table. Grandmother is having her lunch of finely crushed rice powdered with her daily medicine.

—She’s fine.  The doctor says she needs to exercise.

—I try to get her to move around. She walks a couple times between here and the living room, then sits on the couch, and seconds later, she’ll be snoring.

—She sleeps too much during the day. At night, she keeps all of us up with her night talks, about her husband,  her young brother, our missing brother, and your mother.

—I get goose bumps sometimes, listening to her talk like that.

—Doesn’t she want to go to the temple anymore? She has friends there and the monks really like her. Didn’t they come to bless her in August?

—Her friends are old, too. Grandma Jeat passed away last month from cancer. She was sixty three. Grandma is eighty-four.

—She needs to get out of the house and be with people her own age. I see her sitting by herself in the living room watching the kids run amok and yelling at them to speak Khmer.

—She’s out of breath just walking from here to the bathroom. Besides, it’s getting cold outside. She can’t handle the weather that well now.

—When is her next doctor’s visit?  I’d like to go with you, Uncle.

Staring at each of our faces,
Grandmother speaks in clear, measured Khmer:
“Why is everyone speaking English?
You think I don’t know that you’re talking about me?
‘Doctor.’ ‘Hospital.’  ‘Yiey Jeat.’
I’m no dummy. ”


A Lesson

I tell myself.
There must be a lesson
in old age.
As the body withers,
truth appears.
It’s wishful thinking,
but it’s good
to think of hope
and renewal
in something beyond
our control.

But, seriously,
how long can we
ask this
of our elders?
How long can we
ask this
of ourselves?


Thanksgiving Farewell

Grandma is holding my wife’s hand:

Take care of each other.
He doesn’t have any parents.
I’ve taken care of him
since his mother passed
away under Pol Pot.

Grandma sobs and turns to me:
Tell her. Speak for me.

She places my hand on top of my wife’s:
You. He. Take care.

Seeing our stunned faces, she repeats.
You. He. Take care. OK?

I give her a hug and say in Khmer:

There’s no need to cry, Lok-Yiey.
We’ll be back around Christmas.


Breathing In

Waiting for the broth to boil,
so that I can drop in the noodles

That Grandma used to make,

I imagine that phone call
from home,

The kind you see in the movies,
where a couple is awakened,

Two in the morning,
fumbling in a darkness

That will never leave.

I breathe in
to become part of you.

 —Bunkong Tuon


Bunkong Tuon teaches in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He completed a book of poems, “Under the Tamarind Tree.” These Grandmother poems are from this collection. Inspired by the reception of his essay “On Fathers, Losses, and other Influences,” he is currently working on a book of essays on family, memory, and home.

  4 Responses to “I Never Knew How To Thank You: Poems — Bunkong Tuon”

  1. I love these poems. I can feel Grandmother’s essence in all of them, as well as your deep love for her. They are at once universal (e.g. a family dealing with the painful realities of an aging parent), yet also speak of your unique experience as an orphan and refugee. Thank you BK.

  2. These poems speak of survival–not merely of the body but truly of the spirit. The supple strength in these lines pulls us forward, even as we acknowledge the losses of the past. Ignorance and forgetting might be easier, but these poems insist on remembering and loving.

  3. These nine poems and a vignette encompass a whole life, Bunkong’s and his grandmother’s (and his remaining family’s) who survived into this strange and so familiar American world only becausse of her. Like grandmothers in so many stories of flight and survival she took them all on her tiny shoulders, which now are crumbling, yet still supporting her sharp sparks of riposte and revival. Despite the grief embedded in them, the poems seem like stones laid out in a path to some kind of understanding and redemption for us all.

  4. Thank you BK! Beautiful poems.

    They are a journey to wholeness led by the powerful love and spirit of your grandmother. I found moving the story of her aging process. These lines from “A Lesson” in particular ring so true for me as I have watched my loved ones age:

    “There must be a lesson
    in old age.
    As the body withers,
    truth appears.”

    I enjoyed all the food in these poems as well! Kudos and I look forward to reading more.

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