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Manoa 16.1 (2004) 195-199

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Four Poems

Translations by Ken McCullough and the author

Only Mothers will Embrace Sorrows

I wade through solitude
to the cottage where we used to
gather to drink rice wine,
enjoying false peace.

I sit under the same palm-leaf roof,
gaze at your chairs
but see no one,
hear only your laughs.

Here, it's like everywhere else—
villages of black roofless houses;
I don't see even one dog.

The explosions of mines,
the roaring of heavy artillery
from frontier to frontier, shake every
grain of pollen from the champa flowers.

No places to hide, no skies under which to rest;
and the moaning of children
and the cries of mothers
out of blazing fire across the land,

And your bodies, brothers, shielding us
from the bullets, and your blood
splashing over our Mother, induce my soul
to ever worship jasmine and lotus blossoms. [End Page 195] [Begin Page 197]

Water Buffalo Cobra and the Prisoner of War

for Gregory Ann Smith

Work, work—hacking at trees, uprooting them, clearing bushes,
transplanting rice, no time to rest.
At noon, alone, as I cleared the canebrake,
a beautiful black cobra

opened his hood before me, displaying his power.
He thought I was his foe.
"He's beautiful, just like in the Indian movies!"
I exclaimed to myself while my knees knocked.

"O cobra! Your flesh and blood are truly
Buddha's flesh and blood.
I am just a prisoner of war,
but I am not your food.

You, cobra, are free,
and if my flesh is truly your blood,
plead my case with the spirits of this swamp
to lead me to Buddham, Dhammam, and Sangham."

The cobra stared at me with loving kindness
then lowered his head.
He slithered into the swamp to the south,
and I went back to my work of surviving.

The Loss of my Twins

Deep one night in October '76 when the moon had fully waxed,
it was cold to the bone;
that's when my wife's labor pains began.

I searched for a bed, but that was wishful thinking;
I felt so helpless. Two midwives materialized—
one squatted above her abdomen and pushed,
the other reached up into my wife's womb and ripped the babies out. [End Page 197]

What a lowing my wife put up
when she gave birth to the first twin.
"Very pretty, just as I'd wished, but those fiends
choked them and wrapped them in black plastic.

Two pretty girls...
Buddho! I couldn't do a thing to save them!"
murmured my mother.
"Here, Ta!" the midwives handed me the bundles.

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 the 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.

Even though I'll 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."

Mad Scene

In those days of despair, in 1991 ,
at dusk, at dawn, we drank rice wine.
Pedicab drivers and I would gather
at our mentor's shack, the rice wine merchant.

After one or two belts, we began to smile at each other,
but inside we bore agonies; we'd been rich but now were poor.
Illiterates were in power; the eyes of the educated were white
    with fear—
they'd lost their jobs and become drunkards.

While still sober, we didn't dare squawk.
But when afternoon came, I sang for the Khmers—
"Americans shall return, return to Cambodia! [End Page 198]
And Yuon shall vanish, vanish like red ants at the smell of petroleum,
like red ants at the smell of petroleum."

And "out from the gloomy past"
all Khmers shall be removed from
misery, disdain, and at last we will


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pp. 195-199
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