Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship 30 & under
INTRODUCTION by Marilyn Chin
Between 1975 and 1979, over two million people died in Cambodia. In a reign of terror, the Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot "cleansed the population." People were purged, worked and starved to death, tortured, and executed. The regime especially targeted the professional class: doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, engineers; their families, too, were rounded up and murdered. Universities were closed, monasteries were decimated. The perpetrators documented their terror, systematically photographing their victims, then leaving mountains of skulls and bones in their wake. This horrific era was revealed to the rest of the world in an unforgettable 1984 film called "The Killing Fields."
How does a young Cambodian-American poet respond to this horrific era? Theodor Adorno questioned how one could continue to write poetry after Auschwitz. In Year Zero, Monica Sok strikes a brilliant balance between rich remembrance and compassionate forgiveness. In clear song and soft assonance, ghostly remembrances of these times are spoken in the voices of ordinary people: mothers, aunties, fathers, uncles, girls selling tamarind, villagers going about their day in a lush tropical landscape of octopus trees and betel leaves. Haunting images abound: "Angkor Wat floating in the lake," whose fragile beauty is juxtaposed against darker images, of "Strong smells of smoke prayers," ghostly flutes, and skull-shaped fruit. The terror is hidden and menacing, ready to ignite.
"You don't have mouths. So silent," is a damning truth. The poet is able to offer quiet wisdom without sentimentality. Ultimately, this poet refuses to surrender to victimhood. The chapbook ends optimistically in the borough of Brooklyn, where the young speaker lives happily, sometimes seen in the neighborhood eating bagels with friends and writing new poems. She has found her way to "the healing fields."