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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of Not Alone in My Dancing: Essays and Reviews, and of the forthcoming This Much I Can Tell You (poems), both from Black Lawrence Press. He is contributing editor for The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "Gruel" by Bunkong Tuon


Gruel
Gruel
by Bunkong Tuon

130 pages
NYQ Books

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That Charles Bukowski should appear as a tutelary spirit is not a complete surprise, wearing as he does, that reversible jacket of barflyness and tell-it-like-it-is truth-tracking. He also unwinds excellent yarns, as does Bunkong Tuon in (like Bukowski) unpretentious free verse (surmounting the pretension of becoming a poet is another story). You can imagine a wide variety of fiascos providing every kind of material for a young poet waiting for that transport through the junkyard of American excess, but Bunkong's emergent story clicks another box: Cambodian refugee. That story brings forward the murderous history of the killing fields and its persistent, tragic, transcontinental revenants, whether the ghosts of family members, including the poet's mother, or the exhausted, madness-fleeing surviving exiles, whose idea of utopia is to own a donut shop and who themselves even more profoundly haunted, nevertheless manage to pick up and appear, thankful yet fearful, in recurrently xenophobic (white) America. For all that, the gratitude is real, and the duty of remembrance plays with the drive to assimilate, the pas de deux of which has become a staple of American literature. In Bunkong's case, the former brings along a narrative tensile enough to come to terms with what history (which seems at times an emanation of Pol Pot) has decreed, with its unexplainables, its entrances and exits, its buried sadness, its hearsay and unsealed moments.

Bunkong's preferred mode is to reduce the sweep of eventfulness to sketches. In this, understatement is his friend. There is another virtue on show here: Bunkong turns up the dial for candor, allowing his readers to sense what it's like to be in his mind, as well as his shoes. The title, which sounds so close to "cruel," suggests anybody is only a whisker away from being yanked from the familiar and thrown into another world and time. No wonder the collection is full of gratitude, both for the surviving remnants of a lost life and for the present life and family, whose very bourgeois ordinariness, even boredom, seem a blessing of luck, that Janus-faced god that haunted Hardy. For regardless of the tragedies that landed him at "thirty five, black hair,/ face round like the moon," after nights devoted to class prep, feeding the baby, and before presenting himself to classrooms full of quizzical students, he is intent on the virtues of facing the future settled, if not hunkered, down. At the same time, this project takes on an even greater importance: you have only to regard the shadow of Pol Pot. His is the gift that keeps on giving. That the twisted consequences for Cambodian refugees in America disfigure the otherwise mundane is one of the themes of Gruel. Many of the poems in this collection are cases in point, and they range from the poet's flagging prowess when it comes to eating chilies, to images that refuse to be shook from their old frames. When a refugee loses it "over his right to beat and rape his wife" and threatens the police,

     The officers ran to their patrol cars
     and radioed for backup. Minutes later,
     an ambulance, and at least five patrol cars
     and a helicopter surrounded the brown house.
     The officers went in with their shotguns
     and came out carrying the man whose arms
     and legs were tied. We, his neighbors,
     fellow refugees ourselves, stood under
     the elm tree, in Pol Pot's shadow.
                                       ("In Pol Pot's Shadow")

Bunkong's poems range from straight-faced, to straight-faced with raised eyebrow, often suggesting that bemusement is a proper satisfaction, even a partner in devotion. It's a good set of positions, and he presents himself as a perfect foil for his relatives and chums (wife, cousin, uncle, grandmother, colleagues, students), appearing and reappearing like characters in a TV show: you get to know them. You can see them coming. When a refugee store owner disappoints a refugee customer because he lacks a certain beverage,

     The owner turned to me,
     "You know, they are worse
     than the real customers."
                                       ("The Customer")

Of a cousin, he writes,

     Born in the States, he greeted me in his perfect
     Bostonian accent. I watched him attack his steak.
     
     On the table, with the dishes
     of rice and steak, were two plates:
     One contained a Khmer dipping sauce,
     made of prahouk, lime juice, lemongrass,
     grilled peppers, garlic, and Thai chilies;
     the other A1 steak sauce
     from the local Stop & shop.
   
      "Thearith, why do you have two sauces for your steak?"
   
     "Well, when I get bored with one sauce, I go for the other.
     It's all good, bro."

                                       ("Living in the Hyphen")

One aspect of Bunkong's double sense is self-exile. Not only is his story the broadly understood one of putting down roots in another land, but of realizing that his personal, as opposed to communal or family, destiny lies outside the pressure chamber of insular customs. When a character in a James Tate poem gets a phone call from the President asking him, as a personal favor, to "act normal" of course he doesn't know what to do. He is just of that generation old enough to know but too young to have remembered everything. This sets him apart ("You're the PhD."), and that apartness is both salvation and betrayal. Thanks be to poetry that the betrayal isn't rendered complete or altogether tragic, either. A character emerges, replete with irony, humor, and tact. It is a fine balancing act, but he brings it off, thanks to the demotic examples of his chosen literary tutors, which also include Carver, and, I'm guessing, Creeley. From Bukowski, he takes the bravado to say anything; from Whitman he takes the hospitable voice, preferring the rhetoric of the plain-spoken to the steroid abuse of literary eloquence.

Thanks to its nod to identity, Gruel comes across as episodes from an autobiography. Before the poet arrives, there are scenes from childhood. The establishing phase is to set himself somewhat apart ("I'm always the outsider peering in"), framing his experiences in a double-consciousness—that will also be a hallmark of the young poet. He can be succinct: "The reason Vannark got into that fight/was because Rob had called him a dog-eater" That's the whole of "An Elegy for a Fellow Cambodian." And then there's the requisite fetishizing of commodities in late capitalism, to which young Americans of any dispensation are not immune:

     One day, a friend showed up
     with a Mike McGill skateboard,
     the one with a serpent wrapping
     around a skull with red eyes.
     It was obvious to us, then,
     that we each needed one.
                                       ("Those Were the Days")

Once launched upon these shores, there is the additional and paramount story of his becoming that unproductive and unremunerative thing, a poet, a vocation Bunkong recalls in terms of epiphany and resistance. The latter shows up in the sort of schoolyard lore with which many poets are undoubtedly familiar:

     It was Mr. Henry
     who told me to stand up
     when I received the highest
     grade on an algebra test.
     He lectured to the class
     about how I had escaped war,
     poverty, and hunger,
     about how I worked hard
     and achieved success.

     The lesson was supposed
     to embarrass my classmates
     into working hard, but I'm afraid
     it only encouraged them
     to punch my head
     even harder after school.
                                       ("Why I Chose Literature")

These are moments that will be deja-vu all over again to readers expecting to mine significance from story-telling—the wannabe beginnings, the ludicrous, if obligatory, affectations, the fervent pledges to the art. From a certain perspective, chance is all the horsepower destiny needs. But that doesn't mean it's not a struggle, wanting membership, yet becoming aware of the bottomless commitment on the one hand and on the other, the incoming, if implicit, criticism that attaches to the dreamer:

     I was an aspiring writer then,
     renting a tiny studio on Ocean Boulevard
     in Long Beach, following in the drunken
     bouts of Charles Bukowski, buying cheap wine,
     imitating free verse,
     waking up to the stench of vomit.
                                       ("Lies I Told about Father")

You can sense, too, the dangers of privacy, when reverie invades another's space, as in Creeley's classic "I Know a Man." Bunkong's impression of this poem (and its cringe-worthy slap) goes like this:

     My car starts to sway to Whitman's songs
     when someone in another lane honks,
     "Hey, buddy, watch where you're going!"
                                       ("Driving from the Recycling Center")

Perhaps more importantly, there is the family censure. After Pol Pot, after the struggle to reestablish does not necessarily welcome dispatches from Parnassus:

     Uncle opened my bedroom door
     found me shirtless on my bed
     with Bukowski's Septuagenarian Stew
     & slammed the door
     in contempt
     as if he had just caught me masturbating.
                                       ("Literary Support")

Even after he is well on his way toward filling out the curriculum vitae of a poet (consorting with coffee house intellectuals, working for his Ph.D., grading essays, preparing for tenure review) he maintains touch with his inner-Harry Frankfort:

     She's telling me about Said and Spivak;
     I'm told that I should read Marx and Gramsci—
     I should attend conferences more often,
     I should meet people, network, you know.

     It's all performance, she says. Even gender
     Is performance. Read Judith Butler. You should try—
     Writing and publishing articles in scholarly journals.

     I am sitting in this coffee shop in Northhampton, MA,
     With this beautiful, intelligent woman,
     When suddenly, I had a bowel movement.
                                       ("What We Talk about When We Talk about Writing")

A new form of literary criticism? It's good that the poet puts some, er, distance between himself and the siren-call of Theory, but the thing is, what we talk about when we talk about writing is language. One of Bunkong's particular anxieties concerns the loss of the mother tongue, Khmer, blended, no doubt, with some self-ambivalence at having moved to English, which is subsequently the language of his muse, as well as the source of his livelihood as a professor in an English department. The irony of this comes through in more than one poem, but here is an example:

     "Can I help you?" and before you have time, an answer
     from the questioner, "If you are unhappy with your grade,
     please send your complaint directly to your professor."
     The old joy leaving, you are tired and dried,
     as you explain in your now heavily-accented English
     that you're simply here to submit grades.
                                       ("Coming to Terms")

That academic life comes replete with its own minatory jargon —"terms," "submit," "letter grade." You could weaponize pedagogy. Nor is the irony of that lost on him. But even before he takes up residence in the halls of academe, he understands his condition, linguistic and existential, is no longer flush with his origins:

     ..."Isn't it enough that I suffer
     such humiliation within the confines
     of this restaurant? I don't want
     to be walking on the streets of Portland
     announcing to the Pacific world
     that I have lost my Khmer tongue."
                                       ("The Day My Worst Fear Came True")

Kierkegaard would have loved Bunkong. He has given a clear example of someone who, by sheer persistence and absorption of loss—of family, of home, of language—finds forward preferable to backward, offered as stages on life's way, although with characteristic detachment and self-aimed humor, almost like the pools of spotlight that Jimmy Durante signed off on, step by step, before he took his leave of the mysterious Mrs. Calabash. Of the farewell to the secrets of Khmer, he offers,

     I made my way across the States
     and, for ten years, hung around the great columns
     of Long Beach City College, in search of ghosts
     that spoke my tongue, where I tasted isolation
     and called it muse, only to find, of all people,
     Bukowski, that patron saint of the dispossessed,
     now a literary god for hipsters, Sean Penn, and Bono.
                                       ("Lucky")

It was Elizabeth Bishop who made us realize that everybody's theme is the search for home, and that is the search, finally, for something of metaphysical significance. Update: he finds it in starting his own family, of the quest for domestic viability, of cobbling together his own liberal arts shop, and after having passed through the suspicions and oblique doubts about his calling, he records the instructions from his grandmother, at the time of his marriage:

     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.
                                       ("Thanksgiving Farewell")

There's that Pol Pot again, whose name is a kind of monolithic episteme, behind which stands both nothing and everything. This beloved grandmother is the largest of the ghosts in Gruel (it is her very gruel that serves as sustenance for her surviving kin) and her mention acquires the high value: she is alone assumed to be capable of performative speech, and that is something of no passing interest to the poet, as well as the grandson.

     You took me away from the father whom I know little about,
     the one I invent and reshape in stories and poems about our family.
     With your surviving sons and daughters, you carried me on your back,
     across the heavily-mined jungles of Cambodia to the UN camps,
     scattered somewhere along the Thailand-Cambodia border.

     It is that child's turn to carry you, Grandmother-Mother.
                                       ("Grandmother-Mother")

Such gratitude is a kind of grace. It comes bearing permission to take up the art, to risk being "economically uncertain" of his pursuit, and to endure the droll scrutiny he imagines in the eyes of his students (him up front, them staring back). You might call it finessing the present, but, to defer to Bishop again, aren't we all? Bunkong finds the way forward appropriately stated in this way:

     Somewhere in between,
     when you're gasping

                                                   for air,

     keeping grace and dignity
     is what counts.
                                       ("Breathing Out")

After loss, sorrow, exile, perplexity, and the minefield of identity-making, the floor exercises of the young poet, gratitude comes as a handsome condition and certainly one not overdone in contemporary poetry.

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