George Chigas’ Review of On Earth Beneath Sky by Chath pierSath
In the aftermath of genocide, survivors undergo a lifelong process of healing in an attempt to make sense of the traumatic events that ruptured their lives. They strive to come to a new understanding of themselves and the world and restore their trust in others. They attempt to regain the self-worth and empowerment necessary for a healthy and meaningful existence, which were taken from them during the genocide. Each survivor’s journey is unique, and some are able to go further than others. Those equipped to brave the dangers and difficulties of returning to the traumatic memories of the past and record their journey in words or images are rare and precious. Chath pierSath is one of those rare and precious survivors. His latest collection of poems and sketches, On Earth Beneath Sky, attests to the gains he has made along this difficult path, as well as the ongoing struggles with which he must still contend. While the traumatic legacy of the genocide may always haunt and cling to him like a shadow, the gains he has made in his journey toward healing mean it is no longer able to overpower him as it once did as he strives to reinvent himself and rediscover the world around him.
The careful organization of the 68 poems and sketches that comprise On Earth Beneath Sky purposefully chart Chath’s journey up to this point. Rather than follow a chronological sequence that might erroneously infer “closure” or “moving on,” the poems are divided into five sections that articulate an ongoing tug-of-war between self-discovery and alienation, loneliness and love. The five sections are bracketed by two poems that refer to Chath’s mother, whose spirit is both at the center and periphery of the collection. The first poem, entitled “My Mother Wanted My Brother To Take Me Back To Her,” records Chath’s escape from Cambodia in 1980 with his older brother and sister, and his permanent separation from his mother, who died two years later in Cambodia, when Chath, 14 years old, was living in Denver, Colorado. The final poem, “The Way I Want to Remember My Cambodia,” marks Chath’s current place in his journey toward healing. The poem tells us firstly, that Chath is making progress in his attempt to integrate the traumatic events of the genocide into his understanding of himself and the world and secondly, that he is ready to embark on the next phase his journey as a Cambodian American poet and artist. The final poem of the collection invokes the memory of his mother’s cooking fire, “I recall my mother’s cooking fire, her salted-fish grilled on burning charcoal,” and ends with the lines:
I want to hear how the Goddesses turn what is ugly into something beautiful.
Make me part of that secret. Let me dance in your sun.
Both poems, the first and last, deal with Chath’s ambivalence about leaving his mother and mother country as he nevertheless continues to carry them both with him in his heart and soul along his journey. The five sections of poems and sketches between these two poems record key moments in Chath’s process of healing that brought him to this point.
The first section, “Claim Me, America” is comprised of 13 poems that describe two opposing forces Chath has struggled to reconcile in his new life in America. The first celebrates the promise and opportunity of his new home, while the second reminds him of the burden of survival that continues to limit his capacity to take full advantage of these opportunities. Chath’s gratitude for the possibilities life in America offers is expressed in the second poem in this section, “America, my America.” He lays down his heart and soul before his adoptive country asking to be taken in and permitted to experience her climate and geography and freedom. As a refugee, he takes nothing for granted.
I salute you, America, for helping my dream take flight,
Letting me be, see and become, to work and play,
Eat and sleep to life’s breathlessly beautiful hills,
Mountains, valleys, above and below.
. . .
The return to the exact place where the traumatic crimes of the past took place is often identified as a critical step in the process of healing for survivors. The return serves to validate the truth of the crimes, that they actually took place and were not some horrible nightmare. Bearing witness and affirming the truth of the crimes that took place is the guiding purpose of survivor literature. Delving into the poetry of witness was an important and necessary episode in Chath process of healing as well, and he provided his personal literary testimony in his first collection of poetry, After, published in 2009.
The poems in this section of On Earth Beneath Sky, however, serve a somewhat different purpose. They describe another ongoing struggle in Chath’s process of healing, as he finds his attempts to locate himself in relation to his mother country to be untenable, unstable and constantly shifting. In these poems, Chath takes a cold, hard look at what was happening in Cambodia in the 1990s and saw that it is not then and would never be the Cambodia that he knew as a child growing up before the genocide. The poems and sketches in this section describe his ongoing attempts to loosen the grip that his memories of the past continue to have on him in order to live a fuller life in the present. The second poem of the section, “I Lost You,” begins
I lost you then and now, even today, I’ve lost you.
Every day, not a day when I had not thought of losing you.
I think I’ve lost you to the future, too.
I beg and pray, but know I must lose you, the way
A snake sheds its skin, a crab goes soft for another stage of life.
This poem is followed by two sketches or short prose essays. The first describes the ignominious historical events that led to the Khmer Rouge taking power in 1975, particularly the Nixon-Kissinger illegal bombing of Cambodia. The second describes Chath’s visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, currently a popular tourist destination owned and operated by a Japanese company, that was previously the notorious Khmer Rouge torture center, S-21, where approximately 15,000 prisoners were tortured and executed and only eight survived to bear witness to the atrocities that took place there. These two sketches trace Chath’s intellectual processing of the crimes and the aftermath of the genocide that assist him in his struggle to locate himself in relation to the Cambodia of today so he may “shed his skin for another stage of life.”
. . .
The third and middle section of the collection, “Mother, I’m Coming Home,” continues the theme of Chath’s ongoing struggle to locate himself in relation to the past as he strives to move forward in his journey of healing. Interestingly, the middle section invokes Chath’s mother, who is likewise referred to in the first and last poems of the collection. Her spirit occupies the center and the periphery of the collection and Chath’s existence as he lurches forward and backward in time and in and out of the spaces he tries to inhabit. As mentioned above, Chath’s mother died in 1982, two years after he escaped Cambodia with his older brother and sister. She remained in Cambodia with Chath’s other surviving siblings. At that time, the country was in the midst of a civil war, and the US and its allies had imposed an economic embargo on Cambodia that was occupied and controlled by its enemy, the communist Vietnamese, who had removed the Khmer Rouge from power but remained in the country until the end of the Cold War in 1989. Under these conditions, without humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the genocide and ongoing civil war, life in Cambodia was harsh and unforgiving for survivors who just emerged from almost four years of forced labor and starvation. Chath’s mother soon lost hope and stopped eating and died as Chath’s brothers did little to prevent her demise.
The section “Mother, I’m Coming Home” begins with a poem with the same title. It is an ode to her enduring spirit. Interestingly, Chath structures the poem in stanzas of three lines each with end rhymes that recall traditional Khmer verse patterns originating from the prolific literary period of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Sixteen years is too long.
Mother, I’m coming home
To collect your bones.
. . .
In terms of their organization and placement in the collection, the last section of poems and sketches draws our attention to the symmetry of the collection’s overall design. In the same way that Cambodia’s most famous stone temple Angkor Wat was ingeniously constructed as a cosmological model of the Hindu universe, On Earth Beneath Sky is carefully organized to draw connections between different times and places in Chath’s journey. We have already identified Chath’s mother as the book’s center and periphery. Similarly, it is part of the book’s careful design that the final section begins with the poem “An Escape Route” that mirrors the first poem of the first section “Un Réfugié.” Both poems deal with the recurring theme of dislocation, alienation and flight that is at the core of the survivor’s experience and Chath’s own journey to healing. The first poem of the collection describes Chath’s departure from the refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines en route to the US, where Chath, along with his brother and sister, has been accepted for asylum.
My brother spoke French, Un Réfugié.
He carried the IOM bag with our tags.
Refugees across borders,
From camp to Bangkok, on a plane to Manila.
The title of the first poem of the final section entitle “An Escape Route” draws a straight line to the first poem of the first section, “Un Réfugié,” just as the bas-relief panels in the third gallery that surrounds the Angkor Wat temple are purposefully positioned north to south and east to west to connect key figures in Hindu literature and mythology that relate to the temple’s builder Suryavarman. Here, the French title of “Un Réfugié” connects to the poet’s “escape” to France in “An Escape Route.”
My next escape will be the south of France,
Country of parfum and lavender,
Into the arms of a dying friend,
Another winter without a New England Christmas.
In the first poem, Chath is literally escaping from Cambodia to the US. In the second poem, Chath is figuratively “escaping” from the US to France to be at the bedside of his dying former lover, whom he met in Cambodia. Written in America before his “escape” to France, Chath contemplates how far he has come and yet how little some things have changed.
No matter how American I’ve become,
Cambodia’s forever my shadow.
Alone with an iced coffee, I inked out a poem
About farming to evade another nightmare.
. . .
Chath pierSath refuses to be confined by boundaries, whether the physical borders of nations or the conceptual borders of social categories. He started crossing borders when he fled Cambodia in 1980 with his older brother Thol, and he has not stopped. As the title of this collection of poems suggests, his “boundaries” are the earth and the sky, but that is a convenient metaphor based on the lyrics of a popular song from Cambodia’s so-called “Golden Age” from the 1960s during the Sihanouk Era. Chath’s actual horizons, if he has any at all, go much further, from the cellular level of the body’s veins and organs to the farthest planets and stars in the cosmos; and this expansive perspective is reflected in his language. In turns, his images are now firmly grounded in the living things of the earth; the trees and plants and the changing seasons; the winter snows and spring rains that collect into rivers and flow to the sea; now in the body’s currents of blood that pool and circulate in its organs and limbs; now by the infinite stars and planets orbiting unknown solar systems. And for Chath, these realms are not separate, nor can they be contained by arbitrary names or boundaries. They are interconnected, indefinite and interdependent. Chath sees the earth as an astronaut would see it from space, swirling masses of land and water, borderless and nameless.
Chath’s book is available at www.loompress.com and through amazon.com.
George Chigas is an American writer, scholar and expert on Cambodian culture and the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. He is currently an associate professor of teaching in the World Languages and Cultures department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.