A Nail the Evening Hangs On.. Copper Canyon
Ghost Face. DC Books
A literary treatment of the past . . . focuses on those aspects of the real past which the historical past cannot deal with.
—Hayden White, The Practical Past
Greg Santos’ third full-length poetry collection, Ghost Face, and Monica Sok’s debut collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On, provide a stunning example of literature’s potential to capture the complexities and contradictions of subjectivity and feeling in the afterlife of historical violence. Through the genre of poetry, Santos’ and Sok’s collections meld the historical with the personal and the experienced with the imagined, creating accounts of first-order and second-order testimony that might stand witness to the spatial and temporal dimensions of war, mourning, grief, and sorrow. Crossing oceans from Canada to Cambodia to the beaches of Cascais, Portugal (Santos), and from Cambodia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to New York City and back (Sok), these two collections illustrate what Laura Hyun Yi Kang articulates as the compositional dimensions of subjectivity as well as history, the ways in which shifting and uncertain locations within and across nation-state borders trouble fixed notions of individual and collective identity as rooted in a single time, place, or culture. Part memoir, part historical testimony, Ghost Face and A Nail the Evening Hangs On trace a critical genealogy of second-generation Cambodian diaspora in North America—Santos in Canada and Sok in the United States.
In his deeply personal collection, Santos navigates the indeterminacies of “being” and “been there” for the simultaneously transnational and transracial Cambodian Canadian adoptee of diasporic Portuguese parents. Conditioned by the unknowable histories of geopolitical violence experienced by the birth parents he never knew—of Khmer Rouge rule and the Cambodian Holocaust—as well as by the historical violence experienced by his adopted mother’s parents—who lived through Franco’s fascist regime in Spain—Santos’ transnational adoptee is seemingly out of place and time, yet also constituted by a desire, a mourning of and yearning for, ghosts. Through a weaving in and out of imagined conversations and pasts, dialogical self-reflection (Santos constructs inquiries into his life before adoption as a conversation between two unnamed persons, perhaps the author and the author in an imagined time “before”), personal life events, and communion with the memory of his adopted father—whose death Santos mourns poignantly decades later—Santos’ adoption story is a search for ghosts, a reaching for and grasping at those spectres that haunt in their absence-presence.
In A Nail the Evening Hangs On, Sok also engages a search for ghosts, for the nameless, faceless kin lost to years of war and genocide—a search for her missing uncle, her grandmother’s son, whose absence continues to haunt the day-to-day of Sok’s family. Shifting from narratives in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to meditations on childhood in Lancaster to reflections on memory and diasporic experience while on the subway in New York, Sok explores the possibilities and impossibilities of second-generation, second-order witnessing to histories of geopolitical violence in Cambodia. Through narrative that deftly navigates this oftentimes ambivalent tension, Sok engages in a kind of memory work that materializes the violence of civil war and genocide in Cambodia alongside the violence of US intervention in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Through a trenchant reflexivity which positions the second-generation subject as both the inheritor of trauma and citizen-subject of empire, her collection reckons with multiple dimensions of historical violence—its registers, registrations, memorialization, and accounting.
Through a literary treatment of the past, these two collections activate what Raymond Williams terms “a structure of feeling”: those “social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available” (133-34, emphasis original). This structure of feeling, “at the very edge of semantic availability,” is “a specific structure of particular linkages, particular emphases and suppressions, and, in what are often its most recognizable forms, particular deep starting-points and conclusions” (134). Through verse and prose, Santos and Sok construct historical testimony that functions as a structure of feeling, an articulation of haunting as well as enactment of mourning, a yearning for the belongingness of kin (Santos) and for futures of accountability (Sok).
Santos opens Part I of his collection (entitled “I/YOU”) with the simultaneously broken and continuous, recursive, and repetitious “History”:
“History” is an apt representation of what follows in the pages of Ghost Face as well as in A Nail the Evening Hangs On, the two texts meditating on personal, familial, collective, and ancestral histories and on parallel and imagined lives through the voices of multiple narrators and a multiplicity of “I’s” and “You’s.” The contradictions of “everyone’s” and “no one’s” and “theirs” and “my” in “History” are reflected in the opening poem of Part I of Sok’s collection, “Ask the Locals”:
Nobody knows: How those so-called revolutionaries
who wanted so-called Year Zero so bad,
turned into mosquitoes. I mean, mosquitoes, right?
Because not butterflies or moths rolling
in the mass graves—we all know the moths are children
who didn’t make it past five. . . . (5)
“Nobody knows” how the Khmer Rouge, as they came to be called, striving for a “pure revolution” against what they considered to be the imperialism of the West, became strongly parasitic instead. Nobody knows how so-called revolutionaries became like the mosquito, sucking the lifeblood of its host, sucking dry those marked as “enemy” and the innumerable hosts-to-be, their own, who eventually become the enemy inside. “Nobody knows” and yet “we all know” the outcome, the unbearable loss of too many lives, the deaths of men, women, and children—their bodies buried in mass graves—filling the land with sorrow.
Sok’s injunction to “ask the locals” positions the author in relation to but not fully “inside” this history, an ambivalent positioning continually produced and reproduced throughout the collection vis-à-vis the weaving of testimony from various imagined “I’s” as well as the “I” of the authorial voice. Speaking from “within” Cambodian history, Sok deploys the imagined voice of a radio host in “The Radio Host Goes into Hiding” to convey an experiential telling of the unfolding of historical events:
Disguising myself as old people
to survive in these fields of black-uniformed Khmer red-white krama
our outlined rib cages and tight skin
if I could air
the voices of the people to the Powers of the world
what would they say[.] (8)
Sok’s radio host, speaking in a present tense that also speculates, relays the embodied memory of life during “Pol Pot time” (the term Cambodian people use to refer to the Cambodian genocide), which began in April 1975 in Cambodia.
Upon capturing Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated people from cities into the countryside and forced the Cambodian populace to work in co-operatives. When placing people in these rural work camps, the regime separated families—of the unnamed radio host’s friend Rithisal, a former historian before “Year Zero,” we learn: “his wife Rachana a singer / which camp is she we don’t know / her voice like milk when she sang” (13)—and the regime also mandated collective eating. As a result of the severe rationing of food, vast numbers of people died of starvation. Medical care became non-existent in the camps as doctors were targeted for extermination along with other “intellectuals.” From 1975 to 1979, approximately 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, illness, disease, or murder during what William Shawcross has termed, in The Quality of Mercy (1984), the Cambodian Holocaust.
Shifting from the present into the past tense, Sok’s radio host materializes the oftentimes “forgotten” or relegated-to-the-margins geopolitical and historical conditions that provide context for the rise of the Khmer Rouge during the Cold War in Southeast Asia.
I was warned by the French
before they left Kampuchea in a hurry
Come with us they said but like my only friend Rithisal
I chose not to abandon
in such cowardly fashion
Rithisal young historian says
why the Powers do nothing to end this experiment
first began with American president orders from menu
campaign breakfast lunch dinner
snack on Ho Chi Minh Trail Kampuchea after independence
for wars Khmer Rouge in power threatens
Phnom Penh evacuate now
the city will be bombed I say quiet Rithisal not so loud[.] (9)
In 2000, US President Bill Clinton released extensive Air Force data on American bombings in Southeast Asia from 1964 to 1975. The data show that the bombing was nearly five times as extensive as previously thought; 2,756,941 tons of explosives were dropped on Cambodia. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan give the following comparison for perspective: “the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II, including the bombs that struck Hiroshima and Nagasaki: 15,000 and 20,000, respectively.” Owen and Kiernan go on to state: “Cambodia may well be the most heavily bombed country in history.” Previously, about 50,000 to 150,000 Cambodians were estimated to have died from American bombing. Given the revised data, this number is likely higher, with some estimates ranging up to 500,000 deaths (“Frontline/World”), in a country at the time of about 7 million.
Speaking from a third-person perspective that shifts into a first-person narrative, Santos also imagines the context of war and genocide which conditions his life in “another life,” his poem “Siem Reap, Cambodia” detailing the events experienced by his imagined birth mother as she too flees an impending violence. Santos begins:
Before stepping into a taxi
a young girl struggles to take the city with her:
Warm, sticky air bathing the street market,
comforting scent of fragrant rice,
. . . the city she will no longer call home.” (5)
As the city retreats into the distance, “echoes of distant missiles pierce her memories” and “murders of crows dive into reddened fields” (5). Santos ends his poem:
“The faces of Angkor watch
as their city crumbles,
as another one of their children flees,
taking nothing but me,
gently growing inside her.” (5)
Here, Santos’ imagining of his birth mother’s journey enacts a dedication, the juxtaposition of violence (“distant missiles pierce,” “murders of crows dive”) with words that signal care (“gently growing inside her”) enacting a kind of testimony that might do the work of sorrow and gratitude alongside that of love.
As the daughter of Cambodian Holocaust survivors, whose parents have lost family on both sides and whose father belonged to a targeted population—my father, a former Lon Nol soldier who worked with Americans and Thais during the civil war like Sok’s radio host, taking on the persona of “old people”—my own relationship to this familial and ancestral history has been, and remains, fraught. Like the starts and stops, broken verse, and flowing prose that constitute both these poetry collections, I have long sought a language to articulate and reckon with the ellipses and silences, traces and errant memories, and imaginings and hauntings of those who have come before and of those who have since passed. I have spent over a decade attempting to materialize the words that might capture the tension and longing of diasporic desire, the imagining of a time “before”—Sok’s “before birth” and Santos’ “before adoption” echoing my own “before migration,” my time in the refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines. In “Amnesiac,” Santos writes:
It all happened a long time ago.
Do you remember?
I think there was a nun, a war,
the phone call that changed everyone’s lives.
No, how could you remember? You weren’t even there.
But now that I think about it, neither was I. (23)
Santos’ amnesiac expresses the absence in the absence-presence of History in the narrator’s missing origin story (Santos’ own, constructed dialogically here). Through the back and forth of this poem and others in Ghost Face, Santos questions the histories that we (and you and I) might claim.
Which histories and futures do we, can we, mourn? How do we, can we, grieve the missing picture—for instance, Sok’s uncle Yuos Samon’s missing photograph at Tuol Sleng—the missing pieces that linger on in affective structures of trauma left behind? How do we remember as second-generation, second-order witnesses without co-opting, without consuming the historical and experiential violence-trauma of known and unknown kin? And how do we yearn for an interconnectedness that does not dismiss contradiction and complexity, for an understanding of self that does not reproduce the binary of us and Other, a yearning that might account for our own complicities as diasporic citizen-subjects in the wake of historical violence?
Ghost Face and A Nail the Evening Hangs On open up the scope of Cambodian diasporic cultural production, engaging the ethics of subject position, commitments, and attachments to major and minor histories of violence. In “Cruel Radiance” for instance, Sok tells us: “the Khmer Rouge executed, one of many / children presumed counterrevolutionary enemies, / as the soiled descendants of such. My chest heaves. . . .” (42, emphasis original). Sok continues:
I catch the N [train] across the platform, continue
reading about S-21. We were not inside
those prisons: they were. Our hells
almost certainly are not theirs. . . .” (42, emphasis original).
Here as elsewhere, Sok manifests an ambivalent tension, her diasporic subject leaning into the dissonance of a grief without a “being” or having “been there.”
Through the affective register of poetry, Sok’s and Santos’ collections function as a testimony to loss as they also ultimately function as a dedication to love. Santos’ dedication (“for my parents”) is reflected throughout the collection, especially so in his closing poem, a love letter entitled “Dear Dad,” which appears in the final section, “An Ode to Joy”: “The children / are asleep, you / watch me from / photo frames” (65). Sok’s dedication to her grandmother (“for Bun Em”) is punctuated in Part I’s “The Weaver” and Part III’s “Ode to the Loom.” “Ode to the Loom” also provides the title of the collection as well as the image on the front cover: a photograph of traditional Cambodian silk woven by Sok’s grandmother, who throughout her life was a master weaver. Sok writes:
Dear loom, dear box skeleton,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sweet loom, old friend of an old woman,
you are an ancestor she prays to,
so that when her hair falls
not as rain does
but as nails the evening hangs on,
and her hands slip no longer
from silk but on walls in the dark
hall to her room,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You will remind us of her[.] (45-46)
Rather than a thread we might expect the evening to hang on, Sok’s grandmother lowers her hair not gently like rain “but as nails the evening hangs on,” illustrating both the precarity as well as the strength of lives lived during and after historical violence. In Sok’s material-discursive engagement with her grandmother’s loom as the thread that connects her life to those lives lived otherwise, this collection, like Ghost Face, weaves an alternative understanding of loss and hope. Sok’s detailing of the harsh, fragile strength found in the afterlife of war and genocide orients us towards an alternative formulation of hope, not a hope premised upon reconciliation signalled by the dawn of a new beginning, but rather a hope that might be found in the in-between spaces of dusk before dark, a hope like twilight that transitions into stardust.
“Frontline/World. Cambodia – Pol Pot’s Shadow. Chronicle of Survival. 1969-1974: Caught in the Crossfire.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, https://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/cambodia/tl02.html.
Kang, Laura Hyun Yi. Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women. Duke UP,
Owen, Taylor and Ben Kiernan. “Bombs over Cambodia.” The Walrus, 27 May 2020,
thewalrus.ca/2006-10-history/. Accessed 23 Aug. 2021.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977.
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