NEA Literature Fellowships

Monica Sok

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(2017 - Poetry)

"Song of an Orphaned Soldier, Clearing Land Mines"

When I saw my father walking
I thought he might look like a man
afraid to die. Ahead
I kicked the road,
land mines ready to burst at his feet,
convinced their metal brains
the humming they heard
was a knife cutting,
not a living man’s voice.
They believed me.
They had heard this song before.
Like snakes in grass,
they clicked their tongues.
The gods I met promised me
they could make a life happen
after what had happened
if I knew who my father was.
I clapped my hands to signal a stream
and my father followed my sound.
He drank and bathed
as I cleared the land mines,
and I hoped it was him. He slept
in the jungle, dreamed jaguars circling
though it was nothing but fire
burning. Close to the Bassac,
I climbed mango trees,
dropped down svay to feed him.
Along the way, I waved my arms no.
To himself my father said, Yes.
No, I did not bury the bodies
nobody had prayed for.
There are things in this world
we must make one another see.
My father took me gently,
each one of us
gently, he took us to the flames
humming my children,
my children. Three provinces,
I traveled with him like this
only to take him back to Prek Eng
where he found his sisters.
If my father were to tell this,
he would tell you he carried me
over his shoulders to a nearby village,
that no danger touched him
and that the gods were watching,
they wanted to see me live.

(originally published in TriQuarterly Review)

Monica Sok was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1990. She is the daughter of Cambodian refugees and the granddaughter of Em Bun, a master weaver and recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship. Her chapbook Year Zero was selected by Marilyn Chin for a Poetry Society of America 30 and Below Chapbook Fellowship. Currently, she is the 2016-2018 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University, where she is working on her first book of poems. Other honors include awards and fellowships from Kundiman, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Hedgebrook, MacDowell Colony, the Saltonstall Foundation, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Inc., and Napa Valley, Squaw Valley, and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, Narrative, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, and TriQuarterly Review, among others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University.

Photo by Sy Abudu

Author's Statement

The day the news was officially announced, my friend and I were talking in a riverside cafe in Phnom Penh. He was a dancer who had returned to Cambodia to learn the role of the giant in Khmer traditional ballet; and I was back in the motherland to do research and visit temples in Siem Reap. Our conversation turned into one about trauma and the preservation of the arts. His teachers were hard on themselves when they forgot moves they learned from masters who died during the war. I spoke about my grandmother Em Bun, a weaver who struggled with depression as an immigrant. I was surprised when my friend said he recognized her name. Then I remembered that she had received a National Heritage Fellowship the year I was born. At that moment, I teared up. My heart was heavy over the political turmoil in America and I couldn’t shake off my fears about the future or celebrate this achievement. I had not been able to acknowledge the significance of my own NEA Fellowship until I looked up my grandmother on the internet and found a photo of her sitting in front of her loom and spools of thread I used to touch as though they were my toys. I believe my grandmother visited me then in that riverside cafe. I feel connected to her as women artists, weaver to poet. I’m proud to be a part of the NEA’s rich history and even more honored to share this with a survivor in my family.