Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Poem from Cambodia

I've been asked to blog this.

I met Phillay, driving his tuk tuk, last time I was in Cambodia, and he told me his story of survival from the  Khmer Rouge. (I'm assuming you all know something about the terrible times that the Khmer Rouge brought to Cambodia.)

I promised to tell his story when I came home - this is an extraordinary tale of terror and courage that we need to hear it, however uncomfortable that might be. But when I came to write it, as a story, I found it simply too painful. I couldn't hold it together in the boundaries of a story - somehow the horrors fell out of the edges and contaminated everything.

But I could write it as a poem. By attending to rhythms, and line lengths, and the general sound of the piece I could, at last, give his story a shape. This is not everything that happened to him, but it gives you a flavour of how his life has been. (You need to know that Pol Pot was the President of the Khmer Rouge, and that Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia.)


His father was a military man; with house and car
and uniform and no defence when Pol Pot knocked.
Phillay, then seventeen, was driven from Phnom Penh
to dig canals from daybreak, with the promise of
just one small bowl of rice at nightfall and
anything else that might float by:
fish; crabs; snails; leeches.
His body soon cadaverous.

Malaria bit him. 
A friend carried him to hospital, protection
from the last indignity of dying in the fields and heaped,
like compost, in stinking ditches.
He found a brother and a sister there,
shared their bed, kept breathing
while they died beside him and he ate their rice
until the smell betrayed their non-existence.

It saved his life.  He tottered from his bed to glimpse,
across a compound wall,
the Director’s daughter.
With his eyes he loved her; and in his head:
he rested on her breast and slept.
Yet dare not touch her, knowing babies
would be ripped from her, swung by the ankles
against a tree, their brains in offal fragments
lest they tell the tales of loving

They moved him on, the men in black,
to jute mills, to the rice paddies.
But love hung, like a window, above the fields of bones.


  1. Jo, this is amazing! So moving and says so much in so few words. The word patterns, the rhythms, the imagery are all so fresh. It's given me goosebumps. So glad you wrote this and so glad you told his story.

  2. Extraordinary - a horrific tale perfectly told. Some of my earliest clear - and enduring - memories are of the awful pictures that came out of Cambodia

  3. Wow, Jo, this is incredible - so powerful and unflinching. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. Thank you all - we was a wonderful man, with an extraordinary sense of humour in spite of all this.

  5. Amazing. Horrible and beautiful all at once.

  6. A humbling way to communicate the horror, heart breaking yet poignant, a wonderful tribute.

  7. Very very powerful Jo. Thank you s much for pointing it out. Beautifully written. What horror. Do consider submitting a poem for our Grief issue of When Women Waken, by 9/30; or our Power issue of When Women Waken, by 12/31. - Anora