Three Poems

You Know the Killing Fields

for Rada Long, interpreter

She believes because I am Jewish
I must understand
what she went through after Cambodia
was ground down to zero on April 17, 1975,
when grim-faced teenage boys
wearing fatigues over black pajamas,
grenades, pistols, rifles, rockets
weighing down their shoulders,
marched cocky into Phnom Penh.

I must understand how the Angka found her
in the paddies in the moonlight stuffing rice kernels
into her pockets to keep from starving
and bashed in the back of her head with a shovel.

I must understand that they frisked her,
found the eyeglasses inside her krama
and smashed them into the monsoon-soaked soil, raving:
Traitor, intellectual relic, you can’t run from
the “Super Great Leap Forward” and then slashed
her arms with the shards of broken glass.

I must understand why they threatened
to cut out her tongue for humming
a snatch of song sung by Sin Samouth,
the Frank Sinatra of Kampuchea,
who is nothing more to them
than a bourgeois capitalist pig
masquerading as a Frog.

I do not tell her I wasn’t there,
that I read about the Holocaust like any goy
who wishes to understand.
Instead, I tell her about a Nazi who sat at a table
covered with delicacies and booze,
holding an automatic pistol in his hand,
who forced Jews to lie naked face down in a pit
and between shots of cognac shot them dead…
as if it were my story.
She says, You don’t know how happy
you make me, you know the killing fields.

Previously published in Willa Schneberg, Storytelling in Cambodia (Corvallis, Oregon: CALYX Books, 2006).


The Hotel Cambodiana

It’s always tea time at the Cambodiana.
We don’t care about history here,
we own the manor.
We are the British in India,
the Italians in Eritrea,
the Dutch in Indonesia.
As far as we’re concerned
Cambodge will always be a French baguette.

If Cambodia were designed by Disney
it would be the Cambodiana,
with orange-tiled pitched roofs and facades
turned up at the ends like leprechaun shoes,
where Khmer culture is an apsara with Barbie’s body,
and stone Avalokitesvaras’ smiling full-lipped mouths
adorn whiskey glasses.

We are too busy toasting ourselves
to hear the bulldozers flattening the huts
of the squatters outside the gate,
who come at the demolitionists with axes,
stupidly refusing to give up their land and
accept who they are:
never a well-stocked wine cellar,
always the olive in the bottom of a martini glass.

Previously published in Willa Schneberg, Storytelling in Cambodia (Corvallis, Oregon: CALYX Books, 2006).

The Reaper

In Cambodia land mines kill or maim three hundred people each month.
One mine remains in the ground for every two people in the country.

He is not in Kurdistan, Somalia, Angola,
Afghanistan or Kuwait, but Cambodia.
The Khmers know him as another white foreigner
telling them he is better at what
they have been forced to learn to do,
but they are sure that this expert
with the expensive equipment
will save at least one life, maybe more,
planting in reverse.
He is the blind walking gingerly with a metal detector
and a stick praying for weightlessness,
plucking out death melons
innocent paddies swallowed with rice seeds.

The villagers follow him, even the one riding a bicycle
with his remaining hand and leg.
They want to show him how they marked
where the death potatoes hide.
Over here, underneath the tree stump painted red.
There, beneath a bundle of upright sticks tied together with grass.
Behind you, below a plastic bag tied to a bamboo branch.

They must lead him
to the black buds
before they shriek into blossom.

Previously published in Willa Schneberg, Storytelling in Cambodia (Corvallis, Oregon: CALYX Books, 2006).

About Willa Schneberg

Willa Schneberg worked for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (1992- 1993) first as a District Electoral Supervisor overseeing two polling sites in Phnom Penh for that nation’s first “free and fair” elections since the French colonial period, and later as a Medical Liaison Officer supporting the health needs of the Mission’s volunteers. She helicoptered with other medical professionals to remote clinics. Currently, Willa is a psychotherapist, poet, and ceramic sculptor in Portland, Oregon.

Read more