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Gruel (英語) ペーパーバック – 2015/6/25
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In his first full-length collection, GRUEL, Bunkong Tuon documents the lives of Cambodian refugees and explores the poetic landscape of a Cambodian America. Written tenderly, with honesty, intelligence, and occasional humor, GRUEL is populated by survivors such as a boy who loses his mother to the Khmer Rouge regime, a grandmother who risks her life to steal a few grains of rice for her grandson, an uncle who is beaten by Thai military police for night fishing outside a refugee camp, an aunt who leaves the East Coast to buy a donut shop in California, a father who re-experiences the traumas of the Cambodian Genocide, a young man who discovers Charles Bukowski in a Long Beach public library, a professor who teaches about the horrors of war to college students at a private college in Upstate New York, to name a few. It's a book about memories, ghosts and haunting, personal loss and historical traumas, losing and finding home, discovery and self-invention; above all, it's a book about love, sacrifice, and hope.
Born a few years before the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975, Bunkong Tuon remembered very little of the atrocities in Cambodia. In 1979, he escaped with his grandmother and extended family to live in refugee camps in Thailand before settling in Malden, Massachusetts in the 1980s. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Quarterly, The Paterson Literary Review, Chiron Review, The Mas Tequila Review, Nerve Cowboy, Numero Cinq, Misfit Magazine, and The Massachusetts Review, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Union College, in Schenectady, NY.
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.
Along with the unique story which unfolds throughout Gruel, there is something fundamentally human that connects the reader with each poem in this book: themes of loss, love, growth, and the constant rediscovery of who we are as individuals and our place in society.
For those who are afraid to approach a book of poetry, I challenge you to read this one. For those who have made poetry an integral part of their lives, this book will add to that enrichment. Tuon’s story is an important one, and it’s told in one of the best books of poetry I’ve read in a long time.