Book Reviews, Recent

Part of that Secret

by Greg Bem | Contributing Writer

On Earth Beneath Sky
Chath pierSath
Loom Press, 2020

“My prince, your letter folded the American flag. Your Mekong was the color blood. Your oracle reversed its flow, fated to crumble your kingdom. Shadows were to shape your destiny. An approaching butcher thirsted for your people’s blood. He is destined to stop the bullet you loaded and fired.”

(from “Day of Abandonment,” page 34)

Following 2009’s After and 2012’s This Body Mystery, the Cambodian American writer and visual artist Chath pierSath introduces a new, robust collection of poems. On Earth Beneath Sky documents pierSath’s time surviving the Khmer Rouge and fleeing Cambodia, integrating into an American way of life as a refugee, and his return to the Kingdom of Wonder, On Earth Beneath Sky is a humble and striking book refreshing in both its structure and range. Deriving inspiration from pierSath’s other artistic life as a painter, each poem is an intimate portrait of specific experiences and moments that lends a sprawling visual quality to otherwise autobiographical poems.

The book is divided into five sections. The opening section, “Claim Me, America,” is an ecstatic sequence of examining the moments of entering the United States and the process of “becoming” American. These poems capture the positive qualities of finding safety and security in a time of crisis, and at the same time reinforce the difficulty of such acclimations and changes.

“In Paradise” explicitly acknowledges the beauty of the natural world of the United States, a counterpart to more literal descriptions of war and peace: “Bird chirps and cheers, / Cawing crows mourning friends, / Singing their pecking songs, / Caught up in foolish wars over food and territory.” Such juxtaposition and polarity continues in “The Loneliest Winter”:

My wings grow in books and imagination,
Through peace and security in life and work,
Under the roof from which I cannot stray.
I can stand the loneliness of the West,
But not those nights alone in a rat-infested cell of the East [. . .]

The documentation of pierSath’s refugee experiences is continued in the book’s second section, “I Lost My Kampuchea,” which brings together odes and death songs, examining head-on the tragedy and pain of Cambodia. It is a sequence of emotionally brutal poems that tells many stories: the disruption of the country’s development due to historic and contemporary colonialism; the confrontation of systemic, intergenerational poverty; and even barriers to identity in the diaspora.

pierSath isn’t afraid of saying the most difficult ideas transparently here: “I lost you then and now, even today, I’ve lost you,” he proclaims in “I Lost You.” The degradation and decay of a former home, a former land of youth and of purity, by way of colonialism, war, genocide, and corruption is a difficult set of realities to embrace, and yet pierSath does so in these poems. The complexity of this level of examination is what truly sets aside pierSath’s work from other Khmer Rouge survivor narratives on bookshelves. pierSath’s reflection on survival of identity within the past and present demonstrates the poet’s systemic comprehension across the decades.

The kids’ scraggly hair and dirty white-and-blue school uniforms come from poverty, social and economic isolation, rural roads, water buffalo and oxen, plows, rice fields full of water after the monsoon shook heaven with thunder-and-lightning. Toads and bullfrogs join a symphony at night. Crickets and cicadas in the forest, hidden in the banyan trees, tall and thick, the darkness and humidity of life overcrowded and burned by the rush of heat birthing everything to nothing. Boys fly hand-made kites, swimming the muddy pond of their own floating feces, teasing each other, mouth to eyes flirting, tiny bones acrobatic and wiry, gaunt, and stunted by malnutrition.

(from “Old Familiars”)

pierSath’s displacement and relocation has led to a world of balance and fertility within his art and artistic self. In On Earth Beneath Sky, the reader gains access to the poet’s perception and conception regarding the makeup of a country, as an image and a symbol, and how these meanings can evolve over time. The poet’s relationship is in turn continuously developed over time, and with each poem in the “I Lost My Kampuchea” sequence, pierSath reveals the curious and compelling texture to his artistic process and reflective way of life.

Where the second section conveys elements of loss and grief, “Mother, I’m Coming Home” is a sequence that firmly posits catharsis and reconciliation as a means toward thriving in the everyday. In it, pierSath looks toward trauma and awareness of trauma as a guide toward healing and health. Like the Mekong River, a critical symbol of power and energy for both Cambodia and for pierSath, these poems reflect movement, fluidity, and knowledge of and yearning for continuity.

pierSath has lived in Massachusetts for many years and in the book’s fourth section, “Body & Soul,” we see the poet explore this personal history. The quintessential old, American soul—of pastures and fields, of forests and hills—serves as conduit to the beauty surrounding the poet. In this section pierSath evokes the “body electric” of Walt Whitman, one of the core influences of the book overall. pierSath holds values, morality, and identity up to windows of experience again. He documents the visceral and pairs it with feeling. He discusses his homosexuality. He looks for the positivity within wildlife and bodies of water, and comments on the power of nature against humanity:

As man claimed the world, he chiseled and cut everything and said parallelism does not exist. He built dams. He dug channels in the rivers for cargo ships. He changed Nature every way to suit himself by leveling mountains, downing the trees, short-cutting the rivers, stopping water flow to make electric power. But the rivers, now, larger, aware of each other, have become stronger and wider. They conspire with the clouds, the sun, and the moon, the spirits of dead trees that man logged in the mountains, and the oceans, animals of land and seas, to overthrow with heat and flood Man’s rule over the planet. Death to man! Nature chants.

(from “Nature’s Revulsion”)

The world pierSath has come to know via the New England orchard contrasts sharply with the natural world of abuse and neglect he has encountered at times across the Pacific Ocean. In “Body & Soul,” the odes to the land that could be and were previously are strongly connected to spirits and movement. The poet sings of these lands and their power in spite of all the suffering, destruction, and ecological loss. In a later poem, “Out the Window,” pierSath goes even further to reflect upon knowing and meaning by way of the image and that perception of the world. Looking outward not only inspires to create—it is the proof that creation and life exist.

Though it feels like a short addendum to the collection, the book’s fifth section, “Paris,” reveals the world is never just binary, never one or the other. A keystone sequence, “Paris” shows the poet as the adventurer and demonstrates that boundaries of experience are complex and fluid. The triangulation of the Cambodian refugee experience finds additional consideration in the context of the colonial roots. An image of the oppressor haunts his geographical source and casts horror where his roots may be found. And there is the poet, open and alive, considering and being present throughout these inquiries and phenomena. “Paris” is an exposé into what it means to belong, what it means to be included, and what it might mean for there to be a middle ground of understanding and daily existence, one between the extremes established in pierSath’s descriptions of life in the United States and Cambodia.

Unlike many autobiographical poetry collections, pierSath includes an introduction that guides the reader through what has been undoubtedly a challenging, captivating, and relentless life. pierSath also includes the wrenching opening poem “My Mother Wanted My Brother to Take Me Back to Her,” and the hopeful epilogue, “The Way I Want to Remember My Cambodia.” The poems’ features are literal and matter of fact—straightforward stories in a language of clarity and directness—but many are also challenging stories when the layers and subtexts are considered. He calls the book a collection of poems and sketches, and the poet’s life is revealed as an ongoing cycle of songs and exclamations dependent upon worldly evolution. While the poet’s experiences lead to a wisdom capable of guiding creativity and art, that wisdom also must keep shifting, and will continue to grow alongside the growth of the world.

My Cambodia, tell me again the stories of how the old
ghosts take possession of human souls, how monsters
shape the art of death. 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.

(from “The Way I Want to Remember My Cambodia”)

Greg Bem is a Seattle-based librarian and poet, whose recent books include Of Spray and Mist (Hand to Mouth, 2020) and Green Axes (Alien Buddha, 2021).