By Bunkong Tuon
Review by Scott Holstad
Bunkong Tuon is a very good and skilled poet. This, his first book, is an excellent start to what will likely be a long and talented career. It’s a biographical book arranged largely chronologically about his life as a Cambodian refugee escaping the Khmer Rouge with his grandmother, coming to America to a new life and the challenges that presented. He describes growing up on the East Coast, being teased and bullied because of his Asian heritage. He describes his family’s dedication to one another and his mother’s death at the hands of Pol Pot. He gives us his moving to the West Coast, to Long Beach, with family members, to a new life there as a teenager. He describes his (bad) career as a student, his jobs working in warehouses and as a custodian. We learn of his going to the Long Beach City Library and his discovery of Charles Bukowski, which changed his life and his learning forever. I can certainly relate to that because I, too, hated most poetry and literature until I discovered Bukowski myself and he opened up a whole new world to me, one in which any type of poetry with any topic was possible. It kick started my career as a poet.
Tuon went on to go to Cal State Long Beach (my alma mater), graduating and going on to graduate school back on the East Coast. Along the way, he meets his wife, who is also an academic and they enjoy discussing literature and academics. After he gets his doctorate, he’s surprised to be given a job at a small liberal arts college in New York, where he is today and writes of his students and his teaching, his wife’s efforts to finish her own studies, and her attempts to learn Khmer culture. There’s a lot of sadness and humor in this book and it makes for a nice, comprehensive look at his life. The book is divided into sections, many of which are titled things like “East Coast” and “West Coast,” etc. However, I think his last section, “Cambodia,” stands out the most for me. In it, he writes of his relatives in Cambodia and his birth, the destiny of his wife’s and his births and lives, his uncle and his aspirations, and what I think is the most powerful and impressive poem, “Inheritance,” in which he gives us the Cambodian dead, destroyed temples and monks, child soldiers, and more. It’s quite moving.
Overall, this is a strong book of poetry, especially for a first effort. It’s narrative poetry, free verse, but not as lively as Bukowski, so if you’re expecting gambling, drinking, and whores, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a unique perspective on a Cambodian man living in a world different from the one of his youth, a person dealing with ghosts, trying to make a new life with a new spouse in a new profession and enjoying life in the process. And it’s a good process to read about. Recommended.
About Scott C. Holstad
Scott Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.