Walt Whitman’s Cambodia: on U Sam Oeur’s Crossing Three Wildernesses (Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2005)
Note: I started writing a piece on U Sam Oeur’s fine memoir a few years back but never quite finished it or got it published. What follows is the last version I worked on. Crossing Three Wildernesses is available from Coffee House Press, here.
“O, monument of Independence! O, library! O, books of poetry!
I can never chant the divinely inspired poems again!
O, quintessential words of poets!
O, artifacts I can never touch or see again!
O, Phnom Penh! O, pagoda where we worship!
O, Angkor Wat, sublime monument to the
aspirations of our ancient Khmer forefathers.
Ah, I can’t see across those three wildernesses:”
I’ll be nowhere,
I’ll have no night,
I’ll have no day anymore:
I shall be a man without identity.
— from U Sam Oeur’s poem, ‘The Fall of Culture’
Walt Whitman never went to Cambodia. In his quest to forge a new poetics of America, it’s unlikely that French Indochina much entered his mind. But the author of Leaves of Grass has a disciple in Cambodian poet, U Sam Oeur. Born in 1936 in Svay Rieng province in eastern Cambodia, Oeur has led a remarkable life. He grew up in a relatively prosperous peasant household, tending buffalos as the French protectorate wound down. An inquisitive child, he became a searching witness to — and a participant in — Cambodian political life. Whereas many of the future Khmer Rouge leaders studied in France in the 1950s, steeping themselves in communist doctrine, Oeur spent much of the 1960s in the US. After returning to Cambodia he was a member of parliament and a diplomat to the UN during the Khmer Republic (1970-75). He then survived the horrors of the Democratic Kampuchea period (1975-79), during which Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge wreaked catastrophic havoc throughout the country. More than a decade after Vietnam invaded Cambodia to end Khmer Rouge rule (over large parts of the country, at least), Oeur felt compelled — due to his political views and, not least, his propensity to voice his complaints in poetry — to flee his homeland for the US.
Oeur’s Crossing Three Wildernesses is not the first Cambodian memoir published in English with literary merit, intermingling stories of war and atrocity with sketches of Cambodian culture and the Khmer spirit world. But it is the first to invoke the example of Whitman, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot; to praise the virtues, and to reflect on the lessons for Cambodia, of Lincoln’s Gettysburg’s address and JFK’s inauguration speech; to recall a party in the sixties, in an old house by a river, at which Allen Ginsberg was the guest of honour and Kurt Vonnegut a late arrival: ‘He appeared to me to be a wrinkled fourteen-year-old boy.’
As U Sam Oeur tells readers of Crossing Three Wildernesses, he discovered poetry during his years of in the US — at Georgetown University, where he first studied English, a teacher compared his writing to Whitman before he even knew who Whitman was. Later, Oeur studied industrial design in California, but a growing preoccupation with philosophy threatened to derail his practical bent. Increasingly stressed, too, about the intensifying war at home, he began to write poems as a form of catharsis. When a fellow student used some of them in a printing project, unknown benefactors bundled him off to the University of Iowa to enrol in a Master of Fine Arts: ‘A few hours later the plane landed in the middle of cornfields … I still had absolutely no idea why I was there.’
When Oeur returned to Cambodia in 1968, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s long exploration of one-man democracy was unravelling badly, and Sihanouk’s flawed — and often feigned — attempts to steer a neutral political course had not kept the Vietnam War from spilling into Cambodia. In 1970, Sihanouk’s underlings ousted him in a coup. The new government, led by General Lon Nol, should have appealed to U Sam Oeur: it was US-backed, it was supposedly democratic, and it sought to defend Cambodia from the communist rebels — the Khmer Rouge — who were accumulating territory and supporters in the countryside. But Lon Nol was erratic, and his government deeply corrupt and massively incompetent. On his parliamentary career, Oeur reflects, ‘I was one of 126 members, and like a swarm of flies, we did nothing, just buzzed around.’ Lon Nol, he adds, suspected him of communism because he did not own a car.
When the Khmer Rouge swept Lon Nol’s regime aside in 1975, emptying the capital Phnom Penh and other major towns, U Sam Oeur transformed himself into an illiterate peasant. Before leaving his home and walking into the countryside he burnt his poems: ‘I felt as if I were cremating my own body.’ Throughout the Pol Pot years, Oeur managed to stay with his wife, young son and mother-in-law. In a series of forced labour camps they were — in a story remarkable because it is all-too-typical — exposed to overwork, disease, a lack of food and medicine, propaganda, and astonishing acts of wanton violence. In 1976, in Kratie province, Oeur’s pregnant wife, Syna, went into labour: ‘One midwife squatted above Syna’s chest and pushed down. Another reached up into her womb and ripped the baby out. I heard two cries, then silence. Then water came out of my wife’s womb again. Again, the midwife reached up into my wife’s womb and ripped a second baby out. Two cries, then silence. My mother-in-law, who had to watch helplessly, noticed that they were both girls. She communicated this to me with her eyes. Although the action was blocked from my view, it was apparent that this “midwife” had strangled our twin daughters.’
For Oeur, there were only brief moments of respite. One time, while working on dry season rice paddy, he found himself in the company of an old teaching colleague: ‘We were responsible for drawing water to the paddy fields at night and clearing the canebrakes during the way. While we were drawing water we quietly chatted in English about how miserable we were. Dara sang that sappy Bobby Winton song, “Roses are red, my love,” and I, in turn, recited Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain!” and President Kennedy’s inauguration speech.’
After the Khmer Rouge regime fell to Vietnam, Oeur and his family made their way home. Their house had been ransacked; the few possessions Oeur had hidden in the ceiling were gone: ‘On the floor, however, I did find one page from one of my old books — it was a poem by Emily Dickinson. For many years afterwards I kept it in a safe … I carry it with me, tucked into a manuscript of my poems, hoping that that one page will somehow transfer its power to my own work.’
For Oeur, as for many Cambodians, the joy of liberation faded as the reality of Vietnamese occupation settled upon him. He worked in the bureaucracy, but his restlessness and his dissatisfaction with the Hanoi-installed government grew. When a colleague found a politically-charged poem hidden in his desk, Oeur decided he was ‘too old to hide in the swamps again.’ For several mornings, he arrived at work and recited a defiant verse in the foyer before retreating to his office. Quickly, he was fired — just like Walt Whitman, he recalled.
Oeur continued his public orations, from his veranda at home and in the mixed company of a rice wine shack near his home. His almost noble loss of control reached its apex in a drunken and dangerous — chanting of a newly-written poem, ‘Mad Scene’. Here, Oeur’s self-observation is stunning and visceral: ‘I went to the rice wine shack, bought a fiver-liter jar of rice wine, and invited my old and new friends to share it with me … After we had all had a few drinks, I chanted my new poem at the top of my lungs. Even some of my “friends” didn’t get all the politics behind the poem, so they cackled nervously. But one man understood. He quietly let everyone know that even listening to that poem could endanger their lives. Furtively, they retreated into the dusk, one by one. Yet I crooned on, like one deranged, hobbling along on the potholed road to freedom. At least that was the path I thought I was following.’
Oeur’s capacity for almost brutal self-examination, wild and raw, elevates the significance of his prose far beyond the telling of a life. Crossing Three Wildernesses is his attempt to comprehend the quagmire of modern Cambodian history, and to honour and defend the life of poet and democrat that he has lived. It is also an act of defiance against the classic communist tactic of individuals writing forced autobiographies — some of the most harrowing and revealing texts that survived the Khmer Rouge years are the forced and often fanciful confessions of the prisoners of the S-21 prison.
In all these contexts, Walt Whitman is prominent in Oeur’s thinking: ‘Whitman, over the years, has become my mentor and my touchstone, in both what he said in his poetry and what he expressed in his essays, particularly on the subject of democracy. … The Buddhist underpinnings of his poetry, influenced by the New England Transcendentalists, represent a possible bridge for Cambodian poets … Our traditional poetry, written in classical forms, is quite beautiful, but is no longer suited to expressing many of the horrible and incongruous experiences of contemporary life.’
There is much shifting ground contained in Oeur’s explanation and philosophy. Ultimately, he extols a simple world, one in which a basic ‘good v evil’ outlook is prominent. That is not to suggest he is living in a naïve dream world. Harsh realities, and burst bubbles, punctuate almost every scene and incident. Oeur knows that the notion that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’ has not always sat comfortably with the US’s global preoccupations: ‘Democracy looked so good in America, but America wasn’t looking good in Cambodia.’ He knows, too, that Walt Whitman has whipped up a century and a half of controversy, that Whitman is often derided as ‘naïve and jingoistic’ and that debates about Whitman ebb and flow in concert with the shifting controversies of the day and ideas of the critic.
Oeur’s rigorous brand of honesty leads him to expose for show his worldview, which is inspiring and challenging but also, inevitably, imperfect. The public writing and performance of all this, including the extent to which his spirituality guides him, is deeply courageous. Modern Cambodian history is a mass — and a mess — of local, regional and global contexts, incorporating, just for starters, the Indochina Wars, the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet dispute, Thai-Vietnamese relations, and so on and so on. It is possible, then, to start out by pondering the merits and deficiencies of the hybrid UN/Cambodian tribunal for Khmer Rouge leaders but to end up aruging about whether Walt Whitman warrants so much twenty-first century attention. Pointing out and adding to this labyrinth of links can itself become an avoidance technique: as Tom Engelhardt once wrote, ‘an emphasis on the complexity of history can itself become part of a larger kind of denial.’
But the layers of conflicting and complicating contexts are nevertheless real. U Sam Oeur navigates these entanglements with elegance and unsparing truthfulness. He reveals a passion for an ideal world of peace and freedom, but because he writes and thinks with such self-awareness, and because he allows readers to judge him so fully, he also demonstrates how vast the gulf between dreams and reality truly is.