I Among Enemy Am Enemy: A Review of Monica Sok’s A Nail the Evening Hangs On

by Natalie Eilbert

Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2020. 88 pages. $16.00

To the other nations who are not witnesses, who are not subject to the same oppressions, they cannot know. Unfathomable the words, the terminology: enemy, atrocities, conquest, betrayal, invasion, destruction. They exist only in the larger perception of History’s recording, that affirmed, admittedly and unmistakably, one enemy nation has disregarded the humanity of another… To the others, these accounts are about (one more) distant land, like (any other) distant land, without any discernable features in the narrative, (all the same) distant like any other. —Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee

Monica Sok’s debut poetry collection, A Nail the Evening Hangs On, reveals atrocities spanning Cambodia from the 1960s through the late ’70s, from which the genocide at Tuol Sleng takes central stage. Sok’s meticulous documentation of what the speaker’s family endured flashes across every poem in this collection, whether she references “old people,” “Year Zero,” “tonnage,” or “family portraits.” The poems spread from Phnom Penh in the Mekong Lowlands to Siem Reap in the Northwestern Province to Ratanakiri in the Eastern Province; and they also move from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to New York City, in which Sok herself was raised and received her MFA, respectively. Such landmarks are significant because Yuos Samon, Sok’s uncle, was on track to follow a similar trajectory in the ’70s—except that he returned to Phnom Penh after moving to the United States, where he was killed during the Cambodian Genocide. 

The various voices in this collection consider oral history anew; the speaker follows her family across time and reports what she can piece together from their memories. Sok offers this koan, from her poem “Song of an Orphaned Soldier Clearing Land Mines”: “There are things in this world / we must make one another see.” In pursuing the things in this world that are Sok’s inheritance, she must see. While others visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum to “never forget,” having taken a sober break from drinking sugar water from halved coconuts, Sok’s speaker wanders the halls of the former school building in search of a portrait of her uncle, taken among the 14,000 inmates also captured in portraiture prior to execution: “They buy books from the souvenir shops / and silk scarves and krama / and handmade purses. // But we come here to look for someone.”

Anlong Veng, in the Northwest Province of Cambodia, represents not only the scar of the former Khmer Rouge stronghold, but also the first of the killing fields following the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea. In her poem, “Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions,” we travel with her through a museum of weapon artifacts from the Khmer Rouge—AK-47’s, Howitzer 105mm’s, M2A2’s, DK 75mm’s—wherein tourists pose and play with the US- and Chinese-manufactured artillery on display. A lawn mower outside the war museum “activates the scene of a battlefield.” The poem ends, “The young woman rests next to a DK 75mm made in China, found in / Anlong Veng.” Much in the way that Sok’s speaker enters the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum searching for her uncle, the violence remains alive at the end of this poem. The Dangrek Mountains in Anlong Veng, used as a Khmer Rouge base, hide a forest with still-not-excavated landmines. As Sok’s various speakers remain occupied by the psychic pain of inherited trauma (“I could fall over from this too”), the landscape of her home country remains literally pocked and dashed with secret weapons. 

In Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, she examines the rise of the “New Left” in the post-World War II Boomer generation and the misinterpretation and corruption of Marxist and Hegelian teachings as they relate to grave midcentury violences. Written on the heels of the Cambodian Civil War, Arendt offers this helpful reminder in times of war: “If we look on history in terms of a continuous chronological process, whose progress, moreover, is inevitable, violence in the shape of war and revolution may appear to constitute the only possible interruption. If this were true, if only the practice of violence would make it possible to interrupt automatic processes in the realm of human affairs, the preachers of violence would have won an important point.” In her travels for answers, Sok’s speakers are the synthesis of the survivor’s history, her stories assigning name to violent interruptions of homeland, and thus she must embody each name that belongs to her lineage. She concludes her poem “Cambodia” with the willful denialism and minimization of the traumatized: “This real life is a story! / Life! Life! We sleep / in bed at night / but do not story a story because life!” For the survivors of war and revolution, there is a felt need to cauterize the wounds of the past. Nobody wins for what is forced out of memory, they might think. Look forward and live, they might say. But it is precisely the act of looking that enables Sok to arrive at the critical point of violence and diaspora. The story of this violence lives on.

I spent a long time diagramming Sok’s 33-line sestina called, in the tradition of the cumbersome form, “Sestina.” In the traditional sestina, six six-line stanzas close with a three-line stanza called the envoy. The envoy, or the postscript of the poem, also means messenger, a diplomatic figure, a representative, a subordinate to an ambassador. In Sok’s poem, we do not have a sixth stanza before we arrive at postscript. The A, B, C, D, E, and F ending words change in each stanza, although consistent words peppered throughout the lines are permutations of “hiding,” “screams,” “close,” “time,” “dry,” and “talk.” The poem opens with, “There’s a sister who works so hard she never talks.” Phrases like “never talk,” repeat throughout: she is the sister who “never talks,” “she never talks,” “she stays quiet.” I wondered about this missing stanza. I wondered where it went. As I read on in this collection, I understood that the pulse of the sestina—that is, what makes the form appealing in the remembrance of catastrophe—is the mosaic sense-making of living through events as illogical as her family’s lived atrocities. The poem “Recurring Dream,” for example, has the trappings of a sestina. Phrases repeat and shift from “It was a strange dinner. His empty chair,” to the next section’s “It was a very strange dinner. I tried to ask” and the next section’s “His empty chair in the old house.” The accrual of traumatic memory, its unreliability, inspires the appeal of the sestina: an ongoing obsession, a recurring development, a postscript capable only of language’s incantations. The sestina stands tall without resolution.

 In his polemic, “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin analyzes the legal system at war as it relates to “means to an end,” arguing that violences function “within the sphere of means themselves, without regard for the ends in which they serve.” The sestina, unresolved, always capable of permutation. In 1970, Richard Nixon issued orders to his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, to besiege the National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) troops stationed in Cambodia. The B-52 Stratofortress was employed for the first time over Cambodia, and could carry up to 70,000 pounds of weapons. These heavy bombers dropped at least half a million tons of bombs over Cambodia, a conservative estimate that, according to Jacobin, “is almost equal to what the United States dropped in the entire Pacific theater of World War II.” There was so reason any of this should have happened.

Dangerous weapons flew above, and so it makes sense that “hiding” is a key noun deployed throughout this collection. The semantic shift from find a hiding place to go into hiding is unbearable in the context of genocidal war. According to “Literacy and Education under the Khmer Rouge” by George Chigas and Dmitri Mosyakov,” ‘new people’ as a group provided an easy target and were increasingly singled out as traitors intent on sabotaging the goal of the Revolution.” Sok begins her restrained, sequential poem, “The Radio Host Goes into Hiding” by signaling a necessary plurality: “Disguising myself as old people / to survive in these fields of black-uniformed Khmer…” A reader lacking the historical backdrop might read this as the literal elderly, but the “old” people were also the “new people” insofar as they had to conceal their group identity. They did this by “erasing all signs of education under the previous regime” (Chigas and Mosyakov). This poem pushes its spatiality, preferring cyphers and gaps over standard punctuation, which makes sense. One of the primary warnings in this poem is to remain quiet. They cannot sing the songs of Yol Aularong, a Cambodian garage band rocker presumably killed during the Cambodian Genocide; instead they are “almost humming” his song before remembering “the song is dead.” The old people hum an Angkor song in their commutes home. Even here, the sestina functions as a rearrangement of information, a shuttling to and fro in the steady march to remain alive.

The second section of A Nail the Evening Hangs On, called “Tuol Sleng,” configures itself among the tourism attraction that has become the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Sok’s speaker visits the museum with her nephew, who cannot see what she sees: “The floor flecked with blood / and the walls the color,” “a small piece of chalk still there,” “the floor stained / and the walls the color.” Because this torture–death chamber had been converted from a schoolhouse, the nephew runs and zips from hallway to room with daring alacrity. To be at school and not school! As the speaker attempts to find evidence of her uncle tortured and murdered within these walls, she finds herself imagining a boy sitting inside a classroom in Tuol Sleng.

The boy is still inside a classroom.

He raises his hand to answer the teacher’s question.

The teacher offers him a turn at the board

and gives him a piece of chalk.

His back is turned to the other students.

Now the teacher is a soldier.

Now the boy has chains on his wrists.

Now he’s smacked in the face.

Now his glasses break on his nose bridge.

Now he pretends he cannot spell

or count how many teeth knocked out.

It is now known that the Khmer Rouge targeted anyone in Cambodia who wore glasses, spoke French, or read novels. Reading a novel was considered a capital offense, according to Chigas and Mosyakov at the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University. Cambodians with a colonial or feudal education were seen as contaminated and suspicious. Sok tells us in the third section of this poem that the chalkboard has Khmer scribbles on it. In what is one of the most profound metaphors in the book, Sok tells us, regarding the Khmer language, “I walk to the chalkboard , / a small piece of chalk still there, / a scribble of Khmer on the dusty board. / And numbers. I can’t understand anything / but the numbers.” In the seismic event of genocide, it is difficult to comprehend death rates into the thousands and millions. Yet here, numbers are the only thing the speaker comprehends.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha writes in Dictee about the “enemy nation,” the swift violence permitted between Japan and Korea. She tells us, “The nation the enemy the name becomes larger than its own identity. Larger than its own measure. Larger than its own properties. Larger than its own signification.” Sok’s figure, still in disguise within the poem, “The Radio Host Goes into Hiding,” remains alive among her people, bearing witness to the renunciations of a previous education and pleasure in exchange for total abnegation. We begin to observe the disavowal of identity as the radio host appears anew in the form of Year Zero Public Radio. Rithisal, the figure’s friend, slowly reshapes his outward persona towards the Khmer Rouge. The world, she’ll write in a later poem, “seemed to enlarge / though nothing had changed.” We see, too, the arrival of the speaker’s own existential recrimination. She writes,

I among the new people

act as the old people

                                    I among the old people once lived

                                                            as new people

            I among enemy

                                                am enemy

In one of the early poems in A Nail the Evening Hangs On, this ouroboros of enemy lines comes through in the poem, “Americans Dancing in the Heart of Darkness,” which takes place amidst the horrors of the Water Festival Stampede on Diamond Island in Phnom Penh. But the stampede isn’t part of the speaker’s experience of the night. She is dancing, in and out of hotel rooms, eating french fries, watching fireworks. The confusion of identities lives within her when she tells us, “The Americans hate me and I hate them, / but they’re the only students with me and maybe I’m American too.” I among enemy / am enemy.

In considering Benjamin’s theory of violence in war—that is, it serves only the atrocity of means without capitulating an end—it is important to emphasize that Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Henry Kissinger should be remembered in every history book as nothing short of war criminals.[1] Prior to Operations Menu and Freedom Deal, both President Johnson and Nixon’s Air Forces carpet-bombed 83 separate sites in Cambodia, a place that, at the time, was deemed a neutral country of peace. The Air Force confessed they never knew who, in fact, they were bombing. It is clear, then, that Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger did not impose violence towards an end; we can only presume that its means was towards eradication of a people. 

In “The Death of Henry Kissinger,” Sok appropriates Nixon’s orders (“Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?”) given to Alexander Haig by Kissinger into the verse. In six tercets, Sok creates a call and response to such orders, and pans to children blowing bubbles and flying kites. A cruel dialectic, one we have by now read over and over again in Sok’s collection, configures two internal worlds—the Oval Office and the city of Takeo—in a ravaging espousing of history. Tercets offer a lens into a sepia journey; just as Dante followed Virgil in terza rima, we follow Sok in the tercet’s capable juxtaposition of worlds. Words and phrases like “bombs,” “Got that,” “Roger that,” “I dare you,” and “over and out” talk back to the orders to destroy “anything that swims.” The half a million tons of bombs dropped by the United States agitates the image of bubbles. We see these bubbles rise “toward the sky” that “burst bombs into jasmine.” (Nixon’s order, quoted in the poem, initiated Operation Menu and Operation Freedom Deal. Before any genocide could be inflicted by the Cambodian Civil War, the United States is responsible for the deaths of upwards of 150,000 civilians.) Sok’s speaker references Takeo, considered the cradle of the Khmer civilization, and moves our eyes to a spot-billed duck:

But in Takeo, at the edge of the forest, 

if a spot-billed duck were to lay an egg. 

Well. It would be bad for you.

Do you copy? Do you read me?

Blue, speckled egg. Rebirth as revenge.

It’s an order. It’s to be done. Over. And out.

Sok uses birds throughout to convey similar messages of air war and strikes, whether here or in an earlier poem, “Wind Fall,” about the hunting down of Sarus cranes by starving fishermen in the Eastern Province (“This is why the wind blows a drought hard across the land, tonnage of life / destroyed in the invisible, invisible land”). Such recurring images of birds illustrates the ubiquity of death by air strike. Anything that flies on anything that moves. The ballast of irony is important in “The Death of Henry Kissinger.” She dares the Nixon Administration to also send submarines to take out anything that swims. Ducks, being amphibious, are the perfect mimesis of a target. From this, we may hear “sitting ducks” and “duck hunt,” imagining a snot-nosed kid shooting pixilated ducks at a screen. The recurring image of birds and fish show us the literal and figurative visuals of war—fish frying in ponds from air strikes and here, the propaganda employed to villainize the natural life cycle of a duck. To be born itself propagates the enemy; thus, terming the enemy’s children a “rebirth” enables the tautology of warfare.

Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge sought a “rebirth of civilization” in the wake of such bombings. Notably, Sok also has a poem earlier in the collection called, “The Death of Pol Pot,” who lived until 1998, despite being responsible for between 1.6 and 2 million murders, according to The Combat Genocide Association. (It was only in 2014 that two former Khmer Rouge leaders were convicted for crimes against humanity.) As Sok’s speaker proposes the spot-billed duck be eradicated in “The Death of Henry Kissinger,” we see in “The Death of Pol Pot” the easy enchantment of warfare as a game, as Sok and her brother play victim and villain in the background of Pol Pot’s televised deathbed, at peace. She ends the poem in the mischief of her siblings game, telling us, “Nobody knows I am the villain / because when I snap my fingers // I turn into a teacup / or a wooden chair painted red.” Pol Pot could be any old man with “a thin blanket to his chin.” Nobody would recognize the villain from a teacup.

In confronting A Nail the Evening Hangs On, I had to reckon with yet one more ugly truth about my American education. I knew little about the Cambodian wars. I knew they happened, but that was all. It makes sense now, of course. My history teachers avoided the political volcano invoked by even mention of the Vietnam War, still so incomprehensible to explain or justify decades later. The nationalism of our education system—at least where I grew up and when I grew up—refused the self-critique that, in these wars, we were extremely rich and extremely powerful terrorists. Such words (terrorists, atrocities, etc.) do what Cha tells us: They exist only in the larger perception of History’s recording. I lived in the privilege of not knowing until I grew that larger perception and could educate myself on these matters. And so, prior to writing this review, I spent weeks researching the Cambodian Civil War, the Khmer Rouge, the Democratic Kampuchea, the Vietnam War, the Cambodian Genocide, and the role of the United States in the estimated number of deaths wrought in Cambodia. I stared at this map of Cambodia, and many others, zooming in and calculating proximities to other countries villainized as the United States saw red and charged. I learned from Ben Kieman, in his book, How Pol Pot Came to Power, that “communism, like brutality, had long been considered alien to the Khmer people, something that could only be imposed by outsiders.” The searching of names was never unfamiliar to me, as my own namesake was decimated in the pogroms and holocaust generations earlier. My name is hard to pronounce, not because it has any difficult arrangement of letters, but because the lineage from which I come was very nearly destroyed. The children of genocided names seek answers in lost family trees, searching for information in shipping manifests, censuses, and, perhaps if they dare, DNA tests. The burden of proof that a people lived hangs from a nail somewhere far from the survivors. 

Sok talks often in interviews about the inherited trauma of the Cambodian genocides, which led to me creating diagram after diagram in my course to wonder, too, over her survivors. I learned that the entire book is dedicated to her grandmother, Bun Em, who arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because of a church-sponsored organization. Another conceit throughout A Nail the Evening Hangs On is the loom, a knitting apparatus that Sok’s grandmother relied upon as she grieved the loss of her son, Sok’s uncle. In “The Weaver,” for example, we see that Bun Em “threaded the loom / with one strand of her long silver hair,” a hair that could have kept growing if she didn’t use it in this grief exercise. She tells us, “Under her hair / she kept her oldest son.” In order to find him again, she knits something traceable in lineage, in name, in the slow erasure of her livelihood. The weaver relies on her bodily materials, that which can bridge a steady line from herself to her loss. It erases and creates simultaneously. This is not unlike the work in Sok’s debut, the title itself a remarkable testament to that which must stay put despite the odds. The assembled stories in A Nail the Evening Hangs On offer us a continuum of mass loss, as it also offers the grief and power of resilience. The speaker searches the whole book for her family’s names, something that might bring home the uncle whom she never met. Meanwhile, the grandmother’s material insists on being here, as the thread moves in and out of time, creating, finally, a cloth made for all their names. 

[1]  Operation Menu, which comprised missions crudely named BreakfastLunchSnackSupper, and Dessert, terrorized Cambodia from March 1969 to May 1970, killing more than 4,000 Cambodian citizens, a violence that directly resulted in the commencement of the Cambodian Campaign. Between this Operation and its follow-up mission, the despicably cruel Operation Freedom Deal—which lasted over three years—the United States is responsible for the murders of between 50,000 to 150,000 Cambodians. 

Monica Sok is a Cambodian American poet and the daughter of former refugees. She is the author of A Nail the Evening Hangs On (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Her work has been recognized with a “Discovery” Prize from 92Y. She has received fellowships and residencies from Poetry Society of America, Hedgebrook, Elizabeth George Foundation, National Endowment  for the Arts, Kundiman, Jerome Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Saltonstall Foundation, and others. Currently, Sok is a 2018-2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and has taught poetry to Southeast Asian youths at Banteay Srei and the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland, California. She is originally from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Natalie Eilbert is the author of Indictus, winner of Noemi Press’s 2016 Poetry Prize, as well as the poetry collection, Swan Feast (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from POETRYGrantaThe Jewish Current, The New YorkerTin HouseThe Kenyon ReviewThe Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review. She lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin.

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