Poetry: Monica Sok


            the Octopus Tree swings its swords against water arrows,
its trunk a shield, roots tumbling. None of the apsaras have seen this,
            but I’ve heard the whirring spell like a huge battle
                        from the house of apsaras,

where sometimes I can’t sleep even to the flute player’s song
            stretching out to me like a blanket. If I look out the portal
over the lakes, blue demons climb down from temple walls to dance
                        with trees,

            The Octopus jumps off the roof, branches hammered against
the swarm, maybe some of its arms severed. The next morning,
            with my bare feet, I’ll find the stone floor rooted up
                        in corners where the demons did their work

before getting squashed. Their guts fresh. It wasn’t the Octopus
            who stomped them, not its one bad foot, healing underneath stone,
lifted up and smack! No. But how can I know who the Octopus really is

            and what it thinks these days? It doesn’t talk to me anymore,
not since I asked it who the mosquitoes were and said I wanted to be big
            like them and fly, not since over the wall I offered my arm
                        to mosquitoes.

When they landed in around me, four, five of them, suddenly
            the strongest shade. Suddenly the dark. Every candle
in the temple out. Then gone. Except for wetness on the stone, the
                        ground piled around me: a wide circle

            of fallen doors the Octopus couldn’t have fit into.
But I know it rests on the roof, watching me. Always opening its back eye
            to know where I am. 


Ba’s friend from Prey Veng is dying inside his wooden stilt house.
Rain hammers the man’s roof, it shakes the floor.

His chest an anvil, he can’t get up to show respect so he sampeah.
Take off your shoes, Goan Srei, Ba whispers. Don’t want to wake the floor.

Ba tells his friend, Your ribs are bruised from sleeping on these slats.
His friend says, But heaven spreads out straw mats to make floors.

My first time meeting the man, I offer chek from our banana tree
and leave forty dollars next to a plate of sponge cakes on the floor.

Now behind us, it seems the whole village has come to his door.
Even chickens gather on the dirt underneath this fake floor.

One woman opens her purse, gives a few riel to help him buy herbs.
Ba puts down more money for the man as if he wants to break the floor.

Two days later, we hear Sam Ol from Prey Veng died from a stroke.
Burning dead leaves in the yard, Ba falls down—but how
                                                                        his knees rake the floor.


you can make a window of time to sob if you want
if you go to the back of the house, there are empty rooms to do that
(to sob in)
nobody has turned on the lights yet nobody has been here today
yet the light illuminates you through the glass depending on the idea
            you’re having
in that moment it fades it comes back but it is not romantic
you can read about the killing fields there
you can read about the healing fields there
you can say to yourself it’s okay
okay, something Dad says all the time it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay
shouldn’t you believe him after all he lived through
but Dad these cornstalks call me
cambodian // american it is not okay
lok ba it is not
it’s a river I keep trying to cross over and over again
except the river’s not there
            not lonely
            not alone
            cambodian // american
in my mind he nods and keeps driving away in his old green van
            on some pennsylvanian road

all the sobbing inside of me all of it Javier knows now he knows but he doesn’t know
how cambodian // american feels in lancaster or brooklyn or about earlier this morning
            on the subway, a white girl with a streak of blue hair fell
                        flat on her back
            her head a bowling ball close to my foot
            her head a bowling ball that rolled on the floor
I looked up from reading museum of accidents and there
a girl confused on the ground breathing breathing breathing
            someone call 911!
            someone press the emergency button!
            someone pull the girl up!
            now she is sitting, telling someone
            she is on her way to 23rd street as the train pulls up
                        to my stop on 8th
            the doors open
and now I want to cancel class I think I think I should because why? so I can sob about the killing fields
and how isolated cambodian // american is
I’d rather do that today
my head could be a bowling ball too
I could fall over from this too
but enough it is not the same, say the cornfields and the subway
            and I listen
the student my age missed three classes, emailed me while in urgent care
said she would bring in a doctor’s note
enough I teach the class
it is not okay to not be there
okay is when you break a wine glass in the sink without getting cut
okay is when you find 17 dollars on the sidewalk, walking to
            pancho’s restaurant on 3rd ave
okay is when you find out that pancho’s restaurant is closed
            and you don’t spend 17 dollars there
okay is standing in the regulars line at steve’s bagels,
            the people are mean, the bagel okay
and I am not a regular
and I am not regular

cambodian // americans,
where are you regularly?
lately I have looked for you, lately not found you
lately not trying, almost give up
            it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay
with Javier by the hudson last night
>>> lets go for a walk
>>> lets keep walking
we walk the whole length

Of the poems in my forthcoming chapbook Year Zero, I feel most vulnerable in “Cambodian // American.” Without the myth-making in “During Monsoons” or traditional forms like the “Prey Veng” ghazal, I feel that “Cambodian // American” gives me no place to hide. During the editing process, I used to skip over this poem because it was too difficult for me to confront my own feelings again and again. But I let it exist in the chapbook because I felt I needed to honor this very real aspect of my experience as a Cambodian American woman. And so, the poem becomes a space to feel vulnerable and visible, to allow my words to be fragmented, to experience my feelings and to not silence them. I am inviting my readers to intimately look at my daily struggle with isolation and longing for community with other Cambodians. Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I was never fully immersed with my people. I came to New York City, hoping to find other Cambodians who desired to talk about our experiences, culture, history, etc. There was one particular day when I felt most sad because I had been doing a lot of reading on the killing fields and I had no one to turn to to help me process the pain of a shared history. Not everyone wants to identify with a traumatic narrative. Not every Cambodian wants to cling to the past. I wrote this poem in response to this void. In the poem, I mention my father and my partner Javier, who teach me how to be strong, how to build community, and seek strength in others who share this human experience.

IMG_4477Monica Sok is a Cambodian poet from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Year Zero, winner of the 2015 Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship, selected by Marilyn Chin. Her poems appear in Narrative, The New Republic, The Offing, and TriQuarterly Review. A Kundiman Fellow, her honors include fellowships and grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc., the Elizabeth George Foundation, Hedgebrook, and MacDowell Colony, among others. She is the 2016-2018 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University. She is currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and weeping.